August 31, 2015
A marathon 34-hour rally in Malaysia at the weekend drew tens — perhaps even hundreds — of thousands to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to call for the resignation of Najib Razak, the scandal-hit prime minister. Mr Najib on Sunday vowed not to quit and accused the protesters of showing “poor national spirit” by demonstrating on the eve of the country’s National Day. The protest, known as Bersih — meaning “clean” in Malay — highlighted growing faultlines in the Southeast Asian country, as allegations of official corruption and abuses of power swirl. Here is the crisis in five numbers:
$675m : total of March 2013 transfers to accounts in Mr Najib’s name
The mysterious transactions, which were revealed in early July, set the campaign to oust the prime minister alight. The national anti-corruption commission has accepted his denial of wrongdoing and his explanation that the money came from an unnamed Middle Eastern source, rather than Malaysian state revenues. But critics allege the cash is linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a national investment fund that has run up more than $11bn in debt and is dogged by corruption allegations. Mr Najib’s opponents say the premier should start by giving a full account of where the money came from and why — particularly since the source is claimed to be foreign.
58: years of uninterrupted political dominance by the United Malays National Organisation
Critics say the hegemony, which dates all the way back to the country’s independence from the British on August 31 1957, has led to arrogance and an intolerance of scrutiny that has caused increasing damage to the country’s institutions. Since news of the bank account payments surfaced in July, Mr Najib’s government has fired the deputy prime minister, removed the attorney-general on grounds of ill-health and reassigned members of a committee overseeing investigations into the affair.
47%: share of vote won by Umno-led coalition in 2013 election
In spite of losing the popular vote to the opposition, the Barisan Nasional grouping still ended up with a majority in parliament. But the result left some Umno insiders worried that the party’s grip on power — and the loyalty of the country’s Malay majority — might be slipping. The opposition alleged ballot fraud but got nowhere.
Politics has always been fragmented in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, which has significant minorities of people of both Chinese and south Asian descent. The opposition coalition itself imploded earlier this year, as a campaign to introduce a hardline version of Islamic sharia law in Kelantan state led to a split between Islamist and non-Islamist parties. The relatively modest turnout of Malays at the Bersih rally also suggests the government has not lost support across the board. But with Mr Najib’s supporters now calling for a counter-rally in October to show their strength, the conflict is becoming more intense — and, some fear, nastier.
22 years: length of the 1981-2003 premiership of Mahathir Mohamad, who has turned with increasing ferocity on his former protégé
Mr Mahathir’s criticisms — including a call on Sunday for a “people’s power” movement to oust Mr Najib — are a particular problem for the prime minister, since they show cracks in Umno unity. The 90-year-old elder statesman says he is acting in the national interest — and thus, by implication, also trying to protect his legacy of establishing Malaysia as a high-profile, if flawed, fast-growing “tiger” economy. But sceptics say the former premier is an unlikely spokesman for a popular movement against state corruption, as his governments were noted for authoritarianism and cronyism. It was also under his rule that Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy prime minister and now the opposition leader, was first convicted of sodomy, in a case Mr Anwar’s supporters say was politically orchestrated. In February an appeal court upheld another conviction of Mr Anwar for the same offence.
4.25: level to which the ringgit slid last week against the dollar, the lowest since the aftermath of the global crisis
Malaysia’s economy was under pressure before the 1MDB affair and the screw is tightening. Malaysia is unusual in Southeast Asia because, as a net oil and gas exporter, it has suffered rather than benefited from plunging international energy prices. It is also saddled with one of the region’s highest levels of household debt, at almost 88 per cent of gross domestic product last year. The cost of living has been growing, particularly through this year’s introduction of a goods and services tax of 6 per cent. The Chinese stock market turmoil is not helping nerves or shares in Kuala Lumpur, either.