Malaysia: US should press Najib to scrap policy of racial discrimination

Posted on: April 13, 2010


When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak visits the United States this week, US government officials should press him to end Malaysia’s institutionalised system of discrimination against non-ethnic Malays.

As a first step, Malaysia should agree to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a UN treaty already ratified by 173 countries.

In Washington, the Malaysian prime minister is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama, administration officials and members of Congress.

The current insitutionalized system of discrimination originated with the 1970 “New Economic Plan”, which established wide-ranging policies in favour of Bumiputeras, or “sons of the soil”. This category encompasses ethnic Malays and certain groups of Indigenous people, who together comprise the majority of the country’s population.

In a 30 March speech unveiling a new economic plan, Prime Minister Najib himself acknowledged the need to reform these policies, stating: “For too long, the implementation of our affirmative action policies has not reached those who needed them the most.” He announced reforms to the policy favouring Bumiputeras over other ethnic groups, saying it would be market-friendly, merit-based, transparent and needs-based.

The UN Human Rights Committee has established that countries have the prerogative to take affirmative action against conditions that cause discrimination. However, it also said that this action is legitimate only “as long as such action is needed to correct discrimination in fact”.

But Malaysia’s current policies favouring Bumiputeras institutionalise racial discrimination across a number of key areas, including education and employment.

In education, for example, non-Malay students are banned from attending the state-owned University Teknologi Mara (UiTM), which has a student body of 120,000. In 2008 the government rejected a proposal to reverse this policy.

In employment, preferential quotas in the civil service privilege the Malay majority. For example, in early 2010, Malays accounted for 98.47% of civil service jobs in Johor state, according to its Chief Minister. Meanwhile, around 54% of the state’s population is Malay.

Issues of racial discrimination cannot be discussed publicly in Malaysia without running the risk of prosecution under criminal law. After it published a letter criticising Malay “special rights”, the website Malaysiakini was raided by police in 2003 and closed down temporarily under the Sedition Act.

In 2008 the group HINDRAF, advocating for equal rights for Malaysian Indians, was banned under the Societies Act. Five of its leaders were detained without charge for several months under the Internal Security Act, although they were all subsequently released.

As Malaysia is currently seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, it should ratify CERD without delay, to demonstrate to UN members that it is serious about ending racial discrimination.

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