KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The ruling ethnic Malay party risks losing power in Malaysia's next general elections unless it courts support from minorities by moderating its views and reforming a pro-Malay affirmative action program, the party's youth leader warned Wednesday.
Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization party, called a decades-old program which gives preference to majority Malays in the workplace and schools an "elitist policy" that doesn't even benefit most Malays. Critics say it mostly enriches a handful of businessmen with strong political ties.
"If there is no concerted effort to practice an inclusive and moderate leadership, UMNO's Malay leadership will disappear come the next election," Khairy warned. UMNO has been in power continuously since independence in 1957. Leaders of its youth wing are groomed for advancement.
His comments _ in a hard-hitting speech at the start of the party's annual assembly _ are the boldest and most frank acknowledgment yet of the reasons the party's popularity has plummeted in the multiethnic country.
Part of UMNO's problem is increasingly racist rhetoric among Malays, who are in the majority, against the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. Another major irritant is a system of quotas that were originally meant to ensure that historically disadvantaged Malays receive their piece of the economic pie. Instead, they have begun to breed resentment and many argue they have no place in a modern country.
But Khairy's remarks may not be received kindly by party hard-liners who are still pushing for Malay supremacy. Most of his comments received no applause, with the audience only clapping when he paid token tributes to Malay rights.
It is also not clear how much power Prime Minister Najib Razak, a moderate, has to make the hard-liners become more tolerant of minorities and agree to reforms before the next elections, which are not due until 2013 but could be held earlier.
Recent years have seen the UMNO's grip on power slipping. The National Front ruling coalition, centered around the Malay party, retained power in the 2008 general elections but lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in five decades as many Chinese and Indians backed the opposition. Many cited unhappiness over perceived economic and religious discrimination.
Khairy urged Malays to stop making racist remarks toward ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who together comprise about one-third of the country's 28 million people. Malays make up nearly two-thirds.
Recently a Malay school principal sparked an uproar after she told Chinese students to leave the country and called the prayer beads used by Indian Hindus dog leashes. Another Malay school principal and a top Malay government officer allegedly made similar slurs.
The National Front coalition currently holds 137 seats in the 222-member Parliament. But Khairy warned it can be relatively confident of retaining only 73 constituencies where Malays have a 70 percent majority in the next elections.
"We must learn from the results of the last general elections, where we almost relinquished power due to the loss of support from non-Malays. If we still subscribe to the illusion that we can win without their support, then 50 seats currently held by (the coalition) are in grave danger," he warned.
The National Front coalition has lost most of the by-elections held so far and will face a new test of popularity in two by-elections on Nov. 4.