Fed up with years of alleged corruption, Malaysian activists escalated their protests, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the overhaul of a political system its critics argue is racist and favors the few who are political connected.
Police estimated that 25,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur for the weekend Bersih 4.0 rally, which unlike previous demonstrations passed off peacefully. Organizers said the numbers were much higher, at around 200,000.
Protests were also held around the country where many defied a government ban on yellow T-shirts, the color of Bersih, which means clean in Malay and represents the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections in Malaysia, coordinated through a group of like-minded NGOs.
“Today, the people of Malaysia created history and we want clean elections and a clean government,” Bersih spokeswoman and organizer Maria Chin Abdullah told thousands of yellow-clad supporters.
“We hope all these will help save our economy. Today, we reiterate our demands. We not only want the prime minister to step down but we want a reformation of the institutions.”
She urged Malaysians to ask their members of parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against Najib. After that talks must be held on how to reform the country’s “corrupt institutions”.
“We hope the government and the prime minister will listen to the voice of the people. Independence is meaningless when we have a leader who says wearing Bersih T-shirts is illegal.”
Former premier Mahathir Mohammad – whose 22 years at the helm were also dogged by controversy and allegations of cronyism – added his voice to the chorus demanding change.
“There’s no more rule of law. The only way for the people to get back to the old system is for them to remove this prime minister,” Mahathir said amid calls for a people power type movement, capable of ousting Najib.
“And to remove him, the people must show people’s power. The people as a whole do not want this kind of corrupt leader.”
Mahathir’s own son Mukhriz has been touted as a potential prime minister.
It was the fourth Bersih rally, the last in 2012 resulted in stampedes and violence after police fired teargas and used water with a toxic spray to disperse large crowds.
Opposition to Najib has since peaked with recent allegations that $700 million was transferred to his personal bank accounts from the 1Malaysia Berhad Development (1MBD) fund, establish by the prime minister to further his country’s economic expansion.
1MDB was already under the microscope for mismanagement and debts of around $11 billion but Najib’s is maintaining his innocence, according to Malaysia’s state-run news agency, Bernama.
“Those who wear this yellow attire,” he said, “want to discredit our good name, scribble black coal on Malaysia’s face to the outside world.”
Najib supporters insist the money was not for his personal gain but for use at pending elections by his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). His deputy Muhyiddin bin Yassin – who has also had an eye on the top job – and the attorney-general charged with investigating allegations swirling around 1MDB were sacked.
In a live address to the nation Najib also pleaded for calm and dismissed claims the country was bankrupt, saying his government was focused on the economy and citing several indicators as evidence that Malaysia remains in good shape despite an exodus of foreign capital.
“The first is that we are still recording a positive growth. We recorded 6.0 percent growth last year and 5.0 percent this year,” he said, comparing these numbers with 1998 when the economy contracted by 7.0 percent under Mahathir.
Najib said the poverty rate had fallen to 0.6 percent last year, from 49.3 percent in 1970, with gross domestic product increasing substantially. He added that the country was now recognized as the 12th most competitive nation in the world.
“This country is built on the sacrifices of our heroes who had given their lives to ensure the people will be free and live in peace,” Najib said. “That is why we reject any form of street demonstrations.”
A History of Allegations
1MDB, however, is just the latest controversy.
Najib has been dogged by allegations of corruption since he his days as defense minister which are slated to be heard in a French court following legal action brought by a Malaysian NGO involving French submarine maker DCNS.
It is alleged that DCNS it paid a commission of about 114 million euros to a purported shell company linked to Abdul Razak Baginda, a former close associate of Najib. The opposition says the payments were kickbacks to officials involved in the $1.1 billion purchase of two Scorpene-class attack submarines for the Malaysian navy.
After these deals were struck, Abdul Razak’s Mongolian mistress Altantuya Shaariibuu was shot dead and her body found after it was blown up with plastic explosives near Kuala Lumpur, in 2006.
Police officers Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar were found guilty and sentenced to hang for the murder; however, Sirul maintains the pair are scapegoats. Abdul Razak was cleared by a court but this failed to quell opposition suspicions.
Sirul fled to Australia while the pair were on bail.
Malaysian rights group Suaram filed the complaint in France asking for a fresh investigation focusing on allegations of impropriety by French officials involved with the sale of the submarines.
Najib’s political fortunes have also been complicated by the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who – like the prime minister – was once a protégé of Mahathir.
Currently, Anwar is languishing behind bars after a long legal battle against charges of sodomy which he says were politically motivated. At elections in 2013, Anwar won the overall popular vote with UMNO suffering its worst result since coming to power with Malaysian independence in 1957.
Najib’s public image has not been helped by first lady Rosmah Mansor, whose business deals and shopping sprees in expensive department stores have been closely followed by a wary public, or the unexplained downing of two national airliners with the loss of hundreds of lives.
“Najib’s position now seems untenable with only the mechanics of his departure in doubt,” said Gavin Greewood, a security analysts with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates.
“What happens next will depend on whether Najib’s opponents are merely content with toppling the prime minister and his allies and assuming control of the spoils of power, or whether they will seek to alter Malaysia political – and by extension social-profile and direction.
“As the only feasible direction is towards greater conservatism, accompanied by the means to ensure compliance, the outlook for the country is one of even greater political risk and a heightened threat of prolonged instability,” he said.
Despite this Najib is still enjoying strong support from within his own faction.
The Foreign Minister said it would gather information on Malaysians participating in the Bersih 4.0 demonstrations abroad for potential legal action against them at home. Meanwhile UMNO was expected to hold its own rally in support of Najib on October 10.
One Najib fan said more than one million people would attend.
Luke Hunt can be followed Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt