Malaysians on Saturday voted in snap parliamentary elections, which are widely expected to bring Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's ruling coalition back to power but with a dented majority owing to the discontent in the ethnic Indian minority which alleges discrimination.
Abdullah, who cast his vote this morning at his Kepala Betas parliamentary constituency in Penang state, earlier said that the government wanted to hear directly the issues raised by the minority ethnic Indians and Chinese leaders in the cabinet and state executive councils and take "corrective steps".
"If they are there, we can discuss issues together and take the necessary corrective steps in the interest of all races," Abdullah told a television station in an apparent last minute bid to win back the minority vote bank.
Indians comprise 7.8 per cent of the total population of 27 million people and are largely Hindus from Tamil Nadu. A key issue which both Indians and the ethnic Chinese who number about 25 per cent of the population is the affirmative action programme of the government which gives the Muslim Malays preference in government jobs and education.
Ethnic Indians are represented by the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component of the ruling Barisan Nasional. The party headed by Samy Vellu, the lone ethnic Indian minister in Abdullah's cabinet, has faced the ire of the Indians who accused him of not doing enough for the community.
At stake are 214 parliamentary seats and 501 state seats. Eight parliamentary seats were taken by the Barisan Nasional unopposed while four state seats - three by Barisan and one by Islamic party PAS were won unopposed.
A victory for Abdullah's party is widely expected but it is not known as yet if it would capture the two-thirds majority which it has done since 1957.
The doubts have been sparked by a public show of discontent by the ethnic Indians who are demanding racial equality since the November 25 banned rally by more than 20,000 people who for the first time in decades held anti-government protest in this Malay majority Muslim nation.
The rally, however, stunned the government and since then the ruling party leaders including the prime minister and Samy Vellu have been at pains to explain the various steps the government would take to look after the interests of the ethnic Indians.
"Our grouse is with Samy Vellu who headed the Malaysian Indian Congress for decades and still did nothing for us," Rajendran, a third generation ethnic Indian who is employed as a security guard, said.
Most Indians feel that it was only after the mass rally organised by NGO Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) that the government had actually conceded that there were problems being faced by the Indian community.
Five of the Hindraf leaders have since been put behind bars under the country's draconian Internal Security Act that allows indefinite detention without trial.
The 12th Malaysian election pits Abdullah's long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of 14 parties against three main opposition parties, the left-leaning Democratic Action Party which won 12 seats in the 2004 election (9.5 per cent vote), the Islamist party Parti Islam se-Malaysia which had won 7 seats (15.8 per cent vote) and former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan.
Polls had not been due until May 16, 2009. Analysts feel that Abdullah could have called early elections before signs of economic slowdown and inflation showed up in the coming months.
Opposition parties like the Islamic PAS, the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim's Peoples Justice Party have all been wooing voters to give them a chance too and deny the ruling Barisan a two thirds majority.
Candidates will be contesting for 222 Parliamentary and 505 State seats. There are 10,922,139 registered voters including 221,085 postal voters. Women voters outnumber men making up 50.07 per cent of those on the roll.