KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA'S prime minister says the ruling party will punish a senior official who made racist remarks against the minority Chinese and Indians.
The minorities were stunned by Ahmad Ismail's recent remarks, which increased racial friction in this multiethnic country and deepened divisions in the embattled National Front ruling coalition.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad says Ahmad's comments have 'stirred anger and restlessness among the people.' He told reporters Tuesday that the coalition's leaders 'want swift and firm action to be taken' against Ahmad.
He says the punishment will be decided on Wednesday by a meeting of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main component in the National Front to which Ahmad belongs.
The row has highlighted tensions between majority Muslim Malays and the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities who say they are threatened by rising 'Islamisation' in Malaysia.
It has triggered criticism of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for failing to quell nationalist voices within his United Malays National Organisation (Umno) which leads the coalition of race-based parties.
Ahmad Ismail, an Umno leader from northern Penang state, sparked the row by reportedly describing ethnic Chinese as 'lodgers', forcing deputy premier Najib Razak to issue an apology.
Mr Ahmad escalated the situation with an outburst on Monday in which he made veiled threats, among other things, towards the Chinese community - a taboo in a country that has seen bloody racial riots in the past.
'The patience of the Malays and Muslims has a limit. Do not push us to the wall, as when we turn back we will be forced to push the Chinese in the interests of our own survival,' he told a press conference.
Malays are dominant in politics in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese are prominent in business.
Mr Abdullah said he was 'utterly unhappy' with the comments and would take 'stern action', according to the state Bernama news agency.
Mr Ahmad was defiant as he left a meeting with the premier, saying that Malays were 'frustrated' as leaders tried to appease all the racial groups, and that Malay 'dignity' was at stake.
'Half the Chinese say I'm a racist but most Malays say I'm a nationalist defending my race,' he told reporters.
'What I see now is a rise of the Malay people, and I feel we should capitalise on the strength, the support we get from the Malay people... I know they are with me,' he added.
The row has erupted as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim attempts to woo the support of enough coalition lawmakers to topple the government.
In March, elections he won a third of parliamentary seats, in the most serious challenge ever faced the coalition which has ruled for half a century, and which has struggled to respond to the resurgent opposition.
Anwar's Keadilan party is the first pan-racial party in Malaysian political history, and he has promised to dismantle positive discrimination policies for Malays in favour of a program to benefit the poor of all races. -- AFP