Malaysia eyes mediators to soothe race woes – paper

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia will set up panels of mediators across the country from early next year to try to calm racial disputes before they spin out of control, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.

After 50 years of independence, race relations remain a thorny issue in a country that has suffered race riots.

Last week, the government jailed without trial five ethnic Indian activists from a group that brought more than 10,000 protesters into the streets over claims of race discrimination.

The panels of 10 to 15 people, drawn from unity department staff trained in mediation and neighbourhood watch officials, will work with the police and tackle problems on the ground to defuse any racial tension, the New Straits Times said.

"The committees have been given the task of achieving a win-win situation for all the parties concerned," Azman Amin Hassan, the chief of Malaysia's national unity and integration department, told the paper.

The groups will initially be set up in the Malaysian capital and the surrounding state of Selangor, the northern island of Penang and southern Johor on the border with Singapore, it said.

"We are told that these are the states which have the most racial problems," Azman said, quoting federal police data.

Once informed by police of a clash or argument that might take on racial overtones, panel members would swing into action and try to resolve matters, he added.

Eventually, the government planned to widen the district-level panels to include grassroots leaders, local authorities and members of the police as well, Azman said.