Anuradha Raghu/Manirajan Ramasamy
March 27, 2016
Malaysian opposition politicians and leading critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak unveiled a fresh campaign aimed at ousting him, after months of attacks over a funding scandal failed to substantially dent his support.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad and ex-deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin were among those who addressed more than 2,000 people at a convention center in the capital Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, with each of the 18 speakers conveying the same message: Najib must go now.
“The wait for two years for the next general elections is too long,” Mahathir said. “Our situation is very bad. We need to recover quickly and two years will be too late.”
Najib is facing his biggest political crisis since coming to power seven years ago as questions linger over $681 million which appeared in his accounts before the last election in 2013, funds the attorney-general said were a donation from the Saudi royal family. Mahathir, the country’s longest serving leader who governed until 2003, has waged a public campaign for months to get Najib out of office.
From now until early June, Mahathir and Muhyiddin will drive the ‘Save Malaysia’ effort that will collect signatures from ordinary voters in various cities calling for Najib to step down, said Khairuddin Abu Hassan, a former official of the ruling United Malays National Organisation. Mahathir said he’s expecting a million signatories to the anti-Najib petition by the end of 2016.
Their feud has grown increasingly acrimonious, with Mahathir attacking Najib over a series of financial scandals and his economic record, and quitting the ruling party. While his influence has faded in recent years, the public sparring creates risk for UMNO, which has ruled since independence in 1957 but whose broader Barisan Nasional coalition won the last election in 2013 with its slimmest margin yet. The next election must be held by 2018.
“Under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia is struggling with corruption and money scandals to an extent so serious that we have never faced before,” former law minister Zaid Ibrahim said at the rally. “We are ashamed of what is happening to the country now. We cannot be patient anymore.”
Najib has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said no “individual, however eminent” should try to interfere with or hijack his leadership. He retains the backing of the bulk of UMNO’s powerful divisional chiefs.
“This is the beginning of a long journey,” said Muhyiddin, who was suspended as UMNO deputy president for undermining the organization in his quest to remove Najib. “Our aim is for Najib to step down and not to topple the government. If we keep quiet and do nothing, they will say ‘look, no one is standing up against us,’” he said of those backing the prime minister.
The effort to get Najib out of office has turned sworn political enemies into temporary allies. The government said this month that Mahathir’s move to align with opposition members showed the depth of “political opportunism and desperation.” Jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a one-time deputy to Mahathir who was fired after a dispute over economic policies in 1998, is among those backing his former mentor.
Former UMNO leaders, who are “conspiring with the opposition,” do not respect democracy and the mandate given by the people, the official news agency Bernama reported Sunday, citing Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Azalina Othman.
Kamaruzaman Ismail, 63, was detained under the Internal Security Act when Mahathir was premier. He was among those at Sunday’s rally pledging support for Mahathir’s current efforts.
“What Mahathir did to me was personal,” said Kamaruzaman, an official with opposition group Parti Amanah Negara. “Why I am here today is for the country and the people. I will support this cause for the betterment of this country.”
Malaysia’s score worsened in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015 released in January, putting it on a ranking near Slovakia, Kuwait and Cuba. Issues related to troubled state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd. contributed to the nation’s fall on the global list to 54th from 50th in 2014, according to the Malaysian head of Transparency International.
“We have to continue with reformation, we have to overcome corruption,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the nation’s best known civil society group leaders and who met U.S. President Barack Obama when he was in Malaysia last year. “It is time to say ‘no’ to leaders who act as though Malaysia belongs to only them. We don’t want a dictatorship.”
Some of those at the rally expressed anger over rising transport and food costs. The government has removed subsidies from sugar to fuel in recent years, and it implemented a goods and services tax in 2015. Malaysian consumer prices in February rose at the fastest pace since 2008.
“I’m retired, now I have to be more careful how I spend my money,” Chen Soon Chin, 68, said outside the convention center. “I’m concerned about the Malaysian political situation — the corruption, injustice, abuse of power and people suffering because of the heavy taxes.”