Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Kuala Lumpur assembly marked by power struggle


Malaysia's ruling party vowed to step up support for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawai amid attacks by his predecessor, and pledged to tackle widespread frustrations over the continued lack of religious rights and poor wealth distribution.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) witnessed an outpouring of loyalty for Abdullah as top officials rebuffed former leader Mahathir Mohamad's derision of his successor's policies. They also rebuked the elder statesman's son for criticizing Abdullah's key speech at Malaysia's biggest political assembly, which ended on Friday.

Another emotionally charged topic for delegates at UMNO's five-day congress was the future of relations between the Malay Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Many officials warned minorities not to try to undermine the status of Islam and affirmative action policies that grant benefits to Malays.

Affirmative action policies instituted in 1970 -- following deadly race riots between Malays and Chinese -- gave Malays privileges in areas such as government jobs, housing, financial loans and contracts, but the program has also fueled discontent among the other ethnicities.

Abdullah urged all Malaysians to prevent any breakdown in ties.

Many UMNO delegates made speeches warning minority communities (mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus) not to anger Malays with demands concerning sensitive subjects such as Malaysia's Islamic legal system.

Other delegates voiced unhappiness over slow progress in helping Malays to catch up with the wealthier Chinese. Malays, who comprise some 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people, own only 18.9 percent of the equity in the country's stock market, the government said.

Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia's most peaceful and stable countries, and the administration promotes the country as a model of racial harmony.

Mahathir, who retired in 2003 after 22 years in power, did not attend the assembly because he was recuperating from a mild heart attack last week. But his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, suffered the party's ire for claiming that Abdullah's opening speech on Wednesday failed to respond convincingly to Mahathir's accusations that the leader is guilty of nepotism, corruption and general incompetence.

Mahathir's unflinching and repeated attacks against Abdullah during the past year have raised fears about possible fighting within the party since both politicians have staunch supporters.

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