Malaysia ruling party tightens embrace of Islam to gain support

Malaysia ruling party tightens embrace of Islam to gain support
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak inspects the honour guard during the UMNO party annual assembly at PWTC in Kuala Lumpur December 5, 2013.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling party, stung by an election setback in May, is burnishing its Islamic credentials, aiming to gain ground among majority ethnic Malay voters in a move that could heighten concern over growing religious intolerance in the multi-racial Southeast Asian country.

The coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) suffered its worst election result, hurt by the desertion of ethnic Chinese voters and many urban dwellers, including Muslim Malays, its traditional bedrock of support.

Ahead of the party's annual general assembly this week, Prime Minister Najib Razak shored up his support by making concessions to the party's conservative wing, rolling back his previous liberal social reforms, boosting steps to favour ethnic Malays economically and stressing UMNO's role as a protector of the Islamic faith.

That has enabled him to push forward with unpopular economic steps to tackle the country's chronic fiscal deficit, most recently the announcement of a 15 per cent rise in electricity tariffs from January.

"UMNO has been upholding Islam over tens of years, setting up Islamic universities and institutions of higher learning and establishing Islamic finance in this country," Najib told delegates in his keynote opening address on Thursday.

"This is where the greatness of Islam is upheld."

At the assembly, senior UMNO leaders called on the government to change the country's constitution to specify Malaysia's official religion as Sunni Islam, reflecting growing hostility to the spread of the Shia sect of Islam. The party also invited a popular Islamic preacher to join its decision-making Supreme Council, an offer he rejected.

Religious tensions have flared since the election, with Najib's government voicing support for a court's ruling that only Muslims can use the word "Allah" to refer to God, despite Malaysian Christians having used the word for centuries.

An UMNO member of parliament last month threw his support behind a long-held plan to introduce Islamic criminal law in Kelantan, a northeastern state governed by the opposition Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Meanwhile, the UMNO-controlled state of Johor bordering Singapore last month changed its official weekend to Friday and Saturday to accommodate Muslims' day of congregational prayer.

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