Pooi Koon Chong and En Han Choong
November 19, 2016
More ethnic Malays at 2016’s rally, Chinese still dominate
Thousands of Malaysians gathered in the country’s capital demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak as his critics sought to maintain pressure on the premier over a funding scandal.
Protesters in yellow shirts marched through downtown Kuala Lumpur amid heavy police presence as pro-government supporters threatened to disrupt the activities. Police said both sides didn’t have permissions to gather and closed roads ahead of the fourth major rally by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, since Najib came to power in 2009.
Bersih estimated 50,000 people attended the rally, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who has been a leading critic of Najib in the past year. The police, which deployed 7,000 officers to maintain public order and prevent clashes, didn’t immediately provide a figure on the crowd size. Bersih’s protest in 2015 drew an estimated 300,000 people.
Najib has already weathered more than a year of scandals over multi-million dollar political donations and alleged embezzlement at a state investment company, and strengthened his grip on power by silencing detractors. He has denied wrongdoing and said he wouldn’t step down, while the attorney general cleared him of graft earlier this year.
“It’s time to topple this government,” Mahathir told protesters who gathered at an intersection beside the world’s tallest twin towers after police blocked access elsewhere. “Najib doesn’t deserve to be the prime minister. We are forced to wait until the next general election, but we can do something to shorten his term as a prime minister. We must all stand united.”
Najib called the Bersih movement “deceitful” and said the group is being used by opposition parties to pressure the government to step down before its term is over, according to a posting on his blog.
“The silent majority of people are fed up with the tactics of the opposition,” Najib said. “They just want the government to deliver for them, and that is what my team and I will continue to do.”
The rally comes amid whispers Najib, with one state election and two by-election wins under his belt this year, could hold a vote as soon as March. A ballot is due by 2018.
Bersih protesters last year were mainly Chinese. There were more Malays seen at the protest this year amid what was “still largely” an urban Chinese crowd, said Ibrahim Suffian, an analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. Malays make up the nation’s majority and while Najib counts them as his power base, a new party formed by Mahathir’s associates is targeting them too.
“The organizers have tried to reach out to more Malay crowd and that has translated in a slightly better attendance” of Malays, Ibrahim said. “At the same time it also indicates that the opposition still needs to work on getting the Malays to come on board.”
Najib’s party leads the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957. UMNO has for decades propagated policies that provide favorable access to education, jobs and housing for Malays and indigenous people, known collectively as Bumiputeras. It also lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013.
The opposition has sought to lure Malays discontented at living costs and disillusioned over allegations of graft surrounding Najib.
“Life is getting increasingly hard,” said Ruzlan Abdul Rahim, a school bus driver and father of 11 from the northern state of Penang, who traveled to Kuala Lumpur to protest. “I don’t have enough to eat, I have a big family.”
Police detained Bersih Chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah on Friday and also arrested the head of the so-called Red Shirts, a pro-government group whose chief is a division leader from Najib’s United Malays National Organisation. The Red Shirts had attacked Bersih motorcades as they were traveling to rural and semi-urban towns in recent weeks trying to drum up support for Saturday’s rally.
“It is unlawful for any parties to try to unseat a democratically-elected government via street protests,” Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said in a statement on Saturday. “They should play by the rules of our democracy and wait until the next election so that the majority of Malaysians can again choose their government via the ballot box.”
Najib has managed to shrug off the scandals surrounding him in part by increasing handouts to farmers, government workers and low-income Malaysians. He retains the backing of his party’s powerful division heads — the bulk of whom have stood by him in the past year.
Opposition parties have struggled to make a dent in his support even as consumer sentiment languished below the level of optimism for much of his second term and some parts of the economy have lost traction.
“It does cause him some embarrassment,” Ibrahim of the Merdeka Center said of the Bersih protest. “But no major shake-up expected in terms of how this rally is going to seriously undermine the people inside his party’s confidence toward him.”
For foreign investors, their concerns lie more in financial markets.
“Market concerns about domestic politics subsided with more signs that Prime Minister Najib consolidated his power,” including wins at a state election earlier this year, said Vincent Tsui, a Hong Kong-based economist at AllianceBernstein LP which oversees about $483 billion.
“Investors are now more concerned about recent weakness of the ringgit and the central bank’s moves to tighten the speculation” in the offshore ringgit forwards market.