Malaysians jam capital to demand reform, PM’s ouster
Tens of thousands of Malaysians swarmed central Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to call for the prime minister’s ouster over corruption allegations and demand broader reforms, defying warnings by police who had declared the rally illegal.
Streets near the capital’s heart became expanses of yellow, with demonstrators donning the colors of Malaysia’s reform movement in a carnival atmosphere of political speeches, musical performances, deafening vuvuzelas and selfies.
Leading civil-society group BERSIH, which organized the gathering, had planned to occupy the city’s Independence Square overnight.
But that appeared foiled, with security barriers and hundreds of police barring access to the historic area.
Members of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s cabinet have admitted he received nearly US$700 million in mysterious deposits into his personal bank accounts starting in 2013.
The revelation, brought to light by the Wall Street Journal last month, has crystallized the frustrations of many Malaysians fed up with recurring government corruption scandals.
“I have a six-month-old baby. I want her to grow up in a democratic and corruption-free country,” said demonstrator Ng Chong Yee, a businessman.
“We need to let the government know we are angry. If we sit at home, they will not realize this.”
Previous rallies organized by BERSIH — first formed to press for reform of an electoral system it considers biased in the 58-year- old government’s favor — have ended in clashes with police, most recently in 2012.
But there were no incidents reported and crowds began to thin by late afternoon. Rally organizers said a cohort intended to stay on the capital’s streets overnight.
Malaysian media outlets estimated the crowds at up to 80,000.
Earlier Saturday, Najib denounced the rally as disrespectful towards Monday’s National Day.
“Are they that shallow and poor in their patriotism and love for their motherland?” he was quoted saying Saturday by state-run Bernama news agency.
Smaller gatherings also were reported in the cities of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu on Borneo island.
Najib’s cabinet ministers say the money transfers were legitimate “political donations” from unidentified Middle Eastern sources but have given no further details.
The accounts have been closed and the fate of the money has not been explained.
But the official explanations have been widely mocked.
Influential retired former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh Najib critic, has called the “political donations” claim “absurd.”
In a statement Saturday, Transparency International chairman Jose Ugaz said Najib’s government has “failed to tackle the corruption scandals it faces, and people in positions of responsibility are acting with impunity.”
Najib recently sacked officials or absorbed into his cabinet parliamentarians who were probing the matter, leaving the status of investigations unclear.
The premier had already been under pressure over months of allegations that huge sums had disappeared from deals involving heavily indebted state investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib launched in 2009.
Recent reports also have detailed alleged multi-million-U.S.dollar overseas investments by Najib family members.
Najib and 1MDB vehemently deny wrongdoing.
The longtime regime already had been losing voter support over its recurring scandals and tough treatment of critics.
After taking power in 2009, Najib sought to halt this by vowing to end corruption, authoritarianism, and to reform controversial race-based preferences for Muslim ethnic Malays, the multi-racial country’s majority group.
But those initiatives are either stalled or have been reversed by Najib as he falls back on his government’s conservative rural Malay base to shore up support.
Economic issues have exacerbated public unease, including a new consumption tax widely blamed for raising prices.
The ringgit currency has slid to 17- year lows, with investors rattled by the Najib funding fiasco and broader concerns over Malaysia’s economy.
“While there is corruption in the government, they are imposing the (consumption tax) on the people. The masses are fed up,” leading reform activist Ambiga Sreenevasan told AFP at the rally.
Najib insists the economy is in solid shape. He calls the graft allegations a “conspiracy” by unnamed opponents to topple him.
Najib recently purged critics from his cabinet and is widely expected to ride out the turmoil thanks to his government’s firm control of key institutions such as the police and judiciary.
(Left) Protesters sit along the main road in downtown Kuala Lumpur during a rally organized by pro-democracy group BERSIH, Saturday, Aug. 29.
(Right) Activists from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH) march during a rally in Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday.