Friday, April 2, 2010

Neither here nor there stand

The problem with Malaysia is that on the one hand we want to be part of the community of nations; on the other, we are notorious for ‘particularism’, that is, insisting that somehow we are different from everyone else.
THIS may sound unbelievable to some people but when I was in primary school, I distinctly remember my class teacher discussing the “colour bar” with us. Today that might mean a place where we get our nails painted but at the time it referred to only one thing, racial discrimination.
In the 60s when we discussed this, the two main issues that appalled any right-minded person were apartheid in South Africa and the discrimination against blacks in the US that necessitated the civil rights movement.
Today it seems incredible that anyone should be barred from entering a restaurant or school or made to sit at the back of a bus just because of their skin colour but that was the reality in South Africa and in southern US for those who had black skin.
Holding back: Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 but maintained many reservations. – Reuters
Eventually the civil rights movement in the US succeeded in winning rights for its black minority, despite some high costs such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
What could never have been dreamed of then, a black President, is now a reality. And in South Africa, apartheid was overthrown and the disenfranchisement of the black population ended.
It was in that atmosphere that the UN Declaration for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was established in 1963 and the Convention passed in 1966. (It might be interesting also to note that people thought racial equality was more important than gender equality; the UN Convention for the Elimination for All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was not passed by the General Assembly until 1979.) Today 173 out of 195 countries have ratified the CERD.
The 16 countries that have not ratified the CERD are Angola, Brunei, Cook Islands, North Korea, Dominica, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Myanmar, Niue, Palau Samoa, Singapore, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Malaysia.
Most of those are very small island nations that, apart from Singapore, simply cannot afford all the necessary processes to ratify and implement the Convention. That leaves us in the company of Angola, Brunei, North Korea and Myanmar.
I know we like exclusivity but this may not be the sort of club we want to belong to.
I recently sat in a roundtable to discuss the CERD and how and when Malaysia might sign it. Most of those participating were of the opinion that we should join the rest of the world and ratify it.
The exception was one government official who asked with twisted logic why the hurry since Singapore had not, and besides we don’t have any racial discrimination in Malaysia. Everyone else then pointed out that in that case, we should have no problem signing the convention. The problem with us is that on the one hand we want to be part of the community of nations; on the other, we resent anything that actually fosters community with the rest of the world.
Thus we sign onto the UN Charter and then ignore many of our obligations except when it suits us. For instance, some of us may turn our nose up at the UN Declaration of Human Rights but it does happen to be one of the key documents of the UN. When we join a club, we should follow the rules.
We are also half-baked when it comes to conventions that we do ratify. In 1995 we ratified CEDAW but put reservations on many clauses in it, mostly on the basis of religion. This despite the fact that large Muslim countries like Indonesia ratified CEDAW without a single reservation. Malaysian Islam must be different from other people’s Islam.
Similarly, Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 but has still maintained many reservations. These include reservations on Article 1 of the Convention that defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 and Article 2 which says that the convention applies to “everyone whatever their race, religion, abilities, whatever they think or say, whatever type of family they come from” and Article 7 which says that “All children have the right to a legally registered name, and nationality”.
This might explain why we are wishy-washy when it comes to child marriages and obstinate about not allowing the most basic rights to refugee children.
The point I’m trying to make is that all nations in the world are held up to certain standards and these naturally have to be universal. It makes no sense for each country to insist on living up to only their own standards since these are rarely high.
Malaysia is notorious for “particularism”, that is, insisting that somehow we are different from everyone else. In that case, we should not join the community of nations but instead take our cues from an isolationist state like North Korea. And see where that gets us.
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