Race, religion still divisive issues in Malaysia -PM

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 (Reuters) Fifty years after independence, race and religion remain divisive issues in Malaysia, with the nation at times coming ''close to the brink of disaster'', Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.

Malay Muslims form about 60 percent of the country's population of roughly 26 million. Hindus, Buddhists and Christians dominate among the Indian and Chinese minorities.

Many non-Muslims say the authorities and the courts are allowing their rights, including freedom of religion, to be trampled by the Muslim majority.

Abdullah said the country would not be as successful if racial and religious issues were not addressed, newspapers reported today.

''We have been solving one racial issue after another. That is a fact,'' Abdullah told a meeting of the mainly Chinese-backed Gerakan party, a component of the ruling coalition.

''I do not want to pretend that everything is great and there are no problems, no weaknesses and no flaws. I do not want to be in a state of denial,'' he said.

The growing racial and religious divide has stoked fears of more tension ahead of an anticipated early general election.

Increasingly, leaders of the multi-racial government are urging Malaysians to heed the lessons of 1969, when racial tensions burst into deadly riots.

Abdullah criticised those who were trapped in the mindset of turning everything into a racial or religious issue.

''We respond readily when there is something that we perceive to be a racial issue. We respond quickly when someone we do not like brings these matters up. This makes the issue more complicated and harder to resolve,'' he said.

REUTERS PD RAI1024

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