Malaysia's ruling party marks 60th anniversary

Malaysia's ruling party plans to mark its 60th anniversary Thursday, amid caustic criticism by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of changes introduced by his pro-reform successor.

The United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, will hold celebrations in the southern state of Johor, the party's birthplace and the site of a controversial bridge project that has led to an open spat between Mahathir and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's administration.

UMNO, which represents Malaysia's majority Malays, is the dominant partner of the multiracial National Front coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian nation since its independence in 1957.

Mahathir, who quit in 2003 after 22 years in power, accuses Abdullah's government of being gutless and of surrendering its sovereignty by scrapping a planned bridge to Singapore. Mahathir proposed the project, which has long been opposed by the neighboring island nation.

Abdullah has not personally responded to the criticism, but some UMNO leaders have accused Mahathir of trying to undermine his government.

Robert Broadfoot, managing director of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, said Mahathir's open confrontation with his hand-picked successor echoes the views of UMNO members who benefit directly from a patronage system that favors ethnic Malays and who feel threatened by Abdullah's focus on change.

"You have a situation where one group within UMNO is talking about a need for reforms such as reducing corruption and changing management of certain agencies and companies," Broadfoot said.

"But there are a number of vested interest groups that are resisting reforms, of whom Mahathir is the most visible. UMNO's future will be profoundly shaped by this split."

Abdullah, a soft-spoken Islamic scholar, has reversed a number of large projects favored by Mahathir to focus on social development. He has also warned Malays that they cannot forever depend on a decades-old affirmative-action policy, which promotes them in jobs, education and private enterprise, reports the AP.


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