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Malaysia

Malaysia’s king calls for unity amid racial tensions

Opposition Umno claims the privileged status of Malays will be undermined if the government officially recognises Chinese-language academic qualifications

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 3:51pm

Malaysia’s king has appealed for calm amid growing racial tensions in the Muslim-majority country after an electoral earthquake in May toppled the Malay-dominated coalition that had ruled the country for decades.

In his inaugural address to lawmakers during the new parliament session, King Sultan Muhammad V urged “every citizen to preserve and strengthen” Malaysia’s “peace and unity.”

Race, language and religion are closely intertwined with politics in Malaysia, where Muslim Malays make up about 60 per cent of the 32 million population, followed by large Chinese and Indian minorities.

Malaysia experienced deadly race riots in 1969 that still haunt the country.

Tensions have increased since a May election that saw the Barisan Nasional coalition, led by former prime minister Najib Razak, defeated for the first time since independence from Britain in 1957.

Najib’s own party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) had been the backbone of the coalition and championed the rights of Malays, who have long enjoyed a favoured position in society.

Now in opposition, Umno claims the government is undermining Malays’ privileged status.

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Its supporters fear the government’s plans to officially recognise exams taken in Chinese-medium high schools will challenge the status of Malay as the country’s official language, and have also accused the government of cutting back spending on the redevelopment of mosques.

Lokman Adam, an Umno supreme council member who led some 300 party members in a noisy protest near parliament, said race relations between Malays and other minority races were strained.

“Race relations are a bit tense,” he said. “Malays are restless. We feel Islam is being treated badly [by the new government]. We feel the current government is not able to protect Malay rights, Islam, the Malay language and the Malay rulers.”

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The protesters, chanting “Long live the king” and “Allahu akbar” were prevented by police from marching to parliament, where the king made his speech.

Allegations of massive corruption were a major factor behind the defeat of Najib’s long-ruling coalition and the ushering into power of a reformist alliance led by his 93-year-old former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.

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Najib has since been charged for corruption over a multibillion dollar financial scandal at the state fund 1MDB. He has denied any wrongdoing.