Ethnic Chinese politicians on Wednesday (3 Sept) denounced a Malaysian ruling party official who reportedly described the minority Chinese as “immigrants” who should not receive equal treatment with the Malay Muslim majority.

The uproar has rekindled debate about the rights of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who have grown increasingly vocal about alleged government discrimination in economic, social and religious policies.

Ahmad Ismail, a northern district chief in the United Malays National Organization party, incensed minorities after local media quoted him as telling a largely Malay audience in a speech on 25 Aug that “as the Chinese were only immigrants, it was impossible to achieve equal rights among races.”

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak made a rare public apology to minorities late Tuesday (2 Sept), saying Ahmad’s statement was “totally unwarranted and does not reflect the position and the attitude” of the ruling party.

“We regret it very much,” Najib was quoted as saying by the national news agency Bernama. “They (the minorities) are Malaysian citizens who have full rights and we will definitely safeguard their interests and their dignity.”

Most ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians are descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants who came here as laborers and miners during British colonial rule. The Chinese now comprise a quarter of Malaysia’s 27 million people, while Indians form less than 10%.

Malays, who constitute about 60% of the population, enjoy a host of privileges in jobs, education and business as part of affirmative action policies launched in 1970.

Growing dissatisfaction about racial favoritism prompted many ethnic Chinese and Indians to vote against the government in March general elections. Many Malays also backed the opposition, causing the ruling coalition to retain power with only a simple parliamentary majority.

Gerakan, an ethnic Chinese-based party in the ruling coalition, said in a statement that the furor over Ahmad’s comments proved that the government “will continue to lose support … if (the ruling party) continues to harbor leaders who make racist statements.”

The government “cannot allow Ahmad to escape with just a slap on the wrist,” the party said. “We would like to stress that Ahmad has violated the law by making those seditious remarks.”

AP

Najib said officials would decide what action to take, but stopped short of saying Ahmad would be investigated for sedition, which is punishable by three years in prison.

Opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang called Najib’s apology “inadequate and unacceptable,” saying Ahmad should not “get off scot-free instead of facing the full weight of the law.”