Prime Minister Najib Razak has announced on Thursday that he will maintain Malaysia's controversial Sedition Act, abandoning his pledge to pursue liberal reforms when he came into power five years ago.
The Umno president told delegates to the ruling party's general assembly that he was responding to the views from his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, the grassroots leadership and Malay non-government organisations on the law which they insist is crucial to defending their rights and national harmony.
"As the Prime Minister, I have decided that the Sedition Act will be maintained. Moreover, it will be strengthened and improved," he said in his policy speech.
He said two new clauses would be added to the law. One will protect the "sanctity of Islam" and ensure all religions are not insulted, and the other one will criminalise calls for Sabah and Sarawak to secede from the majority Malay nation.
Datuk Seri Najib began democratic reforms by doing away with the Internal Security Act - which allows for detention without trial - in 2011. But efforts to repeal the Sedition Act, which critics say is used to stifle dissent, has faced stern opposition from the overwhelming majority of Umno divisions and right-wing Malay groups.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, had said when opening the women's and youth wing assemblies on Tuesday night that the Sedition Act must be strengthened instead of being repealed, a call that was echoed by the two wings on Wednesday.
They had insisted that the majority of Malaysians want the Sedition Act to curb incitement of sensitive racial and religious issues.
Mr Najib had also tabled a proposal in Parliament on Wednesday to enact an anti-terror law, which the government said will have "preventive measures", an element the opposition had warned could be interpreted for the use of clamping down on political dissent.
The Umno general assembly, with the theme "United Malay", was attended by over 2,750 party members nationwide, as well as representatives from the other parties of the Barisan Nasional coalition and political parties of other countries.
Influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has been firmly against the repeal of the Sedition Act, was in the audience on Thursday, despite saying earlier this week that he may not attend due to health reasons. Tun Mahathir had said in August that he could no longer support the prime minister's policies which he claimed were wrecking the country.