The political fireball that Pakatan did not see coming

Malaysian govt's plans to ratify UN anti-discrimination charter are off the table, but PAS and Umno are going ahead with a Dec 8 rally to showcase their influence on the Malay ground

Emotions over the Icerd issue had been gathering strength over the past weeks. By the time the alarm bells went off for the Pakatan Harapan government, it had become a flaming ball of fire.

Yet, many Pakatan leaders had been quite oblivious to the situation - until about a month ago. Some, until recently, did not even know how to pronounce the acronym, which stands for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

It is quite possible that everyone sat up and took notice only after Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Umno declared that they were planning a rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur next week. By then, mini protest rallies were erupting around mosques and after Friday prayers all over the country. Some even took their opposition to Icerd to the pulpit in the mosque and surau.

(The concern is that once ratified, the convention requires the signatory state to effect laws that ban racial discrimination, which could affect Malaysia's bumiputera policy that favours Malays and other indigenous races.)

Last Friday, hours before the government retracted its plans to ratify Icerd, there were two mass protests in Alor Setar and Seremban after prayers. That was probably the turning point for the government.

The move to ratify the United Nations human rights charter is off the table now but the PAS-Umno rally on Dec 8 is still on.

"It is not about celebrating. We're going ahead with the rally to show that when Muslims are united, the government of the day has to listen. It's also to remind the government to respect the Malays and Muslims, who form the majority in the country," said PAS deputy information chief Roslan Shahir.

Protesters at a demonstration against the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, organised by Umno Youth and Parti Islam SeMalaysia in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 4. The demonstrators claim that rati
Protesters at a demonstration against the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, organised by Umno Youth and Parti Islam SeMalaysia in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 4. The demonstrators claim that ratifying the UN human rights treaty will weaken the rights of Malays. PHOTO: SIN CHEW DAILY

The Dec 8 rally remains a source of concern for the Mahathir administration. Backing off from Icerd was praised as a wise decision but it was also akin to holding up the white flag. In other words, it was a victory for the opposition. The optics will not be good for Dr Mahathir if it is a big rally, and it could have the potential to shake his administration. "It will confirm that Pakatan is not that strong on the Malay ground or on Malay issues. At another level, it will show that Amanah has failed as a counter force to PAS," said a political insider.

The human rights aspirations of the charter are something that all fair-minded citizens should support.

As Datuk Phahrolrazi Mohd Zawawi, the Amanah Alor Menkudu assemblyman, noted, even Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have ratified it.

So how could such noble aims inflame the emotions of so many Malays/Muslims in Malaysia?

This is one issue that clearly divided the non-Muslims from the Muslims, who believe that the charter will clash with the part of the Constitution that protects Malay rights.

"Anything that touches on that is a threat because for the Malays, religion and race cannot be separated," said Mr Roslan.

The issue began to gain momentum the day Malaysia's Prime Minister addressed the UN General Assembly in New York about two months ago. There, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad indicated that Malaysia was considering ratifying Icerd.

The input to the speech is widely believed to have come from Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who then took it as a policy statement and proceeded to put it in motion.

Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin was arguably the first to sense trouble ahead. After all, Umno had all these years kept from going all the way with Icerd.

Mr Khairy has since asked Datuk Saifuddin to take responsibility for the fiasco and resign. But this is not Japan. Malaysian politicians do not commit political harakiri.

Mr Saifuddin comes from an activist background. Some see him as an idealistic person who is ahead of his time and who is intent on championing his liberal values. He once said in Parliament that he was proud to be known as a liberal.

He probably saw Icerd as one of those low-hanging fruits or deliverables, that is, policies that can be implemented without too many hurdles. He misread the ground and failed to sense the Malay discontent out there.

"The timing (of Icerd) was off, given that the Malay ground has been quite restless since the general election. Although there was a Malay vote swing to Dr Mahathir, the perception among many Malays is that they have lost power," said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

There is an undercurrent of frustration among Malays that the new government is not defending their interests.

The Icerd issue, said Parti Keadilan Rakyat politician Lee Chin Cheh, has even managed to push the 1MDB scandal off the centre stage. It has also dominated debates in the Budget session of Parliament.

Muslim MPs, who returned to their constituencies to mark the Prophet's birthday, were deluged by demands for them to do something about Icerd.

Mr Saifuddin and National Unity Minister P. Waytha Moorthy, who holds the national unity portfolio, were left to fend for themselves as the opposition MPs launched attack after attack against them. It was as if their fellow MPs had thrown them to the wolves.

In hindsight, it was too late for Mr Saifuddin to explain the merits of Icerd. The issue had been swamped with emotional rhetoric from the opposition, some of which were factual and others, pure nonsense.

For instance, Umno and PAS associated Icerd with the Democratic Action Party's slogan of "Malaysian Malaysia". DAP has been painted as the chief culprit although it actually had little to do with Icerd.

But that, as they say, is politics. DAP used to blame Umno for everything that went wrong in Malaysia, and it is now Umno's turn.

The Chinese politicians in Pakatan have tried to distance themselves from the issue.

But they will suffer some collateral damage. They will be seen as not standing up for the egalitarian society that their base aspires to.

"Icerd gave the opposition the bullets they needed at a time when they were directionless. It gave PAS and Umno the opportunity to galvanise the troops and oppose Pakatan on the Malay ground," said a political insider.

Meanwhile, the Dec 8 rally remains a source of concern for the Mahathir administration.

Backing off from Icerd was praised as a wise decision but it was also akin to holding up the white flag. In other words, it was a victory for the opposition.

The optics will not be good for Dr Mahathir if it is a big rally, and it could have the potential to shake his administration.

"It will confirm that Pakatan is not that strong on the Malay ground or on Malay issues. At another level, it will show that Amanah has failed as a counterforce to PAS," added the political insider.

The concern among many Malaysians is whether there will be trouble. "We are going for a peaceful rally. We intend to control the crowd," said Mr Roslan.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2018, with the headline 'The political fireball that Pakatan did not see coming'. Print Edition | Subscribe