Badawi moves to defuse racial fears

From Gulf Times of November 16, 2006

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi raises his fist as he shouts ‘Long Live Malays’ after delivering his opening speech during the UMNO annual gathering in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s prime minister vowed to defuse his nation’s religious and racial fears in a speech that aimed to soothe party rifts by reassuring ethnic Malays that he would protect the country’s interests.
Political leaders of the ethnic Malay majority have warned the nation’s Chinese and Indian minorities to stop questioning Malay privileges or risk hurting race relations, a touchy issue in a country that has suffered race riots in the past.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also wished his ailing predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, well and called him a statesman, despite months of harsh criticism of Abdullah’s policies and style of governing by his former mentor.
“Lately we have seen growing polemics relating to race and religious issues,” Abdullah told a meeting of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the key party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition.
“It has reached a worrying stage. There are several factors behind this. One of them is the current openness that enables this debate to breach the boundaries of sensitive issues relating to race and religion.”
He added, “I will take firm action against any groups, Muslim or non-Muslim, that try to cross this thin line by questioning the status of Islam or inciting the public based on false allegations and fabricated threats”.
Some prominent Malays, notably former premier Mahathir, have long voiced doubts about affirmative action policies that favour Malays, but recent criticism, especially from ethnic Chinese politicians, has raised hackles within UMNO.
Affirmative action was born out of riots between Malays and Chinese in 1969. The violence, in which hundreds were killed, was blamed on a yawning wealth gap between Malays and richer Chinese.
A renewed public debate about Islam has also stoked fears among Malays that their religion is under threat. The vast majority of Malays follow Islam.
Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are also widely practiced in Malaysia, where ethnic Chinese and Indians account for about 25% and 8% of the population respectively.
Applause and shouts of “Long live the Malays” broke out as Abdullah concluded his one-and-a-half-hour remarks.
“I think this is a good reminder, being soft but firm,” said Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar. “This should be understood by all, including component parties of the ruling coalition.”
Mukhriz Mahathir, youngest son of Abdullah’s chief critic, said the speech raised questions, rather than offering answers.
“I think it’s very important for the government, in order to implement policies properly, you need to explain the policies as well as you can,” Mukhriz said. “Unfortunately, as I see it, the explanations are not forthcoming.”
Abdullah hosed down speculation that the government might float Malaysia’s biggest company, state-run oil firm Petronas, on the local stock exchange in a bid to inject more life into the thinly traded Malaysian market.
Nor would Malaysia sell off state assets in the race for more foreign investment despite fears the country is lagging other Asian nations in attracting foreign direct investment because of its reluctance to allow greater foreign ownership.–Reuters
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