Islam most important issue in Malaysia elections: PM

The single most important issue in Malaysia's elections is the attitude of Muslims towards religion in government, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.

In a surprise off-the-cuff breakfast chat with journalists during his campaign in the northern states, a relaxed Abdullah spelled out his "progressive and modern" approach to Islamic governance in contrast to the fundamentalism of the opposition Islamic Party (PAS).

Clad in a checkered shirt and dark pants, the mild-mannered leader admitted the battle by his ruling National Front coalition to minimise the influence of PAS in the northern states of the Muslim Malay heartland is a tough one.

PAS, which seeks to impose the Islamic penal code and other Muslim laws if it wins power in Sunday's elections, already holds sway in two key northern states -- Terengganu and Kelantan -- and has vowed to conquer more, in particular neighbouring Kedah and Perlis.

"Religious appeal is very, very strong for the Malays. They are moved quite easily by religious imperatives," Abdullah told reporters over a hotel breakfast in his home state of Penang.

Rural people were easily swayed by PAS's strategy to exploit religion, he said, citing its branding of the government as an "apostate" for wanting to teach maths, science and English instead of focusing solely in religious teaching.

"Sometimes what PAS is saying is an insult to the intelligence of the Malays but it still appeals to some," the premier said.

"This is the single, most important challenge: the mindset of the Malays on how they view Islam."

Muslim Malays make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia's population of 25 million, which also has large minorities of non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indians.

After barnstorming Kedah and Penang earlier this week, Abdullah plans to take the battle directly into opposition territory on Friday when he sweeps across Kelantan and Terengganu.

Abdullah repeated his attacks against PAS leaders for trying to downplay their aim of establishing a theocratic government by not spelling it out in their election manifesto.

"It's a reflection of weak leadership and the lack of courage to state it," he said.

PAS is accused of presenting different views on what sort of government it wants depending on whether it is talking to Muslims in its own strongholds or to the population as a whole, when it seeks to allay the fears of non-Muslims.

Speaking later to some 1,000 people in nearby Permatang Pauh, Abdullah touched on the controversy sparked by PAS's claim that its supporters will go to heaven while other voters will go to hell.

"Heaven is not a gift that we can offer to people, it is God's decision. In this life we just need to do good, we cannot promise that which does not belong to us," he said.

Islamic countries needed to progress, he said. "As an Islamic country if we are poor, it is a shame."

Abdullah appealed for a big mandate, saying: "If you give trust, I will be a person who can be trusted. I will not let you down. I will work hard."