KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 29 ― Leaders from most Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties, except for the DAP and MCA, have expressed reservations about enacting laws against discrimination.
PKR vice-president Chua Tian Chang said Malaysia’s situation was “quite complicated” due to Bumiputera privileges.
“Because if you go by UK, UN or international standards, then our Constitution ‘tak boleh pakai’. We have built in Bumiputera rights. We also have to study how to preserve that,” Chua told Malay Mail Online.
The Batu MP said Malaysia could study Australia’s practice of having separate commissions on equal opportunity and anti-discrimination, but stressed that it was more effective to focus on education and to change social attitudes towards discrimination.
“By just having law, punitive only, then it may not work so well. But if we also think about something which involves a commission where you have arbitration, education and promotion, then that will be a better approach,” he said.
Although Article 8 of the Federal Constitution guarantees equality and states that there shall be no discrimination against citizens on grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender, discrimination is not expressly illegal in Malaysia.
The Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 states that people with disabilities shall have equal access to public services, education, and employment, among others, as those without disabilities, but the law does not provide any legal recourse for victims of discrimination.
The issue of racial and religious discrimination recently entered public debate when a laundromat in Muar, Johor, courted outrage for its “Muslim-only” policy on the basis of “cleanliness”. The operator reportedly took down the signboard limiting the service to Muslims after Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar expressed his anger.
Discriminatory practices are common in Malaysia. Some private companies issue Chinese-only or Chinese-speaking only job advertisements. Racial preferences are often stated on property rental advertisements and even act as a search filter on a particular property website.
Bumiputera policies are also widespread, such as Bumiputera quotas and discounts for property regardless of one’s income level, Bumiputera-only universities, and Bumiputera quotas for construction projects by the government or government-linked corporations.
Many associations limit membership based on race, from barber associations to chambers of commerce and political parties, among others.
Kulai MP Teo Nie Ching from the DAP said she wanted an anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and disability in the areas of education, employment, consumer transactions, buying or renting property, public services and facilities.
“And I hope under the Act, we can set up an Equality Commission,” Teo told Malay Mail Online, adding that she was looking at the UK’s Equality Act 2010 as a model.
According to the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website, the commission, which is responsible for enforcing the Equality Act, has the powers to institute legal proceedings like judicial review, apply for court injunctions, and take formal enforcement action like inquiries and investigations.
MCA religious bureau chairman Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker similarly advocated legislation against racial and religious discrimination.
“As long as this Act doesn't breach constitutional provisions, it can be specific. It can spell out what are the boundaries so that there's no exploitation of certain constitutional provisions to positively discriminate,” Ti told Malay Mail Online.
When asked if such laws should also cover associations as MCA itself limits party membership to the ethnic Chinese, Ti said Malaysia cannot completely replicate UK’s anti-discrimination legislation as otherwise, “Chinese associations would have to close down.”
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) strategist Rais Hussin said he supported anti-discrimination legislation “as a general policy”, but stressed that it must be in the context of the Federal Constitution.
“Any rules or laws to be implemented must be studied carefully through a select parliamentary committee, which should be bipartisan, with the aim of addressing the real problems in Malaysia,” Rais told Malay Mail Online, citing income inequality and poverty as major issues.
“To me, affirmative [action] policies are good,” he added. “However, there's a huge gap between policy and implementation, and the gap is lack of good governance and transparency, corruption, and abuse of power. That is what we need to address.”
Parti Amanah Negara vice president Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa pointed out that the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), whose law and policy committee he had headed, had proposed in 2014 a National Harmony Bill comprising laws on anti-discrimination, anti-hate speech and a national harmony commission.
“But it was rejected,” Mujahid told Malay Mail Online.
“Anyway, we are still far as the law is concerned, but we could educate and culturally promote a multi-racial environment. Malaysia minus racism and prejudice is our way forward.”
Umno Youth vice chief Khairul Azwan Harun, who is also a senator, posted on Facebook that he would “much rather support discrimination laws in the form of rewarding companies and organisations that promote diversity instead of punishing those who don’t”.
Gerakan secretary-general Liang Teck Meng said he did not think anti-discrimination legislation was necessary at the moment, but called on Muslim religious departments instead to promote inclusiveness and unity.
“This is more realistic than having an anti-discrimination law,” he told Malay Mail Online.
MIC information chief Datuk VS Mogan said: “We hope that everyone upholds the Constitution; no discrimination at any level”.