Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has sent a clear message to those urging Sabah and Sarawak to secede from Malaysia: The issue is non-negotiable.
While stressing that he was willing to listen to suggestions on matters of concern to the two states, Najib drew a line against any attempt to raise the question of separation.
"We can discuss issues pertaining to oil royalty, state powers or any other related matter. But do not bring up the issue of seceding from Malaysia. That one is non-negotiable," he said at the conclusion of the Umno general assembly.
Najib had said on Thursday that the Government would not only retain the Sedition Act 1948 but would strengthen it to include greater protection for the sanctity of Islam and other religions.
He said a provision would also be added to the Act against those who called for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak from Malaysia.
His announcement drew criticisms from several politicians in Sarawak, including State Land Development Minister Tan Sri James Masing who said the Government should not ignore the grouses of the people who called for secession.
"Engage them and find out what the causes of their unhappiness are. As I had said before, don't kill the messenger or we may miss the message," Masing was quoted as saying.
Najib denied that his decision to retain the Sedition Act was against his call for moderation, saying that all races would benefit from its continuation.
"Do not question the decision because reforms have already taken place. The Internal Security Act (ISA) had already been repealed although there are still other countries, which have similar laws to the ISA.
"We have gone a long way in terms of giving more space within the context of democracy but there cannot be absolute freedom," he said.
He also said that the Sedition Act was not only a shield to protect the Malays, but also for other races.
"I have always maintained that this law is good and it protects all," he said.
Earlier, despite calls by several delegates for Umno to abandon plans to reach out to the Chinese, Najib reminded party members that it was not an option.
The party president said there was a good reason why Umno had never considered going solo since its early days to present times - the party could not rely just on Malay voters alone.
"Tunku Abdul Rahman formed the Alliance and Tun Razak expanded this to Barisan Nasional. Until today, we still defend this coalition - surely there must be a good reason.
"If we do not need their votes, then why did we form the Alliance and Barisan?" he said.
Najib said former Umno president and Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad failed to defend the Kota Setar Selatan parliamentary seat in 1969, losing to a PAS candidate because of a swing in the minority Chinese votes.
The Chinese had thrown their support to Yusof Rawa, the PAS candidate after Dr Mahathir had inadvertently said that he did not need the Chinese votes to win.
Najib said while it was important to preserve the unity of the coalition, Umno also realised that this could not be achieved at the expense of Malay interest.
"The Malays are after all, fair but firm, and we believe in the social contract that we have forged because we want to build a Malaysia that is successful," he said.
The Umno president also touched on another issue which had been playing in the minds of some delegates - criticism against his leadership.
Najib said a delegate had noted how opposition supporters were strong defenders of their leaders and called on Umno members to emulate this spirit instead of attacking their own leaders.
"If we want our party to remain strong, we must protect our leaders.
"When we do wrong, point it out to us in a constructive manner so that we can move forward. Please realise that no one is 100 per cent perfect," he added.
On party rejuvenation, Najib assured there would continue to be a balance between the young and the old in Umno, adding that rejuvenation was not a zero-sum game that would see effective party elders being dropped.
"More opportunities would be given to younger members and this would be based on merit.
"They must fulfil the criteria which the party had set out," he said, addressing the dissatisfaction expressed by some senior members following calls to inject new blood into the Umno leadership.