Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has dismissed claims of racism about his Malay-centric Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), insisting that his "I'm Malay first" remark from six years ago was a mere statement of "cultural identity" and not ethnic bias.
When he was deputy prime minister, he had been accused of hawkishly using racial rhetoric to shore up his political credentials.
But in an interview with The Straits Times, he challenged critics to prove that his policies in government were racist. "I was branded as an ultra, like Tun Mahathir used to be similarly branded," the former Johor chief minister said, referring to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who previously campaigned with right-wing Malay groups.
"Did I show myself as Malay first to the extent that I discriminated (against) the Chinese in Johor? When I was heading ministries, did I care only about Malays, and (was) not concerned about Indians?"
He added that when he led the Johor state government from 1986 to 1995, Singaporeans "know me better" than to believe he was racist, especially as he had "close rapport" with Singapore's prime ministers.
In his party, only bumiputeras (a term for indigenous tribes and the Malay majority) can be full members, while other races are allowed associate memberships.
Mr Muhyiddin said the make-up of PPBM is in part a tactical move to target disgruntled Umno supporters. The ruling Umno party has been harping constantly on how the country's opposition parties want to do away with the Malays' special social and economic privileges.
He said: "It is strategic in nature. Some people say you represent what Umno would want to be. Though it is a bumi-led party... you can see the list of members we have got in our party now, there are Malays, Indians, Chinese, and others from Sabah and Sarawak. In those areas... dominated by Umno... the presence of PPBM could give a new perspective and, to some, a choice, or hope."
Mr Muhyiddin also explained that despite PPBM's commitment to Malay interests, economic and social justice, institutional reforms and racial harmony are also "spelt out" as part of its Constitution.
"The difference between PPBM and other parties - it is enshrined in the Constitution, which pledges to fight for all Malaysians," he said.
The opposition has struggled to win over bumiputera voters despite graft allegations surrounding Prime Minister Najib Razak. It was trounced in the Sarawak state elections and also lost two by-elections in Malay-majority constituencies this year.