PM pledges unity as nation marks 50th birthday

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Kuala Lumpur's skyscrapers lit up with scenes from history last night as Malaysia celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain amid questions about the diverse nation's changing identity.

An evening of extravagant light shows and patriotic song and dance ended midnight with the raising of the national flag, while a major set-piece parade today will see fighter jets roar over foreign dignitaries and cheering crowds.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi entered the capital's Dataran Merdeka followed by a parade of 50 vintage motorcycles, and later pledged to take care of all races in multicultural Malaysia.

"We must take care of our unity and we must be ready to destroy any threat which may effect our unity," he told some 60,000 flag-waving Malaysians who had turned out to mark the country's birthday.

"We will face challenges in the future. There is competition from other countries, or instability in the world. But I believe if we are united we will overcome all the challenges."

The anniversary comes as the nation is increasingly questioning what it means to be Malaysian, and how much culture and religion count.

The ruling party has tried to paint a picture of a nation united by patriotism, but has struggled to defuse the simmering religious and racial tensions that have been building up over the year.

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution, a series of court challenges and political statements have raised fears that minority groups are being pushed aside by creeping Islamic conservatism.

But for many people, resolving cross-cultural tension - much of which can be traced back to the New Economic Policy introduced in 1971 to raise the status of Muslim Malays - is the key to further development here.

"Everyone seems to be excited but let us also not forget the problems that have been pulling us back, especially race and religion issues," advocacy groups said in a joint statement.

"We want a peaceful and friendly coalition between all the major races as this will spur us to greater heights in the next 50 years."

The square fell silent

As night fell on Thursday, crowds in Dataran Merdeka watched as scenes from the last 50 years were projected onto the capital's sky-hugging modern buildings, while martial artists, dancers, singers and actors performed on stage.

At midnight, the square fell silent and then the Malaysian flag was raised to the sound of the national anthem.

"Today is a day to be remembered. I am proud we have achieved independence and we continue to enjoy peace and stability in Malaysia," said S Varatheraju, a 47-year-old psychologist who was at the square with his wife and child.

"But after 50 years we are facing some challenges... definitely the minorities are unhappy. I feel the government should address these problems quickly without hurting anyone."

Celebrations continue today, with dignitaries including Britain's Prince Andrew and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei joining thousands of Malaysians for a daytime parade and night-time party in Stadium Merdeka.

Prime ministers from Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia arrived in Kuala Lumpur throughout Thursday, and can look forward to much patriotic singing and spirited dancing from nearly 50,000 performers.

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