KUALA LUMPUR - PRIME Minister Najib Razak on Thursday moved to quell a debate over the rights of majority Malays, saying it could cause cause racial conflict that would destroy the nation's achievements.

Multicultural Malaysia was founded half a century ago on an agreement that Muslims Malays and indigenous tribes would be handed special privileges in return for citizenship for ethnic Chinese and Indians. The 'social contract' which effectively acknowledged Malay control over government, and a positive discrimination policy introduced later to close the wealth gap with Chinese who dominate the economy, are increasingly resented.

But Mr Najib, who is gearing up for elections expected next year, called for an end to a debate which he said had hurt Malays and threatened to return the country to ethnic violence not seen for decades. 'If we question this agreement then we will destroy the trust and respect that each of us has in each other,' he said in a keynote address to the annual congress of the ruling party Umno.

'This is very dangerous, I repeat, very dangerous for a multiethnic country like Malaysia because it has the potential to destroy of all that has been achieved in the last 50 years,' he said. 'Whether we like it or not, we must respect this agreement that was reached because it is the key to our national survival,' he told a packed hall of party delegates.

The Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence, is still struggling to respond to a drubbing in 2008 polls which saw minorities flock to the opposition. It now faces the loss of a growing number of Malays - its political bedrock - to the conservative Islamic party PAS which is part of the opposition alliance.

Mr Najib, who has the difficult task of luring back support from both Malays and minorities while not alienating the other community with strong rhetoric, admitted that Umno needed to reform to meet the needs of all Malaysians.

'We have achieved what we have together with the various races in order to build this nation,' he said.

Najib quells race debate