Will today's anti-ICERD rally expose Pakatan's Achilles' heel?

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Umno and PAS members, and NGOs, attend an ICERD protest in Kampung Gajah, Perak November 17, 2018. — Picture by Farhan Najib

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 — For almost half a year, Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) election promise number 26 to “make our human rights record respected by the world”, including by ratifying remaining international conventions, was largely ignored.

After Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Wisma Putra made the same pledge on the international stage, however, Malay-Muslim crusaders learned of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) — and realised that it could be weaponised to further their political agenda.

The backlash already forced Putrajaya to abandon the plan to ratify ICERD, but organisers of a rally in the city centre today have latched on to the topic and are intent on using the initial bid as a whetstone for their political daggers.

The rally was originally planned to demand that the government reject ICED, but was repurposed as a “thanksgiving” event to celebrate Putrajaya’s volte-face that political observers believe came only after a chink showed in PH’s armour.

Organised by a coalition of Malay-Muslim groups Ummah and the newly-formed National Sovereignty Secretariat (Daulat), the rally today will provide Opposition parties Umno and PAS a stage for renewed chest-thumping, dog-whistling, and possibly reverse their fading relevance since the shock 14th general election result.

“PAS and Umno seem to be doing a few things with this rally: One, trying to mobilise their forces and demonstrate their strength, with mixed results,” said Amrita Malhi, a historian and political analyst based in the Australian National University.

“Two, competing for primacy with each other to try and show who is the most effective ‘defender’ of Malay-Muslim ‘special rights’; and three, trying to demonstrate that Pakatan Harapan aims to eradicate those ‘special rights’.”

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Even Dr Mahathir has conceded to PH’s dismal image in the field of Malay-Muslim sentiments. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Even Dr Mahathir has conceded to PH’s dismal image in the field of Malay-Muslim sentiments. In a recent interview with regional magazine Mekong Review, he admitted there was a fear that PH would be seen as less deferential to Islam’s position as the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

Polls by think tanks such as Ilham Centre and Merdeka Center have also shown Malay support for PH to be as low as 17 to 20 per cent, although the figures are arguably growing by the month.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faisal Hazis concurred with Amrita and said, “PAS and Umno are taking advantage of this issue to further erode Malay support of PH.”

Warning against Pakatan

Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was among those who criticised the organisers for going ahead with the rally despite Putrajaya’s move, telling them that attendees could give thanks as much as they wanted through private prayers.

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Umno President Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang attend an ICERD protest in Kampung Gajah, Perak November 17, 2018. — Picture by Farhan Najib

Since PH’s shock victory, Umno has been mired in corruption and power abuse cases, while PAS has arguably been pushed to the fringe of federal politics. Both have since courted each other into a political collusion, despite discounting a formal merger.

For the two Opposition parties, the rally will not only bring them back under a shared spotlight, but is also important to send a message that they both endorse: Do not trifle with issues that will incite the public’s ire, especially the Malay Muslims.

“Today, the government is dominated by DAP, who has consistently — since the Declaration of Setapak 1967 — explained that its ultimate fight is to ensure that our country will no longer have the terms ‘Bumiputera’ and ‘non-Bumiputera’, and everyone is served equally.

“I believe this is among the things that will trigger dissatisfaction among the people, especially Muslims and Bumiputera; and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak,” Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki claimed.

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Asyraf asserted that those claiming discrimination were in truth richer than the native and indigenous communities in the country. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

Touching on ICERD and racial discrimination, Asyraf asserted that those claiming discrimination were in truth richer than the native and indigenous communities in the country.

“So, I think this is among the things that we need to have a sense of tolerance and compromise, and not bring up issues that can touch the interests of the people,” he added.

While Asyraf pointed to other grassroots anti-ICERD events to illustrate the rising support for the rally, PAS MP Datuk Khairuddin Aman Razali conceded that numbers do not really matter.

“It’s not the number that is important, the most important is the unity over this issue through various media.

“No matter how many we can gather, we are sure they are with us. This rally will convey the message,” said the Kuala Nerus MP.

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Khairuddin has accused the PH government of fearing the rally that is slated for today. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Organisers hope at least half a million supporters will turn up. For comparison, PAS estimated around 300,000 people attended a rally in support of harsher Shariah offences in February last year, but official figures put it closer to 20,000 people.

PAS-governed Kelantan had even announced tomorrow as a special public holiday in the state, to spur attendance.

But Khairuddin had earlier in a statement accused PH of fearing the rally as it will unite both PAS and Umno, since it could signify its defeat in the next polls should the fraternising continue then.

Both parties also do not trust Putrajaya’s announcement against ICERD, claiming PH will still continue to push for the ratification in the future one way or another.

“Will they pull back? No! Their intention will never subside,” said Khairuddin, suggesting that PH will continue to amend laws in phases.

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The IGP has assured public order will be maintained today. ― Picture by Razak Ghazali

The hardest part comes after the rally

The rally is expected to kick off at 2pm, but the police said they will be on standby as early as midnight. Six roads connected to Jalan Raja beside Dataran Merdeka have also been closed off starting 6am.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun has assured public order will be maintained, amid concerns that the event may escalate into violence — especially after earlier police findings of racially-tinged rhetoric against ICERD.

Regardless of how the rally turns out, the challenge for PH to tackle the racial and religious cards remains immense, with many more years left of its term in office.

“The biggest challenge for PH is to balance the need to introduce reform, while at the same time, try not to alienate the Malay voters.

“This will be their biggest challenge regardless whether the crowd today is big or not,” said Faisal.

But to do so, PH need not necessarily adopt a posture of racial and religious chauvinism.

Amrita suggested that PH can pave its own way by investing in a new, inclusive narrative around diversity and the nation that includes both Malay-Muslims and Malaysia’s many minorities.

“That will need to involve telling a new story about the nation and its citizens that allows everybody to find their place in it, rather than setting up a zero-sum game about who does and does not have ‘rights’.”

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