Malaysia political crisis poised for street showdown

Michael Peel in Bangkok and David Pilling in Hong Kong
Financial Times
August 28, 2015

Malaysia’s growing political crisis is on the brink of a showdown as tens of thousands of protesters prepare to pour on to the capital’s streets in an effort to topple Najib Razak, the scandal-hit prime minister.

The mass demonstration this weekend known as Bersih — or “clean” — is aimed at forcing the premier’s resignation, after it emerged that unexplained payments of almost $700m were made into bank accounts in his name.

The country’s anti-corruption commission has said the money was from unspecified Middle Eastern donors, rather than Malaysian state coffers. But critics claim the transactions are linked to huge debts run up by a state investment fund, whose troubles some see as emblematic of the misrule of the premier’s long-dominant United Malays National Organisation.

“There has to be some investigation and the result must be made public,” Maria Chin Abdullah, Bersih’s chairwoman, said of the payments. “[And] even if you got rid of Najib, this political system of corruption, draconian laws, using racial politics to divide us will continue.”

Police have already sealed off areas of Kuala Lumpur ahead of a gathering the authorities have declared illegal. The organisers of Bersih 4.0 — three previous demonstrations have been held during political flashpoints of the past 10 years — are also organising protests in other cities across Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said: “This will probably be the biggest demonstration in Malaysian history. The sense of exasperation and helplessness is high in Malaysia right now, so the timing will encourage a huge turnout.”

The demonstration is the biggest popular challenge yet to Mr Najib’s rule of more than six years, which has extended the hegemony enjoyed by Umno since Malaysia won independence from Britain 58 years ago on Monday. Security forces used tear gas and water cannon on protesters at a previous Bersih in 2012, the year before contentious elections in which the opposition won the popular vote but the Umno-led coalition retained a parliamentary majority.

Mr Najib’s position has become more precarious as questions have arisen over how the 1Malaysia Development Berhad investment fund, whose advisory board he chairs, ran up debts of more than $11bn. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s still influential ex-premier, has called for Mr Najib to stand down.

Mr Najib insists he has done nothing wrong, but he has declined to offer a full explanation for the near-$700m money transfer. He was due to make a much-anticipated appearance at an international anti-corruption conference in Malaysia next week. The organisers’ website does not list him on the conference agenda, although a government spokesperson insisted the premier still intended to speak as originally planned.

John Malott, a former US ambassador to Malaysia, attacked the prime minister in a strongly worded column published on the Malaysiakini website this week, declaring that it was “game over for Najib Razak internationally”.

Mr Najib has attracted western leaders by casting Muslim-majority Malaysia as a moderate country committed to the fight against terrorism. He played golf with US President Barack Obama late last year and hosted a visit last month from David Cameron, UK prime minister, after evidence of the bank account payments surfaced.

Mr Malott said Mr Najib’s darker side had become increasingly apparent, as he had stifled opposition and become embroiled in questionable transactions. “There was always a gap between the real Najib . . . and the image people had of him,” Mr Malott said.

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