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Politics

Malaysia's push for ethnic harmony stumbles over UN treaty

Resistance from many sides makes ratification 'almost impossible,' says Mahathir

Malaysia is unlikely to rustle up the parliamentary votes needed to amend the constitution and pave the way for a UN treaty against discrimination, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Sunday.
Malaysia is unlikely to rustle up the parliamentary votes needed to amend the constitution and pave the way for a UN treaty against discrimination, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Sunday.   ¬© Reuters

HONG KONG -- The government of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has run into trouble in its goal of implementing a United Nations treaty on eliminating racial discrimination, as resistance mounts both within the ruling coalition as well as among opposition parties.

It would be "almost impossible" to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Mahathir told Malaysian media Sunday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea.

The pact's ratification was meant to fulfill the administration's campaign promise to build harmony in Malaysia's diverse population. Instead, the issue could become an Achilles' heel for the ruling coalition, which includes ethnic Chinese.

"Only with the support from the opposition can we have a two-thirds majority" in parliament, Mahathir said, referring to the threshold needed to amend the nation's constitution, which enshrines certain rights for the ethnic-Malay majority. "Even then, government members themselves may not support" the effort, he added.

The ICERD conflicts with Malaysia's long-standing Bumiputra policy, which grants a number of privileges to the ethnic Malays who make up nearly 70% of the population. The international pact was never ratified under the Barisan Nasional, or National Front -- the coalition that had in effect governed Malaysia since it became independent in 1957, until May's upset victory by the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan.

Mahathir himself advanced the policy of Bumiputra -- which can be translated literally as "sons of the soil" -- as then-head of Barisan Nasional during his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. But during this year's electoral campaign, Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope, vowed to promote ethnic harmony in its manifesto. In a September speech at the United Nations, Mahathir pledged to "ratify all remaining core U.N. instruments related to the protection of human rights."

But the government's official announcement that it intended to implement the ICERD sparked forceful pushback. According to local news reports, ruling-coalition officials have voiced concerns, as have leading opposition bodies like the United Malays National Organization and the Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.

Mahathir's cabinet has largely been built based on merit over ethnicity, with the ethnically Chinese Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng among the key members. But the prime minister himself is believed to still attach a certain significance to Bumiputra.

If the government were to return to the Malay-favoring ways of its predecessors, it could lose support among ethnic Chinese and Indians. But it cannot afford to ignore its support base among the Malay majority -- leaving it with a difficult tightrope to walk.

Most of the world's developed and emerging economies are among the roughly 180 signatories to the ICERD, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1965 and entered effect in 1969.

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