Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has dumped a pledge to ratify a UN treaty against racial discrimination amid intense pressure from Malays, who claim it would jeopardise controversial race-based affirmative action policies that benefit them.

The government confirmed on Friday that it would not adopt the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in the latest in a series of controversial U-turns on key election promises.

The move comes after Mahathir said that plans to ratify the treaty could be abandoned as it would be near-impossible to secure a necessary amendment to the federal constitution without a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

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In a brief statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said the government would continue to uphold the constitution, which includes a “social contract” agreed upon by all races during the nation’s formation.

“ICERD promotes freedom and less discrimination. Article 153 [of the constitution] gives some privileges to indigenous peoples and so some may interpret it as being discriminatory,” Mahathir told media on Thursday. “If we try to abolish these privileges it will go against Article 153.”

The Malaysian leader said that the article, which mandates preferential treatment for the Malay majority in some areas, could not be amended as some members of his ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition disagreed with the convention.

In September, Mahathir had told the UN General Assembly that Malaysia would ratify all outstanding human rights conventions.

The proposed ratification of ICERD has been a thorny issue in Muslim-majority Malaysia where the constitution affords indigenous groups privileges such as housing discounts, and educational and scholarship quotas. Ethnic Chinese and Indians, who together make up 30 per cent of the population, have blasted the policies as discriminatory, while many international observers have called for needs rather than race-based economic policies. A 2017 study carried out by researchers at Oxford University found that only 7.2 per cent of ethnic Chinese believed the government’s economic policies were “very fair”, with almost half expressing a strong desire to emigrate.

Lawmakers from across the aisle had expressed scepticism and even hostility toward the treaty, with prime minister-in-waiting and democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim calling for the planned ratification to be scrapped to prevent societal discord.

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Opposition leader Zahid Hamidi warned the Malay community would “run amok” if the treaty was ratified, echoing earlier remarks by the leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party, Abdul Hadi Awang, who warned of millions of people taking to the streets. The two had planned to stage a national rally against ICERD on December 8.

Politicians who defended the treaty, meanwhile, found themselves subject to recrimination. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy had argued the treaty could be ratified with reservations, a measure that nations such as Fiji and Tonga have employed to safeguard their own indigenous rights legislation. After he made the comments, a decade-old interview of him calling out discrimination against ethnic minorities resurfaced online, leading to calls for his resignation for “smearing” Malaysia’s good name.

In 2007, the previous government had him arrested for organising a rally in protest of alleged rights abuses against the Indian community, including forced religious conversions, deaths in custody and the non-payment of plantation workers.

On Friday, the Royal Malaysia Police summoned Waytha Moorthy and Hamidi for questioning on suspicion of inciting racial tensions and public mischief.

Malaysia has only ratified three of nine core UN rights conventions: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.