But Abd Allah, seeking to woo ethnic Malay Muslim voters who supported the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic party at the last polls in 1999, also pledged that Muslim pupils in state primary schools would be required to learn Arabic and read the Quran.

The state cut funds two years ago to private religious schools that were accused of fomenting "extremism".

The 21 March polls will gauge whether Islamist parties are still gaining strength as a political force three years after Malaysia began to arrest some alleged members of al-Qaida and its south-east Asian ally, Jemaah Islamiyah.

The list of campaign promises in the manifesto attempts to blunt the rise of the Islamists.

"We want the people to vote for the National Front, for our future," Abd Allah told leading members of his 14-party coalition. "The Front ... truly represents all the races in this country of ours."

Abd Allah is seeking his own mandate four months after Malaysia's longtime leader, Mahathir Muhammad, retired and handed power to him.

Formal nomination

The Front got off to a strong start on Saturday in the eight-day election campaign as candidates filed formal nomination papers.

Front candidates won 14 parliamentary seats and seven state seats automatically when no challengers filed to run against them.

Supporters of the opposition PAS
were quick to dismiss promises

But the Islamist party, known as PAS, scored a psychologically important upset when one of its candidates in the southern state of Johor - where the Islamists have never won - captured a state seat when the Front candidate was disqualified.

The rest of the 219 parliamentary and 505 state assembly seats will be decided by 10.3 million registered voters on 21 March. 

Criticism

The Islamist parties were quick to dismiss the 20-page manifesto, which also committed the National Front to fight poverty, increase development and battle corruption.

"The government does not have the right to talk about Islam as long as casinos and gambling outlets are allowed to operate and corruption is condoned," said Nasr al-Din Isa, secretary-general of PAS.

"The government does not have the right to talk about Islam as long as casinos and gambling outlets are allowed to operate and corruption is condoned"

Nasr al-Din Isa,
secretary-general, PAS

"The Malays have already made up their minds about which party really struggles for Islam and will not be fooled with these pledges," Nasr al-Din said.

More than 50,000 police backed by helicopters, dogs and water cannons have deployed throughout the country for the campaigning period. There was little trouble during Saturday's nominations apart from rival crowds shouting at each other.

Abd Allah's party, the United Malays National Organisation, is the senior Front partner and competes for the same ethnic Malay Muslim votes as the Islamists - who have told Muslims that a vote for the Islamic party is a ticket to heaven, and a vote for UMNO a ticket to hell.

The opposition made gains in 1999, capitalising on outrage over the sacking and jailing of Mahathir's deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anger over the issue has faded and barely resonates outside the People's Justice party led by his wife, Aziza Ismail, which is expected to fare poorly.