Malaysia’s prime minister has appealed for unity and an end to “the politics of hate” amid soaring racial and religious tensions in the Muslim-majority country.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, weakened by an election setback last May, is seen as widely under pressure from conservatives in his ruling party intent on rolling back his reforms and pledges of greater civil liberties.
Najib said in a statement late on Wednesday his government aimed to develop an environment “which is conducive to and will help promote national reconciliation.”
“We must all commit to avoid spreading lies and slander, finally putting to rest the politics of hate,” he said.
Conservative Muslims have raised pressure in recent weeks for minority Malay-speaking Christians to stop using the word “Allah”, souring relations between the two groups.
The conservatives insist the Arabic word is exclusive to Islam, but the Catholic church is challenging this in court, saying their Malay-language bibles contain the word and that they have used it for hundreds of years.
Malaysian politics has become increasingly bitter as the 57-year-old Malay-dominated authoritarian government has steadily lost ground in parliament to a multi-racial opposition.
The electoral shift has whetted public demands for more reform among opposition supporters.
Meanwhile, conservatives within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) have pushed back against reform, while allied Muslim groups have stepped up rhetoric against non-Muslims, particularly members of the economically powerful Chinese minority.
Najib said the ruling establishment “must look at becoming more inclusive in our activities and events.”
“We are open to talking to all parties,” via parliamentary committees to discuss “issues affecting national unity,” he said.
Najib gave no further specifics.
Senior opposition politician Tian Chua said the three-party opposition alliance welcomed Najib’s suggestion but complained that it was overdue and lacked details.
“It took him so long, nearly nine months after the general election, for him to send a positive note on national reconciliation,” he said.
“Ultimately UMNO leaders have been unable to convince their own rank that this is a good thing. This is where the failure lies,” he said, accusing UMNO of stirring tensions.
On Monday, two petrol bombs were thrown at a Catholic church, raising fears of further strife in the “Allah” row. About 2.6 million of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Christians.