Around 55,000 Malaysian Muslims protested in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend against an alleged attempt to remove ethnic Malays of their privileges, putting pressure on the nation’s positive-discrimination policies.
The ratification was cancelled but organisers proceeded with a “thanksgiving” rally.
It was the first large rally since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s alliance won the May election.
The event, backed by the two largest opposition Malay parties, opposed a government plan to ratify a UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
The United Nations convention condemns discrimination and calls upon governments to pursue a policy of eliminating ethnic discrimination in all forms.
Opponents claim ratifying the treaty would end ethnic-Malay privileges under Malaysia’s affirmative-action policies.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) chief Razali Ismail told the media: “Human rights empower us to enjoy collective success. Many governments have been able to achieve economic success because of their respect for human rights.”
Ismail said the commission was disappointed over Putrajaya’s U-turn on Icerd but added that the body would remain committed to push forward the remaining six out of nine international human rights treaties being considered by Malaysia.
“People crave liberation from poverty and citizens in nations that are built on greater economic freedom enjoy greater access to ideas and resources to participate fully in an increasingly interconnected and competitive world, leaving no one behind,” the body’s chairman said.
“We will continue to advise the need to fight for a Malaysia that believes in nondiscrimination,” he said at the Suhakam Human Rights Day event in Padang Timur.
Mahathir said he refused to ratify Icerd because Malays need more opportunities to avoid being left behind.
In September, the 93-year-old told the United Nations General Assembly that Malaysia would ratify all six of the human rights conventions it had yet to adopt, including Icerd.
Malaysia has seen limited inter-ethnic violence since bloody riots in 1969.
In 1970 a preferential programme gave ethnic Malays privileges in jobs, education, contracts and housing to help narrow a wealth gap with the minority-Chinese community. The Malay community makes up almost two-thirds of the 32-million population with entrenched Chinese and Indian minorities.
Last month more than 80 people were arrested in a riot at an Indian temple at a Kuala Lumpur temple. The authorities claimed the violence was triggered by a land dispute and was not ethnically charged. Mahathir’s government warned Saturday’s protesters not to make any provocative statements that could boost tensions between communities.
Saturday’s rally. Picture credit: YouTube