ICERD and the elimination of racial discrimination in Southeast Asia

Partyforumseasia: Singapore has just submitted its first report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which it ratified in November 2017. And multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Singapore is proud of decades of “racial harmony” and equal rights for everybody. Neighboring Malaysia, in contrast, suddenly belongs to the remaining 14 countries worldwide which have not signed the convention. In force since 1969, the ICERD has been ratified by 179 countries and signed by 4 more. The new Pakatan Harapan government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had promised to sign and ratify it but bowed to pressure from huge protest rallies by tens of thousands of Malays who feared for their positive discrimination and exclusive rights in the mixed ethnic setup of the country.

KL Icerd rally

On 8 December 2018 about 50.000 Malay Muslims protested against the ICERD in Kuala Lumpur.

The decades of racial politics by the former UMNO-Barisan-governments which helped to win all elections until May 2018 are backfiring now, that a strong Chinese-based party, the DAP, is part of the ruling coalition and accused of being a threat to the Malay majority. And even more backfiring is the focus on Islam by UMNO and especially the Islamist PAS party. Malaysia has a secular and neutral legal system, Islam is formally “the religion of the Federation” but not a state religion. For radical and many other Muslims, though, this is not enough. They campaign for more Sharia-based criminal punishments (hudud), and a right-wing Malay Muslim group,  Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), known by its Malay acronym Isma, fights for giving up the secular principle and establish the country as a genuine Muslim state. The political parties which have promoted these social undercurrents for their electoral advantage, now see it as a vehicle to promote their comeback after being ousted in the May election. For the time being, UMNO is split and in disarray, but the ruling coalition is not really strong and united, holding together mainly by the towering personality of PM Mahathir.

With its evident idealistic undertones, ICERD itself may have an open flank by focusing on “racial” discrimination. In Article 1 it defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

But the notion of “race” is in many ways outdated since in terms of species, humankind consists only of the “homo sapiens” variety for the last 40.000 years. Neanderthal and other genes have survived in rather small percentages, and cultural differences may distinguish the existing subgroups a lot more than shades of skin and hair color. Among many pseudo-sciences, race biology has been one of the most destructive, historically an outgrowth of the need to justify slavery and colonial supremacy.

Southeast Asia is characterized by an outstanding number of distinct ethnic groups with their own language and culture, though closely related by phenotype and genetic composition. Indonesia counts over 300 ethnic groups, Myanmar 135, Thailand about 70, and Vietnam 54. Malaysia and Singapore, for administrative and political reasons, have decided to classify along the main racial lines, namely Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others, thus simplifying the many shades of ethnic and cultural differences on the ground. In Malaysia, the ratio of “immigrant races” and the Malay “sons of the land” or Bumiputera was controversial from the beginning and later developed into a religious issue as well.

Singapore started her independence in 1965 with a Chinese majority of 75%, and the Malay, Indian and Other minorities to be accommodated as equally as possible. With the increasing migration and the ageing of traditionally more homogeneous populations, an ethnic mix will be the future of most countries. It is already and will remain an enormous political challenge, which is hardly understood by political parties in Europe and the US. The ongoing, though imperfect, solutions in Southeast Asia may present some clues for a better understanding, hopefully without the historical baggage of the outdated race biology.

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