Malaysia’s leader warns of religious and ethnic tensions
By Thomas Fuller / International Herald Tribune
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
“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
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
“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
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
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