KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 7 (Reuters) Malaysia's Prime Minister moved today to soothe racial and religious tensions ahead of expected early elections, saying there was no room for extremist tendencies in the moderate Muslim nation.
After 50 years of independence, race relations remain a thorny issue in a country that has suffered race riots in the past. In a recent incident, the nation's ethnic Indians protested strongly against the demolition of a Hindu temple.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is expected to call an election by early 2008, warned the country's dominant Malays, and its Chinese and Indian minorities, against playing with religious and racial issues.
''The harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury -- it is a necessity,'' he told a meeting of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the key party in the ruling coalition. ''We have no other choice.'' ''The time for championing parochial interests is over.
Issues must be addressed on the basis of the interests of the nation and the Malaysian people as a whole,'' said the 67-year-old leader.
''In the spirit of building a unified nation, the consensus of moderation and mutual respect outweighs extremist tendencies,'' he told 2,500 UMNO delegates. UMNO has 3.3 million members.
Abdullah's conciliatory tone in his speech was aimed at appeasing increasingly disgruntled non-Malay voters, who could turn their back on the ruling coalition in the coming polls.
TEMPLE ROW On Monday, a top ethnic Indian minister called on Indian leaders to scrap a Hindu celebration as a mark of protest over the demolition of the temple.
S Samy Vellu, the Works Minister and a Hindu, retracted his statement hours later but his outburst reflected a growing disquiet among Hindu followers in the country.
''Our calculation shows one temple being demolished in every three weeks,'' said P Uthayakumar, a lawyer for the Hindu Rights Action Task Force, a Malaysian rights group.
''The UMNO government is not following the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of religion,'' he said.
Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, who is a senior UMNO leader, took Samy Vellu to task for his action.
''It's easy to retract, but the more important thing is not to make the first statement. We do damage to our people,'' he said.
The Barisan Nasional coalition, in power since 1957, is set to win once more, but a large protest vote by Chinese voters in what would be seen as a referendum on Abdullah's four-year rule could embolden the opposition, weaken his pro-Malay policies and compromise his administration.
Malays, who are Muslim by definition, form just over half of Malaysia's 26 million people.
UMNO leaders have been at pains to assure the non-Malays that the Malay party was not a racist party, but insisted that UMNO would not compromise on special Malay privileges and rights.
''No one should accuse UMNO of being a racist party or label the Malay agenda as a being a racist agenda,'' said Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah's son-in-law and a fast-rising UMNO leader.
UMNO assemblies have lately been dominated by calls to push the Malay agenda harder, with UMNO Youth leader Hishammuddin Hussein leading the pack by unsheathing, brandishing and kissing a keris, or a traditional Malay dagger.
That strained ties with Chinese allies in the coalition.
The keris is seen as a symbol of unity or struggle for UMNO, but many non-Malays see it as a symbol of aggression.
Abdullah defended the decision. ''The act of unsheathing and kissing a keris is part of our cultural heritage,'' he said.
REUTERS PD HT1435