Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa had said on Monday that if Malaysia ratified ICERD, it would not change anything, except for the related laws that would be tabled and debated in Parliament. FILE PIC

DON’T ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up — Robert Frost.

On Oct 16, the day the august house deliberated on the prime minister’s speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly, one of the topics was the government’s plan to ratify the six United Nation (UN) treaties that Malaysia has yet to ratify. One of them is the now hotly debated International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

For more than a week, ICERD just flew past most people’s attention. It was when Minister of National Unity and Social Wellbeing, P. Waytha Moorthy, said the government was committed to signing six human rights treaties, including ICERD next year, and the commitment was affirmed by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, that the matter was brought to mainstream consciousness.

Adopted by UNGA in 1965, ICERD is not new. Up to 2018, 175 countries have ratified it, albeit many countries did so with reservations. ICERD has become such a contentious and polarising debate that lines have been drawn; what is worrying is that the lines are along racial and religious boundaries.

When ICERD was first debated in Parliament, Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin cautioned Foreign Affairs Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, of the potential ramifications with the ratification. Having been advised on the move, particularly the impact of Article Two of the ICERD vis a vis Article 153, I’m surprised that the minister failed to see that ratifying ICERD needed careful planning. The casual approach on the minister’s part in bringing the subject to the table had contributed to the negative paroxysm of the issue.

I don’t think it is the message that received a backlash, it was the way the message was propagated.

I find the manner in which the narratives were presented rather pugnacious. Rather than offer a didactic explanation as to why we needed to ratify the treaties, some of the reasons given were condescending. Semantics on the definition of Bumiputeras were stressed, and some MPs stated that Article 153 created “two classes of citizens”, and called the said Article “the root of the racist system”.

Malaysia Baru or not, the Malay/Bumiputera (61.7 per cent) and Muslims (61.3 per cent) still make up the overwhelming majority of the populace. Knowing how vital Article 153 is to the majority populace, why poke the bear, so to speak, unnecessarily? One can’t help but wonder if there is a hidden agenda behind the overt enthusiasm.

Again, this is not about the message but the messengers and delivery. Jolting the majority of the population the way they did, brought, no less than former chief justice Tun Abdul Hamid, Pas, Umno and Malay/Muslims non-governmental organisations to counter their narratives, including the much trumpeted “reservations” that was used to allay the fears of those against the ratification.

I believe that, had the relevant ministers and MPs taken a little more effort in strategising how to communicate this, coupled with tact on the part of the ratification proponents, this would not be such a hotly debated topic.

Barely six months after the general election, where the current government secured around only 25 to 30 per cent of the Malay votes, this kind of self-created tension is not what the country needs. The government has far more pressing matters that concern Malaysians, such as the 2019 Budget that was presented yesterday, eradication of poverty, tackling corruption, and addressing the ever-widening inequality gap. Why are some leaders and their supporters relentless on getting the ratification done immediately? It only augurs well for the wellbeing of the country, and for everyone, if rationality prevails on this issue.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had already laid the foundation that hopefully shapes the government’s stand when he stated that ratifying the treaties, including ICERD, will not be easy and that everyone must be consulted and their voices listened to. A referendum on the matter, as recommended by columnist Salleh Buang, is worthwhile looking into.

When I think about this issue and where it could lead to if not handled well, a passage from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” comes to mind: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.

ivan.omar@theiomovement.com; Twitter @ckliio9 .

The writer heads Brand Strategy at The In/Out Movement, an ensemble of thinkers, creatives and perfectionists who believe in doing right things right.

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