Malaysia police to question Mahathir Mohamad over rally

Michael Peel in Putrajaya
Financial Times
2nd Sept 2015

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s influential former prime minister, faces questioning by police as tensions deepen over his efforts to topple his scandal-hit successor Najib Razak.

Authorities have also called in leaders of a 34-hour street protest last weekend against Mr Najib after the government declared the rally illegal.

The targeting of people associated with the demonstration, which Mr Mahathir attended, comes as Mr Najib fights allegations of corruption over mysterious payments of more than $675m into bank accounts in his name.

The prime minister and the country’s anti-graft commission say the money came from an anonymous Middle Eastern donor, rather than Malaysian state funds.

Malaysian police said Khalid Abu Bakar, inspector-general, would take a statement from Mr Mahathir, who at the rally called for a “people’s power” movement to oust Mr Najib.

The 90-year-old former leader’s appearance at the demonstration was a surprise, apparently aimed at intensifying his efforts to force aside a successor whom he branded as corrupt.

“[Mr Mahathir] made several allegations in his speeches . . . that warrants police action,” said Asmawati Ahmad, a police spokesperson.

Mr Mahathir’s office said it had no information other than from media reports. It added that Mr Mahathir was travelling in Jordan.

While the rally known as Bersih (clean) was peaceful, some analysts predicted a legal backlash against protesters. It is thought that Mr Mahathir would not likely face charges.

Mr Mahathir’s intervention was particularly striking as his 22 years as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 were known for both authoritarianism and cronyism, as well as the development that helped establish Malaysia as a fast-growing Southeast Asian “tiger” economy.

The Bersih movement has traditionally been associated with opposition to the dominant United Malays National Organisation of both Mr Mahathir and Mr Najib.

Mr Mahathir said on his blog this week that he did not agree with the protest, but had joined it because of Mr Najib’s refusal to step down.

Mr Najib’s troubles have fed wider anxieties that Umno is in danger of ceding its 58-year governing hegemony, after the coalition it leads lost the popular vote in elections in 2013. The party has also been hit by rises in the cost of living and broader worries about the economy.

Mr Najib did not attend an international anti-corruption conference he had been due to address on Wednesday in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. Paul Low Seng Kuan, a minister who stood in for him, told delegates Mr Najib had been advised that the atmosphere could be hostile.

The prime minister has been battling claims linked to the stewardship of 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund that ran up debts of more than $11bn. Mr Najib, who chairs 1MDB’s advisory board, has denied the payments to the bank accounts in his name were linked to the fund.

The government has launched a wide-ranging effort to contain the allegations since news of them emerged two months ago. Opposition MPs who have campaigned on the case have been prevented from travelling, a leading newspaper has been banned and several officials involved in probes into 1MDB have been removed from their posts.

Swiss authorities on Wednesday said they had frozen several tens of millions of US dollars in Swiss bank accounts as they continue investigations into the 1MDB scandal. The move followed the announcement last month that the Swiss attorney general’s office had launched criminal proceedings into the affair.

Additional reporting by Ralph Atkins in Zurich

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