Malaysia’s prime minister said Wednesday that his final mission is to cool racial and religious tensions in this multiethnic country, as he rushes through a raft of reforms in his last weeks in office.
Prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told The Associated Press that a shrinking economy and deepening divisions between the majority Malays and minority Chinese and Indians are the biggest threats facing the country.
“Since I am retiring earlier than I was planning to, (the reforms) have to be done very quickly,” said Abdullah, who will hand over power to his deputy Najib Razak in March.
Abdullah agreed to step down four-years before the end of his term after facing a virtual rebellion from colleagues after the opposition made tremendous gains in March elections. The results robbed the ruling coalition of a two-thirds majority for the first time in four decades.
The opposition’s gains have been attributed to anger among ethnic Chinese and Indians who complain of discrimination in jobs, education and other areas by the Malay-dominated government. They say their religious rights have also become secondary to Islam.
Malays, who are Muslims, form 60% of the country’s 27 million people and control the government, the judiciary and the security forces.
Abdullah, a Malay, said he was grappling with how to handle race relations and religious tensions.
“Muslims think from their own perspective. Non-Muslims think from their own perspective,” he said.
Critics say racial polarisation has increased since Abdullah took office in 2003.
“There has been a lack of leadership to bring divisive forces under control,” which emboldened religious extremists, said opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang.
Abdullah suggested he could establish an institution “where all communities” can take their grievances. The answer could also lie in new legislation, ostensibly clarifying gray areas in laws on religious disputes, he said.
Muslims in Malaysia are governed by Shariah laws in family and personal matters. Ethnic Chinese, Indian and other races come under civil courts. There is no clear-cut guidance on which court has greater authority when it comes to disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, but civil courts have always allowed Shariah courts to adjudicate and verdicts generally favour Muslims.
“Some people (outside Malaysia) laugh at it and say ‘What the hell is it about?’… but it’s not funny at all,” Abdullah said. “These are very, very serious issues.”
An anti-corruption bill introduced by Abdullah that would establish a powerful anti-corruption agency and create a committee to appoint senior judges to ensure judicial independence was passed Tuesday.
But the opposition has refused to vote for the committee because it can only recommend the appointment of judges while final approval remains with the prime minister.