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Race continues to cast long shadow in Malaysia: Report

This article is more than 12 months old

Race remains hot issue in Malaysia months after watershed election

KUALA LUMPUR Just months after a stunning election victory, Malaysia's prime minister has had to step in to mollify the country's majority Malay Muslims in recent weeks, underlining a weighty challenge confronting his multi-ethnic, reformist coalition: Race.

When riots erupted at a Hindu temple outside Kuala Lumpur last week, Mr Mahathir Mohamad, 93, spared no effort to scotch speculation that tensions with Malays were to blame.

Just a few days earlier, his government reversed its pledge to ratify a UN convention against racial discrimination following a backlash from groups who argued that it would dilute privileges Malays have enjoyed for decades.

The two incidents illustrate the predicament confronting Dr Mahathir as euphoria over the May election fades : curbing racial divisions, carrying out reform and reassuring Malays that affirmative-action policies favouring them in business, education and housing are not about to disappear.

And Dr Mahathir's unlikely alliance - known as Pakatan Harapan, or Pact of Hope - has to do that without upsetting the delicate balance of its constituent parties.

"The problem with Pakatan Harapan as a multiracial coalition is that it is not seen as championing the Malays," said a deputy minister, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

He said opposition parties are successfully fanning a perception that Malays, about 60 per cent of the country's 32 million people, are being abandoned in what some have called New Malaysia.

Malaysia's ethnic Chinese are estimated at 23 per cent while mostly Hindu ethnic Indians comprise about 7 per cent, government data shows.

A Merdeka poll in August showed that concerns over ethnic issues and religious rights had grown since the election, with about 21 per cent citing those issues as a concern compared with 12 per cent in April.

For many Malays, the ouster of Mr Najib Razak over the multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal that had swirled for years around the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund was fair enough.

But some have been dismayed by moves made by the government of Dr Mahathir - himself once a champion of the Malay 'bumiputera', or 'sons of the soil' policy - such as the appointment of non-Malays as minister of finance and attorney general.

Mr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, minister in charge of religious affairs, conceded that the coalition is struggling to convince Malays that its policies will benefit them and protect Islamic values.

"We have had some success in reaching out to them, but if we fail to build on that, it will affect support from Malay voters," he said.

But steps that pander to Malays could create rifts within Dr Mahathir's alliance, which includes the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party and the pro-reform party of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

In a related development, four men were yesterday charged in a Malaysian magistrate's court for rioting and using dangerous weapons over the relocation of the temple in Subang Jaya.

They were jointly charged, together with several others still at large, for being present during the riot and for being in possession of weapons such as axes and machetes. - REUTERS, THE STAR