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UMNO General Assembly: Debate on race and religion takes centre-stage

Updated On: Nov 17, 2006

As expected, issues of race and religion took centrestage at this week’s Umno General Assembly, with fiery speeches from Umno Youth leaders playing to the gallery, and a softly delivered but firm call for moderation from Malaysia’s Prime Minister and Umno President Abdullah Badawi.

While some prominent Malays, notably former premier Mahathir, have long voiced doubts about affirmative action policies that favour Malays, recent criticism, especially from ethnic Chinese politicians, has raised hackles within Umno.  A renewed public debate about Islam has also stoked fears among Malays, a vast majority of whom follow Islam, that their religion is under threat.

Abdullah’s moves to defuse racial and religious concerns with moderation must come as a relief to many who worried that Abdullah might seek to boost his political prestige – battered by Mahathir’s criticisms and unhappiness from his Umno constituents (SEAPSNet News, 14 November) – by pandering to narrow Umno interests. 

In reference to the recent DeepaRaya (SEAPSNet News, 18 October) and related incidents, Abdullah delivered a strong message that religious intolerance cannot be allowed.  And while he urged the media and Malaysians to stay clear of debating sensitive issues in public, he promised that greater freedom for the media was to continue.

While he denied that race relations in the multiethnic country have become worrisome, Abdullah noted that the debate had reached a worrying level, and that it had come “time to remind people and lay down the ground rules”.  He called for Malaysians to embrace openness and public discussion, but warned that freedom of speech should not be abused by those who want to test its limits with extremist views – be they from whichever camp.

At the week-long assembly that ends today (17 November), Umno leaders sent a strong message that Malay priviledges and Islam’s status were non-negotiables.  Political leaders of the ethnic Malay majority warned the nation's Chinese and Indian minorities to respect the existing social contract or risk hurting race relations.  Party officials warned there should be no concessions on issues such as ensuring that secular courts have no jurisdiction over Islamic courts.  Throughout his 90-minute long presidential speech, Abdullah deftly balanced the concerns of both his internal Umno audience, and the external non-Muslim audience.  He said he was disturbed that these matters enshrined in the Federal Constitution were being challenged and sent out a strong signal to say that no one should even attempt to test the government’s resolve on these policies, promising to “take stern action against any group, Muslim or non-Muslim, that seeks to undermine this delicate balance by questioning the status of Islam or by inciting people based on bogus allegations and fictitious threats”. 

At the same time, Abdullah also said that while he would protect Islam’s position and the role of the Syariah courts from being undermined, he would also ensure that no one tries to hijack Islam in Malaysia in order to breed intolerance and hatred.  He said some Muslims were threatening the Barisan Nasional government’s “spirit of understanding and moderation” to deal with problems between groups, with their intolerance.  Calling the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam a threat to national unity and harmony, Abdullah once again attempted to explain his concept of Islam Hadhari, but it appeared to be just as unclear to his constituents at the assembly as it was when he first promoted it while coming into power in October 2003.  Abdullah said some quarters used it as an excuse to become more conservative and radical.  Breaking down the idea for the common man, Abdullah explained Islam Hadhari as promoting tolerance of other religions, and serving as a reminder to Muslims that Islam is more than just literal laws and prohibitions.  But fellow delegates at the assembly appeared not to have understood his call – claiming to support Abdullah’s concept of Islam Hadhari by agitating for more prohibitions and harsh action to be taken against apostates instead.

In defence of his own record, Abdullah reiterated his commitment to deliver on the promises he made when he first took office, some of which had been kept while others would need a longer time, he said.  His presidential speech included point-by-point rebuttals of Mahathir’s accusations, but in characteristic Abdullah-style, he avoided criticising Mahathir and instead said he was willing to be advised and accept criticism for his imperfections, but that they should be constructive and rational and offered with honesty and sincerity.  But showing himself as firmly in control, Abdullah also warned Umno and detractors not to take him for granted as there was a limit to everything, even his famous patience, and was said to have shared “that it was getting difficult to be nice”.

Sources:

PM addresses issues; moves to defuse racial and religious concerns (New Straits Times, 16 November 2006)

Now the brakes are on... (New Straits Times, 16 November 2006)

Islam Hadhari: A concept made simple, but did some get it? (New Straits Times, 16 November 2006)

Warning to those who undermine religious balance (The Star, 16 November 2006)

Race relations not at troubling stage: Abdullah (The Straits Times/AP, 16 November 2006)

Ultra-conservative Islam 'a threat' (The Straits Times, 16 November 2006)

Abdullah's message to Umno delegates: 'Do not take me for granted (New Straits Times, 14 November 2006)

PM Abdullah moves to defuse racial, religious fears (The Straits Times/Reuters, 15 November 2006)

Malaysian PM denounces any move to 'hijack' Islam (AFP, 15 November 2006)