Menu Close
Despite the show of people power in Malaysia’s streets, the greatest threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s leadership is probably from within his own party. Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

People power challenges Malaysia’s PM, but change from within most likely

Street protests in Kuala Lumpur have increased the pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. The scandal centres on debt-laden national investment vehicle 1MDB on the one hand and a mysterious transfer of RM2.6 billion (US$700 million) into one of Najib’s personal bank accounts on the other.

The protests were organised under the banner of the Bersih (Clean) organisation. Bersih has long campaigned for electoral reform, including a previous round of street protests in 2012.

The demonstrations are a potent manifestation of the scale of disillusionment with the government. The protesters scored a publicity coup when nonagenarian former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad briefly joined them. Najib and his political party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), however, retain significant support among some sectors of society, principally rural ethnic Malays.

Government banks on lack of political alternative

Since the mass reformasi movement of 1998, Malaysia has become accustomed to intermittent waves of protest and the government has learned to ride them out to some degree.

Also, for many of those disillusioned with Najib, there is still no viable alternative to the multi-ethnic BN (Barisan Nasional, or National Front) coalition. The UMNO-led coalition has ruled Malaysia since independence. Collaboration between the diverse opposition groups has collapsed into infighting over the past few years.

The government may, therefore, think it can ride out these protests. Much has been made of the relative under-representation of ethnic Malays in the protests, as they constitute the core vote of the coalition government.

Two significant differences have emerged with the current protests, however.

First, the protests this week involved an overnight sit-in in Dataran Merdeka, the symbolic heart of Kuala Lumpur. If such tactics escalate, the protests may begin to resemble the kind of long-running popular mobilisation that has periodically brought Bangkok to a standstill, with much more damaging economic and political impacts.

Second, building on its approach in 2012, Bersih has sought to mobilise a global campaign, with some success. Smaller protests took place in other Malaysian cities, including Penang, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Sympathy rallies were also held in more than 20 cities around the world, including London, New York and Canberra.

These sympathy rallies do not put direct pressure on the government, but are clearly irksome. The government has said that it will collect the identities of Malaysians taking part in the rallies for (unspecified) “eventual legal action”.

It is also worth noting that, despite menacing warnings from the police, the protests have remained peaceful. Such instigation to violence that there was came in the form of anti-Bersih posters and flyers. These were circulated anonymously with the caption “Chinese who go to Bersih should be ready to bathe in blood” (Cina turun Bersih sedia bermandi darah).

Ruling elite beset by scandals

The protests and the wider scandal are clearly rattling nerves in the government, prompting much speculation that Najib may be forced out from within his own ranks.

While the scale of the 1MDB scandal dwarfs previous scandals, many Malaysians have long been somewhat inured to claims of corruption among government figures. Najib and his luxury-prone wife Rosmah Mansor have long been the subject of speculation about their wealth and how they acquired it.

In particular, many unanswered questions surround Najib’s tenure as defence minister at the turn of the century. At the time, the purchase of two Scorpene submarines involved the payment of around US$150 million to a company controlled by Abdul Razak Baginda, a long-time adviser and friend to Najib. Officially described as a “commission”, this deal is under investigation in France, where it was negotiated.

This previous scandal escalated with the gruesome death in Kuala Lumpur of a Mongolian model, Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was linked to the deal. Two of Najib’s bodyguards were eventually tried and found guilty of her murder, with no motive being proffered. Razak Baginda was charged but found innocent of abetting.

One of the convicted bodyguards fled to Australia during the appeal process, where he is currently interred for visa violations and has threatened to reveal all.

Many Najib critics lack clean hands

Doubtless a sizeable portion of UMNO wants rid of Najib. He has become a clear electoral liability. Whether the funds in his account were from 1MDB or from the as-yet-unnamed donor, and whether transferred legally or illegally, they constitute a huge embarrassment for a party that has been dogged by allegations of institutionalised corruption for years.

Yet many of these critics within the ranks of UMNO, and the wider BN coalition, are themselves hardly free of the whiff of corruption. For instance, Rafidah Aziz, a former minister under Mahathir who has criticised the government response to the 1MDB scandal, was embroiled in corruption allegations when her ministry allocated millions of shares in newly listed companies to her son-in-law.

Ling Liong Sik, a former senior Chinese politician in the coalition who attended the sympathy rally in Perth, was tried over an earlier corruption scandal. While Ling was acquitted, many questions remain over his tenure. Not least of these is how his son, at the tender age of 27, managed to acquire RM1.2 billion in corporate assets over the course of three months.

The victims of Najib’s recent cabinet purge are also hardly those with whom his political opponents are keen to forge alliances. Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patel, who was abruptly removed from the 1MDB investigation for “health reasons”, was the lead prosecutor in the original trials of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Anwar and his supporters accused him of being complicit in the fabrication of evidence.

While the most high-profile victim of the purge, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, is widely seen as a clean politician, his ethnic nationalism does not endear him to the predominantly non-Malay opposition.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s support for the protests is a mixed blessing for the campaign to clean up Malaysian politics. Reuters/Olivia Harris

This dilemma facing Najib’s opponents was highlighted over the weekend when Mahathir Mohamad made an impromptu appearance at the demonstrations. He has been an outspoken critic of Najib over the 1MDB affair, but his tacit support for the protests has enraged Najib loyalists. They have described it as “crossing the line” and going against Mahathir’s opposition to street protests when he was prime minister.

For many within the opposition, however, Mahathir is the architect of a political system that has allowed corruption and undemocratic practices to escalate. While the protest organisers were clearly thrilled by the embarrassment his participation caused the government, they were quick to say that they would only embrace him politically if he signed up to all of their demands for reform, not just his opposition to Najib.

Another factor that may restrain UMNO’s ability to distance itself from Najib is the increasingly dynastic and closed circle of Malay elites in the party. Najib is the son of a widely respected former prime minister and the nephew of another.

Such familial ties increasingly dominate the party hierarchy. Najib’s cousin Hishamuddin Hussein is defence minister. Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister for youth and sports, is the son-in-law of Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz is chief minister of one of Malaysia’s states.

The Bersih rallies have ramped up the pressure on the government, but the most likely source of change is still from within UMNO. UMNO is unlikely to hang Najib out in public – he has too much to lose and the interconnections between the UMNO elites are too strong. More likely, a face-saving exit will be found that will allow him to leave office with a pretence of his dignity intact.

If UMNO fails to act quickly to remove Najib, however, the protests may continue to escalate, with the potential to bring economic paralysis to Malaysia.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 175,100 academics and researchers from 4,816 institutions.

Register now