KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak looks secure in office, for now, despite massive weekend street protests calling for his removal.
The prime minister, under pressure since July over $700 million deposited in bank accounts in his name prior to national elections two years ago, described the protests as immature and “not the proper channel to voice opinions in a democratic country.”
Najib was speaking on Aug. 31, a national holiday that marks independence from Great Britain in 1957.
However as Najib and government colleagues joined national day celebrations at Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Square, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, Najib’s chief critic, continued a series of broadsides against the incumbent.
“He has effectively removed all the laws and undermined the legal system,” Mahathir told the Nikkei Asian Review, discussing Najib’s efforts to retain office despite the allegations of financial impropriety.
An inquiry by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission determined that the money came from a mystery Middle East donor, whose identity has not been disclosed. Najib said he did not take it “for personal gain” but has not disclosed any details about the donation.
Shoring up his position in the aftermath of the revelations, Najib has dismissed one powerful critic, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and reshuffled officials involved in probes into a troubled state investment company called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which has run up debts of 42 billion Malaysian ringgit ($10 billion).
Mahathir has been calling for months for Najib to step down over the problems at 1MDB, which was set up by his government in 2009, and whose advisory board he chairs. However, the former prime minister surprized many by showing up twice at anti-government protests over the weekend.
The demonstrations, organized by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations called Bersih, which means “clean,” attracted yellow clad crowds estimated at between 20,000 and 200,000. Yellow has been adopted by many as the color of protest.
As prime minister from 1981 to 2003 Mahathir maintained tight control over the media and opposed public protests, making his belated conversion to freedom of expression something of a u-turn. However, he was mobbed by demonstrators keen to pose for photographs when he visited the protest for a second time on Aug. 30, stopping at Kuala Lumpur’s central market.
Wei Wei Lee, an ethnic-Chinese Malaysian who travelled to Kuala Lumpur from the northwestern state of Perak, said she had not expected Mahathir to endorse the gathering, but added that the 90-year-old former prime minister was a welcome visitor.
“Of course we were surprised,” she said, speaking at the central market after Mahathir delivered a lengthy critique of Najib, calling for a “people power” movement to oust the prime minister. In a fiery speech, Mahathir compared Najib with Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines strongman forced out by massive protests in Manila in 1986.
The crowd at the weekend demonstrations was comprised mostly of urban supporters of the Democratic Action Party, a largely Chinese-Malaysian party that is the second biggest in Malaysia’s parliament, as well as members of the People’s Justice Party, a multi-ethnic party founded by Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar, the former leader of a multi-party opposition coalition, is serving a prison sentence after a conviction on charges of sodomy.
Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, a survey organization, said that Malaysia remained divided, with support for the government still strong among ethnic-Malay voters in rural areas, where support for Najib’s United Malays National Organization is concentrated.
“It just shows that the urban-rural political polarization remains. That our country’s politics will remain stalemated,” Suffian told the NAR.
During previous Bersih protests in 2011 and 2012, supporters of PAS, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, turned out in their thousands. This time, however, PAS supporters, who are mostly Muslim and ethnic -Malay, did not show up in large numbers. PAS was formerly part of a three party opposition coalition with the DAP and the PJP, but broke away in June.
“Malays generally are not very demonstrative,” Mahathir told the NAR, trying to explain the ethnic composition of the demonstrators.
Bersih’s principle objective is reform of Malaysia’s electoral system, which benefits UMNO, the dominant party in Najib’s National Front coalition government.
Mahathir’s presence at the weekend rally angered senior members of UMNO, with party vice-president and defense minister Hishamuddin Hussein saying he had “crossed over the line” by backing the demonstration. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahidi Hamidi said that those attending the protest, which was illegal, could face legal action.
“They must face the consequences if they dare to break the law,” Hamidi said, while housing minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan mocked the demonstration as toothless, tweeting that power in Malaysia is won at “the grassroots” and not by occasional protests.
Rival demonstrations planned by Najib supporters such as Jamal Yunus, an UMNO divisional leader, were cancelled in spite of claims by the organizers that the Bersih event was aimed at causing “havoc.” The opposition rally passed off peacefully.
However, Najib’s supporters have moved against some of the prime minister’s critics inside UMNO, with Jamal seeking the removal of Muhyiddin as deputy party chief.
Mahathir, a veteran UMNO member, accused the prime minister of using the mystery donation to buy the loyalty of party members. “They are supporters of Najib, they don’t care where the money is coming from; as long as they get money they will support Najib,” Mahathir told the NAR.
Additional reporting by CK Tan, Nikkei staff writerShow