Pro-Umno Malay NGOs led by right-wing Muslim rights group Perkasa urged Umno to lead the charge to defend the rights of the country's majority Malay Muslims or else face "an early grave".
The call yesterday came at the so-called National Unity Convention, held ahead of Umno's all-important annual general assembly tomorrow. It was the first time since Prime Minister Najib Razak rolled out his reform agenda that Malay non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have gathered before the general assembly to try to put pressure on the ruling party.
"Umno's role is in defending Malay Muslims," Perkasa president Ibrahim Ali said at the gathering attended by about 1,500.
The Malay leaders also urged Umno politicians not to get involved in corruption.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is Perkasa's patron, has been increasingly critical of the policies of Datuk Seri Najib, who is Umno president. Tun Mahathir was absent yesterday through illness.
In August, he angrily declared on his blog that he was withdrawing support for the Najib administration because his criticism had fallen on deaf ears. "Many policies, approaches and actions taken by the government under Najib have destroyed inter-racial ties, the economy and the country's finances," Dr Mahathir said.
Yesterday, Malay leaders followed up on Dr Mahathir's call for Mr Najib to unwind liberal reforms that have failed to regain non-Malays' support for the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN).
Although the Prime Minister repealed the much-criticised Internal Security Act (ISA) soon after coming to power in 2009, BN saw a further erosion of voter support in last year's general election.
Convention delegates pushed not just for ISA's return, but for the government to abandon plans to replace the Sedition Act, which they said prevents sensitive issues concerning Malay rights, language and Islam from being questioned.
"BN, especially Umno, will be responsible if the law (to replace the Sedition Act) is passed and it erodes Malay rights and Islam," said former chief justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad. The colonial-era law was amended in 1970 to outlaw the questioning of rules on citizenship, the Malay language and monarchy as well as quotas for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, known collectively as bumiputera.
Repealing the law now, Tun Hamid said, would only cause strife as it would allow provocation against Malay rulers and the bumiputera's special privileges.
"It would be like wanting a wasp to sit quietly in its nest by shoving a stick into it," he said.
Also warning of a leadership dearth if the party fails to attract young professionals, he urged Umno to make changes if it "does not want to go to an early grave".
In an interview with Mingguan Malaysia yesterday, Mr Najib said that as a politician, he had to accept the criticisms levelled at him.
"I will continue doing what I think is best for the party and nation. Whenever there is criticism, I will evaluate, study and seek a second opinion," The Malaysian Insider quoted him as saying in the interview.
This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.