Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Sunday said racial tension in Malaysia was reaching a dangerous crescendo, as he renewed his call to the ruling Barisan Nasional ( BN ) for a dialogue.
Anwar said it was up to the BN to respond to his repeated offers for a dialogue as a first step towards forging a "national consensus" on important issues, in particular those relating to race and religion.
"We have not seen this building up of tension since the events leading up to our national tragedy of May 13, 1969," he said during a dialogue with young Malaysians on Sunday. He was referring to the 1969 race riots.
Anwar said the developments appeared to be reaching a point that could tear Malaysia apart, and the people must be vigilant against those trying to take the nation "to the brink".
He said many Malaysians whom he met on road trips have expressed fear and concerns over the heightening racial and religious rhetoric.
Since the beginning of this year, the rhetoric has been on the boil especially after the Selangor Islamic religious authorities seized over 300 Bibles with the word "Allah" in it on January 2. This move attracted protests and many police reports, with the dispute yet to be resolved.
On Sunday, tension went up a notch after banners with the words, "Allah is Great, Jesus is the son of Allah", were found in at least two churches in Penang, independent news site Malaysiakini reported.
The churches denied putting up these banners while Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng tweeted that some church leaders were upset about it.
Prime Minister Najib Razak had said last Friday that it was up to the respective states to decide if "Allah" can be used, as religion fell under state purview. The majority of Malaysia's 13 states have enactments that banned the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims.
Many Malaysians were disappointed that Najib had tossed the ball back to the states. Anwar echoed this on Sunday when he said Najib should state his position with clarity.
"What is your view on campaigns by party stalwarts that Islam is under siege?" he asked.
He said while Malaysians must stop questioning the paramount position of Islam as the religion of the nation, they must also reject the notion that Islam was under threat. He called on politicians to go beyond partisan lines to forge a national consensus.
Anwar's move on Sunday to take a statesman's role appeared to be an attempt to showcase his abilities as a national leader, even as Najib faces widespread criticism for his lack of leadership at this crucial time. His silence had allowed many of the hardliners to set the agenda.