SHAH ALAM (BERNAMA, BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's Malays and bumiputeras must work harder to compete with the other races in the country, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at an education event on Saturday (Dec 8).
He also explained that his government refused to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination because Malays need more opportunities so as not to be left behind.
After weeks of pressure by pro-Malay groups, Tun Mahathir's multi-ethnic government decided last month that it would not ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), without giving a reason why it was going back on an earlier commitment to sign.
Tens of thousands of Malay Muslims mobilised by opposition parties rallied in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to celebrate the government's U-turn.
Dr Mahathir said at the education event that many Malays and bumiputeras were struggling and lived in rural areas even though they had political power.
"In our own country, we (Malays and bumiputeras) have retreated far from conurbations and many of us are from poor families.
"Yes, today we are powerful politically and with this power we can extend a little assistance to the Malays and bumiputeras, think about it, but if we do not have political power and we are not given special privileges, it will mean that we will be poorer than we are now," he said at the opening of the Bumiputera Education and Entrepreneurship Carnival 2018 at the Universiti Teknologi Mara in Shah Alam.
"We see foreigners who came to settle in our country becoming more progressive as they laboured, worked hard, they studied in various fields and were educated. We find that they are now controlling our country's economy, what is the reason?
"Are the Malays stupid? I do not believe so, as they have the same abilities as others, but intelligence alone without effort will not produce success. We are competent, we are smart, we are good, but if there is no effort, we will not succeed.
"If we realise we are lagging behind and are embarrassed as to why we are left behind in our own country, then we should try to endeavour to make ourselves successful like other people. If we are behind, we have to run faster than the people in front," he said.
Responding to a question from the audience on why the government did not ratify ICERD, Dr Mahathir said: "If we do not give the Malays more opportunities than other races, if we believe we must give everything equally, in equality, then those who are competent will be more successful and those not will be left behind.
"As such, we cannot accept ICERD, as it does not give the right to us to differentiate the treatment to the races in Malaysia, as they are not on the same level... and we cannot amend our Constitution," he said.
The anti-racial discrimination convention became a hot-button issue last month. Malay-based opposition parties and groups voiced fears that it would threaten Islam's position as the official religion and erode the special privileges of the Malays, who make up the biggest ethnic community in Malaysia.
The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which lost its six-decade hold on power in the May general election, and co-organiser Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist party, led the Saturday rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur, which was the biggest faced by the Mahathir government since taking power in May.
"The anti-ICERD rally is meant to be a show of strength by the country's two largest Malay political parties," said Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with BowerGroupAsia risk consultancy, referring to PAS and Umno.
About 30 per cent of Malay voters supported the ruling Pakatan Harapan in the general election, according to a survey by pollster Merdeka Centre in June, underscoring the shaky support Dr Mahathir has from the country's biggest ethnic group.
Rumbles of concern over threats to the Malay-Muslim identity and religion have increased since the poll, Ms Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in September.
Leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim said last month that concerns over ICERD were "real" and its ratification should be postponed.
"They are worried that the principles in our Constitution are not accepted and threatened at the international level," he said on Nov 18, even as he maintained he was anti-discrimination.
When Malaysia reversed its decision to ratify ICERD on Nov 23 after mounting backlash, organisers of the rally shifted gears. The assembly, initially meant to pressure the government not to ratify the convention, would go on, its organisers said, with the new aim of "thanking" the government for aborting ICERD.
The government was not supportive of the gathering. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the rally was irrelevant, Datuk Seri Anwar said it was inappropriate and People's Justice Party MP Fahmi Fadzil said the organisers should instead debate the matter in Parliament.
Singapore last Friday issued an advisory to travellers to defer all non-essential travel to Kuala Lumpur and warned of possible skirmishes.
A second gathering on human rights that was scheduled to take place on Saturday was postponed until Sunday over security concerns, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Chairman Razali Ismail said in a statement.