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Anwar reassures ethnic Malays who fear losing benefits

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Mr Anwar said he would "honour the guarantees" for ethnic Malays as set out in the constitution.

Kuala Lumpur

ANWAR Ibrahim has a simple message for ethnic Malays who fear losing benefits they enjoyed under the previous government's six-decade rule: Don't worry.

Mr Anwar, who is expected to replace 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a year or two, said Malaysia must assure the nation's largest racial group that its security would be upheld. Previously, Mr Anwar, 70, had called for affirmative action policies that favour ethnic Malays to be dismantled.

Dr Mahathir led the Pakatan Harapan coalition that Mr Anwar founded to a surprise election win in early May, ousting Najib Razak's United Malays National Organisation. Mr Anwar's coalition, which fell short in a 2013 vote after pledging to roll back racial preferences for the ethnic Malay majority, aligned with a staunch defender of the policy in Dr Mahathir.

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"The Malay belt have rejected Umno but are ambivalent and unsure about lending their support to the alternative multi-racial pluralistic Pakatan Harapan," Mr Anwar said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Friday. "Which means we should be taking enough measures to try and reach them."

In the northern states of Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan - collectively known as the Malay belt - PAS won roughly 50 per cent of seats up for grabs. The conservative Islamic party supported by ethnic Malays didn't align with either Mr Najib's coalition or Mr Anwar's group.

When pressed on whether he would repeal the affirmative-action rules once he becomes premier, Mr Anwar said he would "honour the guarantees" for ethnic Malays as set out in the constitution. He added that other races would also receive state support based on merit and need.

"We would of course protect the position of the Malaysian bumiputeras in terms of giving opportunities, but not enriching them to become billionaires," he said at his residence in Kuala Lumpur shortly after being released from prison on a sodomy charge he said was politically motivated.

Mr Anwar said he's now focused on correcting economic inequality, which he said was worsened by Mr Najib's government.

"To be realistic, there's a good chance that many of these policies will continue, but possibly in a more even-handed way," said Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. BLOOMBERG