KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Malaysia's Islamic opposition on Monday joined hands with Chinese educationists opposing the government's controversial plan to reintroduce English in schools to teach mathematics and science.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned dissenting educationists not "to play with fire", saying they risked sparking mistrust among Malaysia's ethnic groups.
Abdul Hadi Awang, leader of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) which wants to turn Malaysia into a Muslim theocracy, said his party sided with the Chinese teachers on the issue.
"PAS supports the stand by Chinese educationists such as the Jiao Zhong Chinese School Teachers Association to defend the use of their mother tongue in teaching science and maths in Chinese schools," Hadi said in a statement.
Next to race and religion, education and language are among the most sensitive subjects in multi-cultural Malaysia.
Mahathir wants to bring English back to classrooms, three decades after it was phased out in favour of the national language Bahasa Malaysia. He is doing this in order to create a labour force more able to compete in a globalised world, where the knowledge economy is of increasing importance.
Many Malays, Chinese and Indians fear the move could undermine their own language schools and threaten their ethnic identity.
Although English and Bahasa Malaysia are compulsory subjects in all Malaysian schools, the language of instruction varies.
Others doubt whether the new government strategy will make pupils better at English, or mathematics, or science.
"This is not a racial issue and there is no racial confrontation over it, as it is not one race but all races who are upset by the proposal," said Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.
Mahathir wants to bring Malaysia's races together more, fearing they have become more distant from each other despite the peace between them during his 21-year rule.
Malays, who are virtually all Muslim, make up just over half of Malaysia's 23 million people.
Ethnic Chinese and Indians, who form one-third of the population, are already wary of PAS's agenda to introduce Islam's hudud penal code, which allows the stoning to death of adulterers and apostates and amputation of limbs for thieves.
Mahathir said the government would not bow to opposition over his language plan, which is due to come into effect in January.
The Dong Jiao Zhong, representing Chinese school boards and teachers' associations, opposes the plan and fears it could eventually lead to the phasing out of teaching in Chinese.
But Mahathir warned Chinese teachers to stop stoking fears over non-existent plans.
"If anyone were to incite racial sentiment to the extent of creating disharmony, action will be taken before it happens," the prime minister said.