Wednesday, December 6, 2006

"These days, I know things are not good. It is still fragile. It is still brittle"

Report: Malaysian prime minister calls race relations brittle, urges unity

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said race relations in the majority Muslim Southeast Asian nation were still fragile and urged citizens to unite to keep the economy moving, local media reported Thursday.

"Why do we need to fight? Is it not better if we work together for our future?" Abdullah said in a speech late Wednesday, according to the New Straits Times newspaper. "These days, I know things are not good. It is still fragile. It is still brittle."

His comments were widely carried in the nation's top newspapers, and by the national news agency Bernama.

Abdullah's comments follow a series of events this year that appears to threaten carefully-crafted race relations policies — that came after deadly race riots in the 1960s — designed to benefit majority Malays by providing them better opportunities than minority races.

"What we want to achieve can only be realized through the efforts of all Malaysians, not just a select race," the paper quoted him as saying.

Sixty percent of Malaysia's 26 million citizens are Malay. Ethnic Chinese comprise a quarter of the population while Indians make up 10 percent.

Ethnic relations were thrust into the spotlight at last month's general assembly of Abdullah's ruling United Malays National Organization where speakers warned minorities not to undermine Islam's status in the country and the affirmative action policies that benefit Malays through government jobs, contracts, cheaper housing, and other benefits.

UMNO's youth wing leader also brandished — and kissed — a "keris," a traditional Malay dagger. Chinese community leaders said the act had caused uneasiness among the minority because it was also used during the race riots.

The assembly followed a report by a widely-respected independent think tank, which said Malays had already surpassed the equity ownership target set by the government, and called for a review of affirmative action policies.

The suggestion was slammed by Abdullah and other Malay leaders.

Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia's most peaceful and stable countries, and the government promotes the country as a model of racial harmony. There are no immediate fears of any overt tensions, but Abdullah had said the nation is haunted by the specter of race riots that killed hundreds in 1969.

Late Wednesday, Bernama quoted Abdullah as saying the racial undertones that occurred during UMNO's assembly had also occurred elsewhere, and he urged change.

"It can lead to disunity and we do not want that," Abdullah said. "We also don't want only a semblance of unity but with festering undercurrents on the inside," he said, according to Bernama.

Analysts have expressed concern over Malaysia's economic future once its oil wealth runs out and its manufacturing base cools. Malaysia was one of Asia's economic marvels in the 1990s, but its performance and investment figures have since been surpassed by rising powers China, India and other nations.