In Malaysia’s heartland, a call to action over 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 state-owned fund 1MDB.
In public speeches, flyers and doorto-door 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 November 19 to demand Mr Najib’s resignation.
Malaysia has been seized for more than a year by allegations that Mr Najib and associates plundered billions of dollars from 1MDB, which he founded and oversaw.
The globe spanning scandal has sparked investigations in several countries including the US, which in July filed lawsuits to recover 1MD Blinked ill-gotten gains.
Mr 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 Ms Chin’s warnings of a “crisis” of corruption, as palm trees rustled and chickens squawked.
“We must change our leaders. Our lives now are difficult,” said Jamiah Yop Mat Ali, 81, who yearned for “the good old days” of clean government and less divisive politics.
No one expects the November 19 rally to unseat Mr 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.
Bersih also blames official intimidation for suppressing turnout.
In Kampung Changkat Tualang, dozens of police photographed villagers or recorded their particulars at Chin’s appearance.
The “Red Shirts”, an UMNO-aligned rightist group has obstructed or assaulted Bersih activists and its firebrand leader has vowed to disrupt the November 19 rally, raising fears of violence.
Members of civil society alliance Bersih in the northern Malaysian town of Ipoh pose for pictures ahead their planned demonstration in the capital Kuala Lumpur to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation.