Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has vowed to maintain racial and religious harmony in his multi-ethnic country, saying Malaysians' freedom to discuss touchy issues of race and religion must not undermine national unity.
Abdullah Badawi has allowed greater freedom of expression than his predecessor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, including open criticism of the government. He has also allowed public debate on such contentious subjects as race, religion, and the so-called "bumiputra" policy that gives the country's ethnic Malay majority preference in jobs, education and business.
These privileges have led to frustrations among Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, and some Chinese politicians have recently questioned whether the 35-year-old affirmative-action policy, which was meant to close the wealth gap between Malays and the more business-minded Chinese, should continue.
That, in turn, has sparked dismay among Malay politicians, most of whom belong to Mr. Abdullah's United Malays National Organization - UMNO. Many of them have loudly asserted during this week's UMNO meeting that the affirmative action program is a mainstay of the Malaysian system and cannot be tampered with.
Some members of Malaysia's ethnic minorities, who are mostly Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, have also questioned the growing role of Islam in public life. That has stoked fears among Malays, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, that their religion is under threat.
Mr. Abdullah defends his policy of allowing open debate on such sensitive issues, but in his keynote speech Wednesday, he warned that there are boundaries that cannot be crossed.
"Freedom has limits. Freedom must be shaped in the context of a young nation that is made up of many religions, races, cultures and languages," he said. "We cannot and will not compromise when it comes to the unity and harmony of our multi-racial and multi-cultural society."
The prime minister vowed to take tough action against anybody inciting racial hatred or questioning the status of Islam.
His vow to safeguard racial stability is seen as an effort to assure party members that he is firmly in control of the government. The prime minister has been under a year-long attack by Mr. Mahathir, who has accused his hand-picked successor of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of the economy.
Mr. Abdullah denies all this, and for the most part has refused to engage Mr. Mahathir in direct debate. But the incessant attacks have unsettled many UMNO politicians, and led some of them to question privately whether Mr. Abdullah's leadership of the party and country has been jeopardized.