Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak hit back Thursday at reform proponents, saying greater liberalism was a threat to the Muslim-majority country as it faces pivotal upcoming elections.
Speaking to more than 10,000 Islamic leaders just days before the Muslim fasting month begins, Najib also said he supported human rights but “within the boundaries set by Islam”, in comments quoted by local media.
“Pluralism, liberalism? All these ‘isms’ are against Islam and it is compulsory for us to fight these,” Najib said, according to news portal the Malaysian Insider.
Najib must call fresh elections by early next year and his government has come under pressure to reform an electoral system that critics and the political opposition say is biased in the long-ruling party’s favour.
An April rally saw tens of thousands pour into the capital Kuala Lumpur to demand electoral changes.
It ended in chaos after police and protestors clashed openly in the streets of the capital. Police used tear gas and water cannons, and more than 500 people were arrested.
The next polls are widely expected to be a close contest after the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition suffered its worst-ever election showing against a resurgent opposition in 2008.
Adopting a reformist mantle to woo back voters lost in 2008, Najib has embarked on a raft of reforms including repeal of the controversial Internal Security Act, which for decades had allowed indefinite detention without trial.
He also last week announced plans to repeal the country’s Sedition Act, which has been similarly criticised for being used to curb dissent.
But Najib faces a balancing act in that he also must appeal to conservative hardliners and Muslims, some of whom are opposed to an increasingly vocal gay rights movement.
Muslim ethnic Malays make up 60 percent of the multi-ethnic country’s 28 million people, but Malaysia also has sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian non-Muslim minorities whose votes are coveted by the ruling coalition.