Pressure rises on Malaysian PM as ex-leader backs protests
Pressure mounted Sunday on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as influential former leader Mahathir Mohamad threw his weight behind mass protests demanding the premier’s ousting over a financial scandal.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians clad in the yellow of the proreform movement have turned out for two days of weekend demonstrations to demand Najib’s removal, shutting down the city centre in a carnival atmosphere of speeches, sing- a- longs and prayer.
But the 90-year-old Mahathir stole the show on Sunday, arriving to a rock-star reception from protesters.
In a hastily arranged news conference, Mahathir apologized for his role in aiding Najib’s rise to power, and accused him of abusing his power to stay in office and avoid charges.
“He knows when he has no power he may be made to face the court. The court may find him guilty and he may have to go to jail,” Mahathir told reporters.
Najib has been under fierce pressure since the Wall Street Journal last month published Malaysian documents showing nearly US$700 million had been deposited into his personal bank accounts beginning in 2013.
Najib initially called the reports false and “malicious.” But his cabinet ministers have since admitted the transfers, dismissing them as “political donations” from uniden- tified Middle Eastern sources.
The accounts have been closed and the fate of the money remains unknown.
Demands for Transparency
“I am here to demand transparency,” said demonstrator Mustapha Abdul Jalil, 40, a businessman.
“This country is heading for bankruptcy and we must stop Najib and topple the corrupt regime.”
Najib had already faced months of allegations that huge sums of state money disappeared from deals involving a governmentowned investment company he launched in 2009.
Investigations into the various allegations appear stalled, however, after Najib in late July sacked or reassigned officials and parliament members who had launched probes.
Najib denies wrongdoing and says he is the target of a “political conspiracy.”
Mahathir has been a fierce critic of Najib for more than a year, accusing him of corruption, abuse of power and economic mismanagement.
Mahathir still casts a long shadow after helming the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition from 1981-2003.
His tenure saw rapid economic development but — according to his many critics — crony capitalism became entrenched and the independence of key institutions like the judiciary was subverted.
Mahathir’s attendance at the demonstration will likely raise the pressure on Najib, who came to power in 2009 only after Mahathir engineered the ousting of his own chosen successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Most political analysts, however, do not believe Mahathir still has the clout to bring about Najib’s downfall.
Najib recently purged critics in his cabinet and is widely considered to have firm control of the powerful ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
‘Black coal on Malaysia’s face’
“Those who wear this yellow attire, who are they? They want to discredit our good name (and) scribble black coal on Malaysia’s face to the outside world,” official media quoted Najib as saying Saturday in denouncing the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the reform movement behind the protests lacks much traction in rural areas where Najib’s government commands solid support, and the opposition is currently fractured.
The demonstrations that began Saturday in the capital, and smaller gatherings in other cities, have been mostly incident-free despite police branding them illegal and banning the movement’s yellow T-shirts.
But Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi, who is also home minister in charge of domestic security, warned rally organizers may face charges under assembly, sedition and other laws.
The organizers — electoralreform activist group BERSIH (the Malay word for “clean”) — said 200,000 turned out in Kuala Lumpur at the peak on Saturday, while police put the number at 29,000.
Demonstrators also denounced Najib for alleged economic mismanagement including an unpopular new consumption tax, and demanded reform of an electoral system said to favor the UMNOled ruling coalition.
It has controlled multiracial Malaysia since independence in 1957.
But it has rapidly lost voters in recent years, particularly minority Chinese, over recurring corruption scandals, civil liberties curbs and controversial policies favoring the ethnic Ma- lay majority.
Najib had vowed to end corruption and authoritarian tactics and to reform the pro-Malay policies.
But following a further election setback in 2013, he abandoned those initiatives under pressure from UMNO conservatives, including Mahathir.
Mahathir, whose ultimate motives remain a subject of debate, took an uncompromising stance towards civil disobedience as leader. But he said the protests against Najib were necessary.
“If the government ignores the law, we have to demonstrate. If you look at (former Philippine president Ferdinand) Marcos, when he was ruling the Philippines they had to overthrow him through demonstrations,” Mahathir said.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, center, waves to activists from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH) on his arrival during a rally in Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday, Aug. 30.