KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Malaysian politics has been seized by fears of racial and religious violence after some fiery speeches at a meeting of the nation's pro-Muslim ruling party.
Some delegates at last week's meeting shocked Malaysia's non-Muslims with a call to sever the heads of non-believers and veiled talk of using a knife on the party's political opponents.
"There were even exhortations to violence," the Sun newspaper said in a commentary on the meeting of the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi disowned such sentiments in his speech to the meeting, but political analysts described the rhetoric as extraordinary, even for a party known for its occasional outbursts of Malay or Muslim chauvinism.
"Despite earlier warnings against racial slants in their speeches, racist remarks were made and the Chinese seemed to be openly identified as the target of some delegates' anger," wrote the Sun's veteran political writer, Zainon Ahmad.
Malaysia's politically dominant ethnic Malays, who make up a slim majority of the population and are overwhelmingly Muslim, have a history of tension with the ethnic Chinese, who dominate business and are much wealthier than their Malay compatriots.
In May 1969, hundreds of people were killed in race riots that many people in political power today, including the premier, believe could happen again if tensions get out of control.
Four decades later, race relations are being tested by a feeling among Muslims that Islam worldwide is threatened, a fear among non-Muslims that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise and by debate over the real wealth gap between Malays and Chinese.
There is also a growing feeling inside the multi-racial ruling coalition, which is dominated by UMNO, that a three-year-old push by the premier to allow more room for public debate on religious and racial affairs has gone too far.
"He's realised the Pandora's box is opened, and he's made statements to the effect that his tolerance should not be tested," Terence Chong, a political analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told Reuters.
"His government came into power with a desire to differentiate itself from the previous administration, but gradually realised it needed support from the grassroots and has taken the path of least resistance," Chong said.
The premier plans to meet editors of Malay and Chinese-language newspapers in the next few weeks to ask them to be careful with the debate, a source close to government said.
"I think what he's going to tell them is use your common sense -- don't do anything inflammatory."
The government has also said it might stop televising the annual UMNO assembly after this year's speeches were beamed live into the nation's living rooms for the first time.
But Abdullah could find it tough to rein in public debate, especially on the Internet, given the strength of feeling.
The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), whose supporters are mostly ethnic Chinese, said the UMNO meeting had been the worst in decades from the standpoint of nation-building.
"If a Malaysian Chinese or Indian politician had warned of riots, being prepared to shed blood or even going amok, the Internal Security Act would have been invoked," veteran DAP opposition leader Lim Kit Siang told a dinner on Friday night.
That same day, police in the northern state of Penang fired warning shots to break up a scuffle between ethnic Chinese protesters and municipal officials attempting to demolish a Taoist temple said to have been built without planning approval.
The protesters complained that police had not allowed them time to retrieve statues of gods and other precious religious items from the temple before demolition.
"I think there is always a danger in such situations," political analyst Chong said.
"All you need is a few troublemakers. All you need is a quick scuffle. And very quickly it goes down a slippery slope."
But civil rights activist Chandra Muzaffar said Malaysia's internal security forces were quick to snuff out disturbances.
"When the intelligence services get a whiff of these things, they act very quickly. Why else do you think we haven't had any major crises for several years?" he said.
But he said it was dangerous to close the lid too firmly on debate of religious and racial issues.
"I would rather that they vent their feelings at a meeting like this, because in the context of Malaysian political culture, if they're all bottled up, then one fine day it all erupts." (Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich)