Malaysia's leader says public freedoms can be sacrificed for stability's sake

By SEAN YOONG, Associated Press – Monday, December 10
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – Malaysia’s leader said Monday he is willing to sacrifice public freedoms for the sake of national stability, a day after police arrested 21 opposition members and lawyers who took part in street protests.

Human rights activists have accused authorities of clamping down on freedom of expression by banning recent rallies aimed at calling for electoral reforms, government transparency and racial equality.
However, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that efforts to ensure Malaysia’s security demand “a sense of accountability to the whole, rather than the few.”
“If the choice is between public safety and public freedoms, I do not hesitate to say here that public safety will always win,” Abdullah said in a speech to corporate leaders.
“I will not sacrifice my sense of accountability to the greater public, especially in the face of police intelligence about planned fighting or other violent intent,” Abdullah said. “We must never ever take our peace for granted.”
Abdullah’s administration has been rocked by a Nov. 10 rally in Kuala Lumpur _ which drew some 30,000 people demanding electoral fairness ahead of national polls widely expected early next year _ followed by a similarly large protest by minority ethnic Indians on Nov. 25 to complain of racial discrimination and economic deprivation.
Police arrested 12 members of an opposition coalition Sunday for taking part in the Nov. 10 rally, as well as nine people, including several lawyers, involved in a march for human rights earlier Sunday. Most of the lawyers were charged with illegal assembly Monday.
The government has also charged 31 Indians with attempted murder after a policeman was injured at the Nov. 25 rally.
Authorities had banned all the gatherings, saying they could threaten public order.
Abdullah pledged Monday to work to ensure political and economic justice, but added that people must remember “there are many groups within the country _ each with their own sets of demands, each with their own set of sensitivities.”
“These differences are very real, yet we do not descend into sheer unmitigated chaos,” he said.
Abdullah also urged voters not to be swayed by groups that stir racial sentiments to reap political support.
“If voters are easily persuaded … by people playing the racial card, then we are heading for disaster,” he said.
Ethnic Malay Muslims, who comprise some 60 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people, control political power. Many ethnic Chinese and Indians, who form the two main minority communities, complain their grievances are ignored, especially regarding an affirmative action program that gives privileges to Malays in business, jobs and education.