Muslim-dominated Malaysia is neither a secular nor a theocratic state, the prime minister said in an apparent bid to make amends after his deputy upset minorities by describing the country as Islamic.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said late on Saturday the country can be best described as a multiracial nation that practices parliamentary democracy with freedom of religion for all.
"We are not a secular state. We are also not a theocratic state like Iran and Pakistan ... but we are a government that is based on parliamentary democracy," Abdullah told reporters after making a speech in the northern state of Penang.
Abdullah's aides could not be immediately reached to confirm the comments.
The prime minister's attempt to take the middle ground comes amid rising concerns among Malaysia's Chinese and Indian minorities that their rights are becoming subordinate to Islam.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak added fuel to fire last month when he said Malaysia is not secular but is an Islamic state that protects the religious rights of minority groups.
Government leaders, opposition parties, lawyers and activists condemned Najib's comment, saying Malaysia was envisioned as a secular state by the country's first leaders after independence from Britain in 1957. But the Malaysian Constitution also says Islam is the official religion.
Minority fears arose from a recent string of religious disputes that ended in favor of ethnic Malay Muslims -- who comprise nearly 60 percent of the 26 million population. The Chinese, who are mostly Buddhist and Christians, account for 25 percent. Indians, who are largely Hindus and Christians, comprise about 10 percent.