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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Abdullah's Umno speech, carefully crafted to placate all sides

Today Online (8/11/2007): As party president, he had to play to the gallery, his Malay constituency. That included defending his youth chief for brandishing the keris during party gatherings.

But as the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also had to make sure that his remarks did not alienate the Chinese and Indians, especially ahead of a widely expected general election.

As such, Mr Abdullah's speech (picture) at the opening of this year's general assembly of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) yesterday was carefully crafted to placate all sides. His 90-minute address, while touching on the usual themes of hard work, integration, moderation and economic development, also sought to soothe racial and religious tensions.

"If we want our religion to be respected and understood, let us … show exemplary behaviour by respecting the followers of other religions and their needs.

"Violence by one side will breed violence from the other," said Mr Abdullah, who led his party to a landslide victory in 2004. New elections are not due until 2009 but he is expected to seek a fresh mandate early next year.

The ruling National Front coalition, in which Umno is the dominant player, is expected to retain power. But it is unlikely to repeat its last success because of growing anger among the Indian and Chinese minorities over what they see as the erosion of their rights.

Many ordinary Malaysians, including Malays, are also fed up with escalating crime, corruption and inflation, which have exacerbated racial tensions.

"The harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury — it is a necessity. We have no other choice," said Mr Abdullah.

He also warned "overzealous" religious police against blindly enforcing Islamic rules. "We give assurance that Umno will not endorse a narrow interpretation of Islam," said Mr Abdullah.

But the event being an Umno general assembly — where Malay rights and dominance are routinely asserted — Mr Abdullah also said that non-Malays should "appreciate the sensitivities" of Muslims.

"Basic matters relating to the sanctity of religion, beliefs and practices, Malay interests and the social contract between communities are sacred to us and should not be raised," Mr Abdullah said to much applause from the 2,500 delegates present.

And while he urged Malays to get rid of their feelings of inferiority and insufficiency — "poisons that have been injected into the Malay mentality since colonial times" — the Umno president also defended the controversial New Economic Policy (NEP).

The pro-bumiputra programme, which has long rankled with non-Malays, was never intended to "rob anyone's rights".

"We have not made Malays rich by seizing the wealth of the non-Malays," Mr Abdullah said, noting that the list of the richest individuals in the country is still led by non-Malays.

He also defended the brandishing of the keris at the assembly, an act which is viewed by many non-Malays as provocative. On Tuesday, Umno Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein, despite being heavily criticised for a similar action last year, unsheathed the traditional Malay dagger yet again.

Mr Abdullah said: "The act of unsheathing and kissing a keris is part of our cultural heritage, but its meaning has been twisted to spread fear among non-Malays, and the image of Umno and Malaysia has been smeared overseas."

He also assured non-Malays that Umno "will never breach the spirit of understanding that has been agreed with other communities" at the time of independence in 1957.

"There is a future for every Malaysian in this country," he added.

Mr Abdullah's balanced speech is likely to please his Front partners, who have often been criticised by their respective constituencies for failing to stand up for their interests.

Mr Samy Vellu, head of the Malaysian Indian Congress and a government minister, praised the speech. He had earlier raised eyebrows by publicly expressing his anger at the recent demolition of a Hindu temple without any warning.

Saying that the issue had been resolved with the government giving an alternative land for a new temple, Mr Samy Vellu added: "We must be united. With all the races united, only then we can rise to become a modern nation."

But opposition leader Lim Guan Eng said Mr Abdullah's remarks ran counter to the reality in Malaysia.

"These are flowery words. How do you show respect for other religions when you tear down temples?" Mr Lim, the secretary-general of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, told AFP.

"Umno calls itself the defender of the Malay race and religion. But now they need to move away from that and address the issues that affect everyone in the nation," said Mr Lim — AGENCIES


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