LETTER | On May 13, 1969, merely 12 years after Malaysia had achieved its independence from British rule, Malay and Chinese supporters of opposing political parties clashed in the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Fueled by a decade-long feud over economic and political disparities between the two races, tensions boiled over following the results of the third general election of Malaysia in which the ruling party had lost the majority in four of Malaysia’s 13 states, resulting in the deaths of a reported 196 protestors (though some sources have suggested a toll of close to 600).
In the fallout of this dark day in Malaysia’s short history, extreme measures were taken to consolidate Malay power and prevent such an uprising from occurring once more, resulting in lasting political and social implications felt to this day. New government policies such as the highly controversial New Economic Policy (NEP) crafted specifically around Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution (safeguarding the special position of the Malays) stifled any chance of further retaliation while enforcing the concept of Ketuanan Melayu.
Half-a-century on from this tragic incident, the people of Malaysia have moved on, becoming a unique community unlike any other in the world, embracing its multicultural diversity as part of the country’s identity.
And yet, Malaysia’s diverse community is seemingly only one well-placed provocative blow away from spiralling back five decades and repeating the same grave mistakes of the past. Is it not ironic then that the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd), the entity most recently responsible for stirring the hornet’s nest in Malaysia’s often fragile political realm was conceived in the same year as the May 13 incident that threatened to push our nation to the brink of anarchy?
Any mention of the phrase “Article 153” is often enough to spark a nationwide debate, much less the suggestion of amending or abolishing it altogether. The taboo that is Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution can be likened to the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution: it is a zero-sum game, someone will inevitably lose out in this debate, often with cataclysmic consequences.
So, when talk of ratifying Icerd - an international treaty that condemned the very nature of Article 153 - hit the political debate tables, it was of no surprise to witness the pushback and intense pressure from Malay nationalists who claim that it would jeopardise race-based affirmative action policies implemented as a result of Malaysia’s independence.
Herein lies the root of the problem. In the years leading up to Malaysia’s independence in 1957, the British (then slowly transitioning power from the crown to its colonised land) had a complicated situation to deal with in Southeast Asia. Malaysia had belonged to the Malay people (being known as Tanah Melayu or Malay Land) since as early as the fourth century.
However, a large influx of Chinese and Indian immigrants during British reign meant there was a significantly large population of migrant workers, to which the Malays were (understandably) not willing to freely give rights and citizenship to. As a compromise, the British proposed Article 153, in which the Malay people were given special privileges under the constitution in exchange for giving citizenship to Indian and Chinese workers.
This trade-off seemed reasonable (to a certain degree) at the time, but slowly the cracks began to show. Economic disparities between the three races were worryingly apparent with Chinese and Indian intellectuals often choosing to leave the country due to a lack of high-level government positions as a result of the Malay quota, in turn, causing a severe case of brain drain and stunting the development of a promising new nation.
In May 2018, when the then opposition Pakatan Harapan promised to ratify Icerd in the build-up to the 14th general election, many viewed it as a revolutionary step in its vision towards a “New Malaysia”. When Harapan eventually won the election, becoming the first opposition coalition to do so in Malaysian history, that vision seemed to become a reality, creating a Malaysia with more equal opportunities and possibly rectifying the discriminatory policies that seemed misplaced even in the mid-20th century, let alone in 2018.
However, not six months on from celebrating this momentous time in Malaysian politics, the new Malaysian government has decided to make controversial U-turns on key election promises (not unlike the Malaysian government of old) in the face of possible anti-Icerd riots to be held on Dec 8.
While the notion that Icerd will jeopardise the position of Islam is absurd (Malaysia and Brunei are the only two non-signatories in the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference) and the misconception that it will cause indignity to the Malay monarchy requires a certain suspension of disbelief, whether or not this “New Malaysia” has a responsibility to ratify Icerd has been profusely discussed by those who hold far greater experience and expertise than myself. Instead, I would like to end this short piece with a message to my fellow Malaysians:
When Malaysia won the Asian Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2010, beating bitter rivals Indonesia to lift their first trophy in the competition, did it matter who was beside you when we were celebrating our nation’s success, cheering the names of Safee Sali and head coach Rajagopal?
When the likes of Lee Chong Wei, Tan Wee Kiong and Goh Liu Ying took to the badminton courts of Rio in 2016 in search of Malaysia’s first ever Olympic gold medal, did we not all watch with the same passion and nervousness regardless of our race or our beliefs?
If sports is not your cup of tea, then perhaps I could persuade you with an actual cup of teh tarik paired with some roti canai and a steaming hot plate of char koay teow and nasi lemak to complete the perfect Malaysian meal encompassing every unique flavour in Malaysia's diverse palette.
In short, it is of the utmost importance that we band together and stand united, more so than ever before. Should this issue involving not only Icerd but the Federal Constitution as a whole come to a less than favourable conclusion, what we stand to lose will not be limited to the dream of a “New Malaysia” but also the society we have built and our nation's very identity.
Should unrest on or after Dec 8 take place, it will not only signify once again the ease by which radical politicians can use the race-card and pull the veil over our eyes, but it could also threaten to derail our very way of existence, shattering decades of progress.
I call upon you, fellow sons and daughters of Malaysia, to stand not for the politicians, not for our ideologies, not for our beliefs, but for the nation we so proudly call home.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
Malaysia is one of only two Muslim-majority countries in the world that have not ratified ICERD.