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ICERD: Allay fears first; class-based policies needed

Rice farmers at work - Photograph: salafiyunpad.wordpress.com

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Only a class-based approach can succeed in tackling Malay poverty, and such an approach will also help the non-Malay poor who are caught in the same situation, says Nasir Hashim.

Over the past few weeks there has been quite an uproar on whether Malaysia Baru should sign and ratify the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Both sides, that is those who strongly believe that signing the ICERD is the way forward and those opposing it, fearing that the special position of the Malays as enshrined in the Federal Constitution will be eroded, have only exchanged media statements, hurled accusations against each other and called for mass protest. Recently those against the ICERD have called for Unity Minister P Waytha Moorthy to step down.

Unfortunately, there has been a failure to promote honest dialogue between both sides to hear each other’s concerns and fears.

PSM strongly feels that the biggest challenge to the Pakatan Harapan government is to allay fears amongst the majority Malays that their special privileges would be undermined when the ICERD is signed.

It is wrong to assume that the concerns against the ICERD are solely raised by right-wing Umno and Pas leaders seeking political mileage. These are also the real fears of the Malay marhein (oppressed people) (farmers, smallholders, workers, small businessmen, lower-level government employees), who, after 61 years of race-based policies feel that they are still left out of the economic progress of the country. They are not fully wrong either.

Umno-Barisan Nasional’s race-based policies only enriched the top 20% leaving the Malay marhein community no better than the other races. Income disparity within the ethnic Malays too has widened.

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Thus it is a legitimate fear of the Malay marhein, who did not make it in business, to uplift their socio-economic wellbeing. Even though they did not make it to the top 20%, at least they can still fall back on those privileges that were guaranteed under the constitution such as higher education quotas, licences and Malays reserve land. But with the ICERD, they fear that these too could be challenged and taken away from them.

PSM believes that the way forward for Malaysia is to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on race, but there must be affirmative action based on class. A social inclusion agenda which is truly colour blind will truly solve the socio-economic disparities in society and weed out the Malay rentier class, who have benefited all these years through Umno-style race-based policies.

This is exactly what was proposed by Malaya’s left political and social organisations 71 years ago in their All Malayan Council for Joint Action-Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (AMCJA-Putera) People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya in 1947. Racial barriers were broken down even then, when the People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya 1947 proposed that all those born in Malaya and accepted citizenship of Malaya would be known as ‘Malaya’ even though they were of Indian or Chinese descent.

Thus all affirmative action, in terms of quotas, licences, allocations, subsidies would have been class-based and not race-based, according to the AMCJA-Putera proposal. The needy working class, farmers, smallholder Malays and fisherman would have directly benefited without the rentier Umno cronies abusing these affirmative programs.

In the same spirit, PSM’s sole ex-MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj of Sungei Siput submitted a motion to the secretary of Parliament to table a private member’s bill entitled the Social Inclusion Act 2014 during the parliamentary sitting in March 2014.

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The rationale for the private member’s bill was the need for a new approach that focuses on long-term solutions to bring about a socially just and more inclusive society. This would tackle the root causes of poverty and marginalisation in a non-partisan and non-race-based manner.

Such an approach would ensure that government resources are not ‘hijacked’ by well-connected bumiputeras and that the full benefits of affirmative programmes go to the bumiputera marhein and the smaller number of non-bunmiputera poor. Unfortunately, the bill was shot down by the speaker of Parliament.

The Pakatan Harapan government has to ensure that it does not repeat the mistakes of Umno-BN’s race-based policies, which only succeeded in increasing the class disparity among the majority Malays. PH has to realise that in the 2018 general election, it only received 20-25% of Malay votes and that the remainder was divided between Umno (about 50%) and Pas (30%). This shows that the Malay electorate are cautious and wary of PH, fearing that they will be ‘giving in too much’ to the Chinese and Indians.

PSM suggests that PH has to ‘turun padang’ to the grassroots level among the working class, farmers, tappers, smallholders and petty traders to gain their confidence that class-based affirmative action will be continued to assist them in a more targeted and effective manner. If PH successfully rolls out such plans and proves their effectiveness, the majority masses will begin to see the fallacy of race-based policies.

At the end of the day, whether we sign or do not sign the ICERD, what matters most is whether the government executes concrete policies, regulations and programmes to truly achieve social inclusion. There are many nations that sign the ICERD but never bother to take any measures to stop racial discrimination. Many nations fail to report to the UN on their progress and ignore their commitments.

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The minister’s plan to postpone the signing of the ICERD and to have more discussions and consultations will only partially ease the tensions. Umno and Pas will definitely capitalise on this issue to reinforce their support and in so doing, heighten inter-ethnic tensions.

We need immediate actions and policies that can convince and allay the fears of the Malay majority. PH has to prove that it is really serious about tackling Malay poverty.

Only a class-based approach can succeed in tackling Malay poverty, and such an approach will also help the non-Malay poor who are caught in the same situation (eg poorly maintained low-cost flats, fresh graduates with low salaries and huge debts, deteriorating standards in government hospitals). This class-based approach will truly unite Malaysians irrespective of their ethnicity.

But such an approach can be only achieved if the politicians themselves drop their race-based analysis and beliefs and take on the challenge of advocating a class-based narrative to educate the masses. If we fail to do this, the political narrative will be filled by right-wing forces building hatred, pitting one race against another.

Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim is national chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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