Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said Wednesday that frayed relations between the country's religious and racial groups had reached a "worrying" level and warned that the government would not hesitate to crack down to preserve peace between them.
"Freedom has its limits," Abdullah said in a nationally televised speech to his party that serves as an annual state of the union address for the country. "I would like to warn those who abuse this freedom that I will not for a moment hesitate to use the law against them."
Abdullah's threats were a marked shift in tone for a prime minister who previously portrayed himself as more conciliatory and compassionate than his predecessor, Mahathir bin Mohamad.
At a time of both political and ethnic tensions, a number of recent incidents and court cases have soured relations between Malay Muslims and the rest of the country's 25 million population: Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others.
The head of a Christian evangelical group said in an interview Wednesday that tensions between communities were higher than at any time in recent decades.
"I think generally there is a feeling by Muslims of being under siege by Western civilization as well as people of other faiths - they feel that they are being cornered," said the Christian leader, Wong Kim Kong, secretary general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship in Malaysia.
"Political tension, religious tension and racial tension have culminated at the same time."
With such a diverse population Malaysia has long been seen as a barometer of racial relations in multiethnic Southeast Asia. One particularly contentious case involves an appeal to Malaysia's highest court by a Malay Muslim woman, Lina Joy, who converted to Christianity but has been banned from officially changing her religion on her identity card.
But the broader context of Abdullah's warning is economic and political, analysts say. The Malay Muslim majority is under pressure to scale back economic privileges they enjoy under an affirmative action program introduced more than three decades ago to dilute Chinese control over the economy.
Malaysians are locked in a divisive debate over the fate of the program following a recent report that said Malays had surpassed their ownership target of 30 percent of companies in the country. On Wednesday, Abdullah said the report was "grossly incorrect" and sought to end the discussion by warning that failure to trust the government's calculations, which show much lower ownership levels, would be the "same as accusing the government of lying."
Opposition leaders say Abdullah is using national security as a pretext to quash debate on the issue.
"More and more issues are being categorized as sensitive and now there's this threat of an iron fist," Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the opposition, in an interview. "There should be room for rational discussions."
Lim also accused members of Abdullah's party, the United Malays National Organization, of hypocrisy on the question of race relations.
"They are telling people not to play the race card while they are playing it to the hilt," Lim said.
Members of Abdullah's party have been particularly strident and explicit in their criticism of Chinese and Indian parties, with whom they share a coalition, at the party's general assembly, which is being held this week.
One party member, Ramli Simbok, was quoted in the local press as having said, "When we, the Malays, are weak, the Chinese will take advantage."
Another party member, Azimi Daim, warned Chinese and Indians to stop questioning the special rights of Malays.
"When tension rises, the blood of Malay warriors will run in our veins," Azimi said.
The prime minister has been under attack from Mahathir, his predecessor, over many issues ranging from management of the economy to corruption and nepotism within government.
Even though Mahathir was not present - he suffered a minor heart attack last week and is resting on doctor's orders - analysts said his presence could be detected in Abdullah's often defensive tone.
"Internally they are being assaulted by their former president. This has weakened the party," said Hishamuddin Rais, a political columnist for several Web sites. Mahathir was party president and prime minister from 1981 until 2003, when Abdullah succeeded him.
Abdullah's party "in a time of internal crisis is always looking out for foreign enemies," Hishamuddin said.
In his speech Abdullah responded to much of Mahathir's recent criticism.
He said he was aware that economic sentiment was soft but said reining in government spending had been necessary to reduce the budget deficit from 5.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2003 to 3.5 percent today.
"We are now in a better position to spend," he said.
The government will build more schools in rural areas, he said, and will focus on strengthening its reputation as a center for Islamic finance and halal food production.
In response to accusations that Abdullah had lowered the country's profile compared to Mahathir, whose acerbic often anti-Western comments kept the country in the news, Abdullah said he preferred "artful diplomacy."
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 15 (Bernama) -- An Umno veteran, Wednesday reminded Barisan Nasional (BN) components not to test the patience of the Malays by questioning various efforts by the party to enhance their economic well-being.
Former BN and Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat said the Malays had so far been patient despite attacks by certain quarters within the BN to dispute the rights of the Malays.
"Please, don't test the Malays; in another word that they know 'amuk'. We don't want to reach that level. In the present situation, the Malays can still take it but efforts to enhance the Malays' economy need to be intensified," he said.
He said the BN component parties must be aware that problems would arise in the country if efforts to balance the economic power between the Malays and the non-Malays failed.
Mohamed said that Umno, as the only Malay party, would continue to fight for the Malay Agenda and this should not be questioned by others.
"If the Malays' economic power cannot be balanced out, we will face worrying situations," he said.
The BN components, he said, must clearly know of the sacrifices by the Malays and Umno since independence up to now.
The Malays' sacrifices, he said, must be paid back with sacrifices of the same magnitude by the non-Malays particularly in questions involving the economy.
"Don't let it reach a situation where the Malays start questioning 'with the sacrifices we have made, what have we got?'. That's also the question that is very important to be answered," he said.
Mohamed said the concept of compromise was also crucial, and advised the BN components not to criticise the Malay Agenda as they please.
He said several quarters were questioning the rights of the Malays because of the enthusiasm of two Chinese-based parties within the BN that wanted to show which of them were the hero among that community.
"We hope MCA and Gerakan adopt the BN spirit. There is no need for us to champion racial interests and be extremely racist, because they will not bring profits," he said. He said that when he was BN secretary-general, all problems that arose between component parties were resolved through meetings.
"We didn't discuss sensitive matters outside, used the media and press. It would have appeared we were quarrelling. It's something not right," Mohamed said.
KUALA LUMPUR: Political leaders of Malaysia’s ethnic Malay majority warned the nation’s Chinese and Indian minorities yesterday to stop questioning Malay privileges or risk hurting race relations. Malays make up just over half of Malaysia’s population and see themselves as the native people of this multi-racial country. They are also among the poorest Malaysians and are given preference in government employment and procurement.
“The constitution has enshrined the position and rights of the Malays. There’s no need to debate about it,” Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, a senior figure in the Malay ruling party, said on the eve of the party’s annual assembly.
Her comments, echoed by other senior members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), have been prompted by a renewed, public debate about the effectiveness of decades-old affirmative-action policies aimed at Malays.
Some prominent Malays, notably former premier Mahathir Mohamad, have long voiced doubts about affirmative action, but recent criticism from non-Malays, especially ethnic Chinese politicians, has raised hackles within UMNO.
Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein echoed Trade Minister Rafidah’s remarks. Hishammuddin, leader of UMNO Youth, and Rafidah, who heads the women’s wing, were both speaking at preliminary gatherings of these branches of the party.
But Hishammuddin also called for cool heads on both sides of the debate: “We must remember that we cannot build Malaysia on the basis of narrow-mindedness, chauvinism and extremism.”
Speaking to reporters later, he said his words were aimed at both UMNO and non-Malay parties in the ruling multi-racial coalition, which is headed by UMNO’s leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“It’s a warning to both sides, that beneath the surface it’s still very fragile,” Hishammuddin said.
Attacks on affirmative action are especially sensitive in UMNO because government hand-outs to Malay businesses are the financial lifeblood of the party. UMNO has strong ties to the building industry, which is fed on preferential state contracts.–Reuters