Malaysia’s pro-democracy rally shows a country deeply divided along ethnic lines.
Another group of anti-government voices in Malaysia has added to the chorus of disapproval surrounding the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Embroiled for months now in allegations of corruption and embezzlement, the self-styled Demi Malaysia group issued an open call this week for Najib to quit, arguing the prime minister had “grossly abused his powers” and the “country’s reputation is at stake”.
Najib’s honesty and credibility have been under attack since July when the Wall Street Journal first broke the story of approximately $700m deposited in a personal bank account.
He said the money came from an Arab donor. The question of why such an enormous sum was in a personal account and not a political party one remains unanswered.
The WSJ report said the funds came via a series of financial transfers from a heavily indebted state investment fund – 1MDB – which Najib, as finance minister, also oversees.
Campaigners say any other leader found in such a position would have stepped down immediately to allow proper investigations. Yet attempts to do so in Malaysia have not materialised.
succeeds to postpone his slow death, Malaysia is sinking a bit deeper in the quick sand.”]
As allegations have kept surfacing, public discontent has grown, culminating in a massive anti-Najib rally on the eve of Independence Day. Organised by electoral reform group Bersih, tens of thousands of people rallied over two days calling on Najib to step down.
There are reported investigations going on in Singapore, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Abu Dhabi and now in New York which, as US dollars were involved, comes under the jurisdiction of American financial regulators.
Yet 1MDB’s chairman Arul Kanda maintains he has not been contacted by any foreign investigation team.
Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute, says it is irrelevant whether people believe the explanation Najib has given about the source of the $700m.
“What can they do, even if they don’t believe the story?” he asked. “He has survived mass protest and he will survive the parliamentary session – as a no confidence vote could not be passed until [the ruling party] UMNO is ready to remove him”.
Najib’s predecessor Mahathir Mohamed declared on his blog Chedet that Najib has to go.
“I had worked hard to make Najib the prime minister of Malaysia. But now I want him to be removed, to step down from being prime minister. It is nothing personal. It is because he has failed terribly as prime minister,” Mahathir wrote.
Mahathir has been campaigning for Najib’s removal for months, and this latest statement does nothing for the prime minister, who has been in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting.
Mahathir still has strong support in Malaysia, despite being out of office for more than 12 years. He helped manoeuvre his immediate successor Abdullah Badawi out of office in 2009 to usher in Najib.
He boldly told Najib that ‘no-one believes’ his explanation the money was a donation from an anonymous Arab national. “Give us the proof,” he writes. “Show us the bank accounts”.
The longer the scandal remains unresolved the greater the pressure on Najib and his government. The issue is being partly blamed for causing the ringgit to its lowest level against the dollar in 17 years.
The political uncertainty has also seen a rise in more race-based activism. A pro-Malay Red Shirt rally was held to counter the perception that the Yellow-shirted Bersih supporters were predominately Chinese.
Zainah Anwar, a Muslim right’s activist painted a more depressing picture in a July article for Malaysian newspaper The Star when she said: “I am beginning to feel as if this country and its rakyat are being crushed and pummelled by wrecking balls. The wrecking ball of race and religion, of insatiable greed, of desperation to stay in power, of never-ending sense of entitlements, of unpunished crimes and abuses, of ideology over rational thinking, justice, and fair play.”
But while the calls mount for Najib to go, Wong Chin Huat does not see his resignation coming anytime soon.
Conceding defeat and resignation is not an option for Najib as he fears criminal prosecution. He won’t want to be imprisoned like former Korean presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo-hwan or former Taiwan president Chen Shui Bian, or living in exile like former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos.
Nor, says Wong, can Najib quietly slide towards the exit. “He can’t open his mouth for one – that would be a sign of weakness and open the flood gate for rebellion. He would in fact finish off anyone who dares to openly rebel against him to prevent rebellion from snowballing.”
Najib has already seen the removal of the (now former) Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail three months before his scheduled retirement. Gani was said to be on the verge of filing corruption charges against him.
In late July, Najib also ordered a cabinet reshuffle, ousting his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been publicly critical of him and also promoting four members of the Public Accounts Committee to the cabinet.
The PAC was looking into the 1MDB finances, and the quartet’s promotion effectively stalled any inquiry.
Searching for alternatives
Some analysts say that while the pressure on Najib mounts, he will aim to stay in power until the next general election, not scheduled for another three years – a date Najib reaffirmed this week.
But even if he steps down, the question of who is fit to succeed him remains. While history would normally dictate the deputy prime minister takes over, that is not guaranteed.
And with the main opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in jail and his coalition fractured, there seems no likely candidate from either side of the political spectrum if there should be early elections.
Wong draws an analogy with the political transition in South Africa from the apartheid regime to a fully democratic one, when then apartheid President FW de Klerk ended the policy of racial segregation
“We need – not so much a Mandela – but a De Klerk, who can convince UMNO to embrace the future.
“Till then, Najib is painfully bleeding to a slow death which he tries to delay as far as possible. And for every day he succeeds to postpone his slow death, Malaysia is sinking a bit deeper in the quick sand.”
Emails to the prime minister’s press secretary Tengku Sariffuddin, asking for comment relating to this article went unanswered.