In Malaysia heartland, a call to action against corruption
With yellow flags waving and vuvuzelas blaring, a convoy of two dozen cars snakes into the sleepy Malaysian town of Batu Gajah, breaking the rural calm with warnings of corruption and national decay. For nearly seven weeks, Malaysia’s leading pro-reform group has waged an information insurgency through towns and villages nationwide, shining light on a scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak and stateowned fund 1MDB.
In public speeches, flyers and door-todoor canvassing, the unprecedented campaign attempts to explain a highly complex and seemingly distant affair in what is essentially hostile territory-Malaysia’s pro-government rural heartland. “We have planted the seed. The seed where people actually start to ask what is (the) 1MDB scandal all about?” said Maria Chin Abdullah, chair of civil-society alliance Bersih, during a recent swing through rural central Malaysia.
Bersih, an alliance of 93 NGOs and other groups that has staged some of Malaysia’s largest-ever protests, caps its pitch with a call to attend a demonstration in the capital Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to demand Najib’s resignation.”There is no turning back. We should not be intimidated, because for 50 years we have been intimidated into silence,” Chin said, referring to nearly six decades of control by the corruption-prone ruling coalition.
Malaysia has been seized for more than a year by allegations that Najib and associates plundered billions of dollars from 1MDB, which he founded and oversaw. The globespanning scandal has sparked investigations in several countries including the United States, which in July filed lawsuits to recover 1MDB-linked ill-gotten gains. Najib, 63, denies wrongdoing, but last year purged critics and shut down domestic investigations. He says his accusers need to “move on”. Bersih staged large Kuala Lumpur demonstrations in recent years to demand reform, including a peaceful 1MDB protest by tens of thousands in August 2015. But the current campaign marks its first major rural outreach. Under a tent in the tiny oil palm hamlet of Kampung Changkat Tualang, villagers listened to lawyer-activist Chin’s warnings of a “crisis” of corruption, as palm trees rustled and chickens squawked.
The message resonated with Jamiah Yop Mat Ali, 81. She quit Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) years ago, saying it had forsaken its original goal of Malay empowerment in favor of money politics and patronage while poor communities struggled with rising costs. “We must change our leaders. Our lives now are difficult,” said Jamiah, who yearned for “the good old days” of clean government and less divisive politics. No one expects Saturday’s rally to unseat Najib. UMNO has won recent by-elections and he looks secure. But with general elections looming in the next 18 months, Bersih hopes to raise doubts among rural Malays, multi-cultural Malaysia’s majority group and UMNO’s bedrock.
PERAK, Malaysia: A child stands behind a placard reading ‘Please Step Down Najib’ as members of civil-society alliance Bersih pose for pictures ahead their demonstration in the capital Kuala Lumpur to demand Najib’s resignation in Malaysia’s northern town of Ipoh.