Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Malaysia's ruling party retires divisive "keris" dagger

Malaysia's ruling party retires divisive "keris" dagger
Mar 25, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, March 25, 2009 (AFP) - Malaysia's ruling party on Wednesday retired a famous "keris", a traditional Malay dagger that has previously been brandished at party events in a gesture seen as ethnically divisive.

Hishamuddin Hussein, the leader of the party's influential and sometimes hot-headed youth wing, shot to fame for waving the keris above his head at annual meetings of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

But the resulting outcry, and elections a year ago that saw the UMNO-led coalition deserted by ethnic Chinese and Indians, have made gestures of Malay nationalism less acceptable.

Hishamuddin, who is stepping down after 11 years in the role, was Wednesday presented with the keris which is now his for safe-keeping, after he delivered his last address to youth wing members at this year's talks.

He raised the golden weapon to face level, but did not wave or unsheath it, and placed it back on its pillow while UMNO members dressed in traditional costume and black "songkok" hats cheered "Allahuakbar" or "God is great".

Hishamuddin, the son of a former prime minister, is now vying to become one of three party vice-presidents. He was in tears by the end of the event.

"This is our culture. Now the keris has been handed over to me for my personal care. The keris is no longer in the youth wing. I hope this is a closure to what has been disputed and misunderstood before," he told reporters.

The dagger issue became particularly divisive at the party's 2006 assembly, when it was linked with ultra-nationalist rhetoric that emerged there.

Some delegates said that Malays, who dominate the population of the multi-racial country, must be willing to fight "to the last drop of blood" to defend their rights.

Another speaker warned minorities to stop questioning the rights of the Malays and not to test their patience.

The fiery tone sparked concerns about the economic and religious rights of Malaysia's sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, and further strained race relations which have deteriorated in recent years.

The following year, Hishamuddin defied calls for restraint by again unsheathing the dagger and holding it aloft to thunderous applause, in a gesture widely seen as aggressive and inflammatory.

He subsequently apologised for the move, saying he did not intend to hurt the feelings of non-Malays.

Malaysia's population of more than 26 million consists of about 60 percent Malays but the economy is largely controlled by ethnic Chinese, who make up some 26 percent of the population.

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