KUALA LUMPUR — Tens of thousands of yellow-clad Malaysian protestors marched through Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to demand the resignation of scandal-mired Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Joining the demonstrators at Malaysia’s national mosque, Lim Kit Siang of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) told the Nikkei Asian Review that “we want to save Malaysia from political and economic crisis, where the country will end up as a failed state with no rule of law.”
For Najib, the protests, which are scheduled to continue until Aug. 30, come after possibly the most exacting few weeks of his political career. In the weeks since the Wall Street Journal in July carried allegations that almost $700m had been deposited to bank accounts in his name — seemingly money diverted from companies linked to troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) — Najib has faced mounting criticism and calls for his resignation.
Most damaging has been vociferous criticism by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who has used his influence to turn former supporters against him.
Despite the allegations, the prime minister has rallied, sacking his deputy prime minister and replacing the attorney general who was managing the inquest into 1MDB. Najib said he did not take money for personal gain, describing the deposits as “donations” from an unnamed Arab source. The accounts have been closed and the location of the money is not known.
Najib criticized the demonstrators for staging the rallies the weekend before the commemorative celebrations for Malaysia’s independence day, which falls on Aug. 31, while a national survey published on the eve of the rally showed a narrow majority of Malaysians to be divided about the demonstration.
The poll, conducted by the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian survey organization, shows that 47% of people were opposed to the staging of a rally, versus 43% in favor.
Unlike previous rallies, organized by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations called Bersih, which means “clean,” this version did not feature Anwar Ibrahim, the former opposition leader who was jailed in early 2015 on charges of sodomy, a criminal offense in Malaysia.
Anwar’s colleagues maintain that the charges were politically motivated, but his absence from the growing anti-Najib campaign has highlighted a leadership vacuum in the opposition, whose erstwhile three-party coalition has fractured. Anwar’s family members have called for the 68-year-old politician to be released on medical grounds.
“He’s not doing too well there,” said Anwar’s 23-year-old daughter Nurul Hana Anwar, speaking to NAR earlier in the week after visiting her father in jail.
In another striking contrast with previous Bersih rallies in 2011 and 2012 — which saw a high ethnic Malay turnout, with supporters of the Islamist PAS party mobilizing — this time around, PAS, which has left the opposition coalition, did not endorse the rally.
Only 23% of the 60% ethnic Malay majority population supported the rally, versus 81% of the economically-influential Chinese-Malaysians, according to the Merdeka Center survey. Those numbers were borne out on the day, with the majority of the crowd appearing to be Chinese-Malaysians, who make up around a quarter of the population of Malaysia.
Posters threatening violence against Chinese-Malaysians were left at the Kuala Lumpur headquarters of the DAP on Aug. 28, prompting the DAP to report the incident to the police. “We do not know yet who was responsible for those posters,” said DAP press officer Medaline Chang.
The protest reflects an ethnic divide caused by decades-long affirmative action policies — known as bumiputra — by the government, which gives preferential treatment to the Malay-majority in areas from scholarships to job opportunities. Only 26% of public servants backed the demonstration, against 57% of private sector workers, according to the poll.
Malays who fear the loss of advantages they currently enjoy if those policies are abolished want UMNO to remain in power even if they are dissatisfied with the current leaders.
A former employee of a state-owned company said the country is “heading in the wrong direction” because of “unscrupulous leaders” within UMNO. The Malay man, aged 57, told the NAR he wanted to see continuity of the present government but without the “top two,” referring to Najib and his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Najib’s fiercest Malay critic has been Mahathir Mohamed, himself an UMNO grandee who spent 22 years as prime minister, and who hand-picked Najib — himself a son of a former prime minister — as a successor. But Mahathir subsequently turned on his erstwhile protege.
“I think at some stage he has to go because today, he has undermined the legal system,” Mahathir said, referring to Najib’s earlier dismissal of the attorney-general.
Mahathir, who suppressed dissent and restricted freedom of assembly during his own two decades in office, surprised the demonstrators by briefly showing up at Merdeka Sq. at around 7pm on Aug. 29. Wearing his usual khaki, and not the bright yellow worn by the protestors, Mahathir’s appearance is likely to pile further pressure on the embattled Najib.