There has recently been heavy debate over my country’s prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad warranted criticism of India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. This has been considered to bode a sort of diplomatic pickle (CAA criticism: Malaysia PM refuses to back down despite reports of India curbing palm oil imports). Couple that with an Indian boycott of and restrictions on Malaysia’s palm oil and we have the perfect formula for an unpalatable dish – best served cold.

The question is: do we have to be silent when one of humanity’s greatest crisis is brewing in India? I would think the answer to that question is no. Regardless of politicking and Malaysia’s domestic allegiances, Tun’s remarks were necessary. Taking a stand in such a matter is a statement, one that is required given the circumstances. Unfortunate though the impact may seem, Malaysia can always realign its focus on exports to other nations, which is what we are currently doing. It is also important to note that producers will not be negatively affected as the crude palm oil prices are still high and CPO imports are not subject to any restrictions.

You might ask though: why not just bury our heads in the sand? Well, that’s because apathy in diplomatic relations has never worked out for nations denying wrongdoing nor the nations committing the wrongdoing. The word “apathy” is one that is crucial to mull over.

Silence of the lambs

We do not want to turn into a society of lambs in silence – though I don’t think Silence of the Lambs is actually about lambs being silenced. For anyone who takes an issue with the term “wrongdoing” here, just to clear the air, yes, the CAA is malicious. It is a law that is deliberately discriminatory to Muslim minorities. A right is provided for the citizenship of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities but denied to Muslim minorities. The debate surrounding the citizenship rights of existing Muslim citizens in India aside, the law itself is a negative discrimination to those seeking citizenship. It goes against India’s ratification of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Not forgetting that is very likely to be ultra vires the Indian Constitution. I could go on, but there’s always the credible side of the internet to refer to, if clarity on this is the real dilemma.

Now, back to “apathy”. Let’s take a look, for example, at the Nazi-era genocide of its Jewish countrymen. Yes, I know some might find the example of Nazi Germany to be well worn territory, but it was one of the biggest cases of country-wide discrimination that led one of civilization’s worst crimes – and so, we must make sure that there is no – god forbid – a Nazi Germany 2.0. Where were we? Right, “apathy”. When Hitler was “getting busy” – a cynical reference to The Shawshank Redemption, I am aware – committing genocide that is now a harrowing, dark chapter in history, other powerful nations decided that silence was the way to go. Apathy and non-intervention became the international medium of dealing with what was already common knowledge. When the whispers of genocide became roars, still then, the British monarchy were good buddies of Germany. Queen Elizabeth’s Nazi salute as a child is a picture that has survived historical archives to haunt us all. By the time there was conscious action from other nations, it was already too late. The Holocaust killed 5.4 million to 5.8 million Jews, effectively wiping out a whole community. Let’s also not forget that it contributed in part to the Palestine-Israel travesty.

India might argue that other nations – Malaysia is now one of them – cannot question its sovereignty, and that these are its local affairs. However, we cannot simply stand idly by. Individuals like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Nobel Laureate Venky Ramakrishnan are critical of the CAA. In fact, recent Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee was reported to have said, “If you are not a citizen of India and no other country wants you, who are you?” quite effectively summarising the Act. These are merely individuals, and no, this is not an echo chamber, they are individuals from vastly different fields and different takes on the CAA. They just happen to see it for what it is.

A collective stand

Malaysia’s premier making remarks is not a flippant act, it is one that reflects a whole country’s standpoint, which makes it a collective stand. To quote Belgium’s then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Institutional Reforms, “Instead of non-interference, Belgium believes in non-indifference.” Our premier’s non-indifference in the face of a gross human rights violation, and this I say with utmost neutrality, was, therefore, a cut that needed to be administered – blood, guts, and all – so to speak.

A bill passed may become law, but that does not make it right. Although the United Nations has put in place certain mechanisms, such as “shadow reporting” to ensure a nation’s compliance to its obligations under international treaties, there has yet to be a solid manifestation of this for the CAA. Although the UN did recently chime in on the chorus of critique – with a tweet, no less – describing the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory”. In light of this, it appears that instead of courting possible historical notoriety by keeping silent, Malaysia’s premier has decided to be critical – a criticality that is welcome in these times. Parveen Kaur Harnam Singh, Kuala Lumpur