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Malaysia PM calls for racial unity on National Day

MALAYSIA'S prime minister is calling for racial unity amid increasing signs of fraying communal relations, as the multiethnic, Muslim-majority nation celebrates its 52nd anniversary of independence.

In a message to the nation broadcast on the eve of today's anniversary, Prime Minister Najib urged the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indians to repair the "bridges of unity" and tear down the "divisive walls" that exist among the ethnic groups.

"Bear in mind that what we have now will not necessarily become better. On the contrary, we can lose it all if we are not careful," he said.

Najib's plea came after dozens of Muslims paraded Friday with the bloodied head of a cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, to protest the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood. Such an overt display of religious discord has almost never occurred in Malaysia, which has carefully nurtured racial harmony since deadly race riots of May 1969.

The riots were the only major communal aberration since the nation won independence from Britain in 1957.

"There is ample evidence throughout history that successes which are not managed properly end up as failures," Najib said. Today, he and other dignitaries attended an Independence Day parade, which was toned down to reduce the number of spectators because of swine flu fears.

Most politicians have condemned the cow head protest in Shah Alam, the capital of Malaysia's most industrialized state Selangor, and many Malays have written on blogs to distance themselves from the act and express solidarity with Hindus.

But many fear the incident is but one example of rising Islamic fundamentalism in a country that has long been held up as an example of a moderate and modern pluralistic society in the Islamic world.

Islam is the official religion of the country but other religions are guaranteed by the constitution to be able to practice. About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are ethnic Malays, who are all Muslim. A quarter of the population are ethnic Chinese, mostly Buddhists and Christians, and about 7 percent are Indians, who are mostly Hindus.

Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said various incidents in recent weeks have shown that there is "a further polarization of race and religion with the hardening of intolerant attitudes and stances."

Still, he urged all "patriotic Malaysians" to recognize the danger signals and come together to support Najib's call for unity to "stave off divisive" forces polarizing Malaysians.

In a recent case, a Muslim woman was sentenced to caning by an Islamic court for drinking beer in public. Authorities last week agreed to review the penalty after many Malaysians said it damaged the country's reputation as a moderate Muslim-majority nation.

Also this month, officials curbed the retail sale of liquor in a central state and barred Muslims from a concert next month by the US group the Black Eyed Peas because it is sponsored by Irish beer giant Guinness.

In the anti-temple protest, some 50 demonstrators marched from a mosque after Friday prayers and dumped the cow head outside the state government building. They warned of bloodshed if the Hindu temple is built in their majority Muslim neighborhood.

"There is no point talking about racial unity if we lack understanding about the religious and cultural sensitivities of all races," said Samy Vellu, an ethnic Indian leader in the ruling coalition.


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