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Ruling party Ummo today took stock of Malays' weaknesses, despite three decades of preferential treatment, following a tongue-lashing from party president and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at their annual congress.

On the second day of Umno assembly, delegates were in one voice with their veteran leader on the need to jolt Malays out of complacency and a subsidy mentality.

In a show of support for Mahathir who marks 21 years in office next month, the 2,033 Umno delegates gave the premier a standing ovation for being the "champion of the Malays."

"The fact that he does not play to the gallery but takes the bull by the horn is a mark of Dr Mahathir and a testimony of his strong leadership," Umno youth secretary Zulkifli Alwi told AFP .

"To achieve attitudal change is a gargantuan task but the realisation that Malays cannot rely on social and political crutches forever is slowly sinking in, especially among the younger generation."

Mahathir, in a two-hour speech Thursday, told Malays to learn from the Chinese, saying they were still weak and would not survive if privileges under the New Economic Policy (NEP) were withdrawn.

The premier begged forgiveness for failing to change the Malays mindset after berating them for being lazy and seeking short-cuts to wealth.


Mahathir had told reporters the government was experimenting with plans to reduce protection for Malays to make them more competitive.

"I cannot predict how much longer this (affirmative action) will go on but at the moment, we are trying out... some kind of experiment... by withdrawing some of the protection in education," he said.

"We want to see whether they will be able to withstand the competition or not. Obviously if they prove themselves able to, we can think of reducing further some of the protection."

Many Umno members baulked at the government's move last month to allow a 10 percent quota of ethnic Chinese and Indians into government junior colleges, for decades the preserve of Malay students only.

This followed the implementation of meritocracy for entry into public universities, replacing a previous racial-based quota system under the NEP.

Schools would also use English to teach science and mathematics, now being taught in Malay, from next year.

Under the NEP introduced in 1970 after bloody racial riots, Malays and other indigenous groups jointly known as "bumiputeras" get economic, education and other benefits to narrow the wealth gap with the Chinese.

Latent concerns

While Umno delegates shared Mahathir's call to be self-reliant, some delegates during debates cautioned that the move to cut privileges must be implemented carefully so that Malays would not lose out.

Kedah state delegate Badrudin Amiruldin urged the government to fill important posts in agencies and state-own corporates with young Umno professionals.

Another delegate from Penang state, Wan Khairil Anwar Ahmad, said the government should monitor the private sector especially multinationals to ensure Malay workers were not discriminated against in terms of promotions.

There were latent concerns among Umno members that Mahathir's brash style and threats of cutting Malay privileges could alienate Malay voters amid talks of a possible early general election.

But Mahathir has said he was not concerned about his popularity and was merely speaking the truth.

"I don't have any inhibitions. I say what I feel like saying... however, I have survived for 21 years. Not bad for someone who always sounds very nasty," he said.

General elections are not due until late 2004 but there is growing speculation of early polls after the government boosted its majorities in two recent by-elections.