Malaysian Prime Minister Faces Mounting Public Pressure
Close to one thousand protesters attended a student-led rally in central Kuala Lumpur on 27 August calling for the arrest of “Malaysian Official One”, the unnamed official repeatedly mentioned in a lawsuit filed by the US Justice Department and who is widely believed to be Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The number of protesters was almost matched by the police presence, with eight hundred police and officials patrolling the area at street level while police helicopters monitored it from above. The protest, which lasted for two-and-a-half hours, ended with a large effigy of Najib being placed in a mock jail along with effigies of his stepson Riza Aziz, his wife Rosmah Mansor and businessman Jho Low. The lawsuit that inspired the protests was filed on 20 July and seeks the recovery of over US$1 billion in assets allegedly misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, of which Najib is Chair of the Board of Advisors.
The rally did not draw as much attention as hoped by its organisers, with only around one-fifth of the hoped-for five thousand attendees turning up. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also failed to show. The rally was unable to enter Merdeka Square due to police barricades which confined the protesters to the perimeter of the square. Supporters of Najib also cancelled a counter protest out of respect for police instructions not to protest, with Gerakan Merah (Red Movement) president Mohd Ali Baharom adding that ‘This is a gathering organised by schoolchildren who are learning how to demonstrate. So we will leave it to the authorities to take action against them.’ This, however, does not reflect public support towards Najib. Rather, Najib has faced quite vocal opposition to recent moves including the proposal for an Islamic penal code and controversial security laws. Despite public opposition, Najib remains in power due to strong support within his government.
Opposition is mounting in the wider political sphere, though, with a new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu, established by Mahathir and his former deputy Muhyiddin Yassin with the clear intention of toppling Najib. The party, which was registered on 9 August, has apparently already received thousands of applications for membership. It is unlikely, however, that another party among an already fragmented opposition will be enough to topple the government. As Norshahril Saat, from the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute notes, infighting between opposition groups has helped to solidify the ruling party’s hold on power.
Najib himself does not seem concerned about the growing opposition, describing the former Prime Minister as someone who is always looking for quarrels. He has attempted to draw attention away from the 1MDB scandal by telling the public not to pay too much attention to foreign news reports, which, not coincidentally, tend to focus on his involvement in the corruption allegations. Instead, he has asked the Malaysian public to focus on what the government can do for them: ‘Don’t be too bothered by stories from outside, but what is important is that we are capable of protecting Malaysia’s independence and sovereignty’. This nationalist sentiment is still likely to resonate well, especially among his supporters in rural areas, who remain a core support base of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. This is not a new tactic, as has been previously noted in the Strategic Weekly Analysis: ‘Instead of appealing to the wider, multi-ethnic population in an attempt to garner more support, Najib has instead focussed on securing the continued support of ethnic Malays.’ This method will do little to silence the opposition, though Najib may work to counter his critics through new security laws that will allow the government to designate “security areas” in which security forces can be deployed and individuals stopped and searched without warrant. Maintaining rural support through populist rhetoric while working to silence the increasingly vocal urban-based opposition is likely to be Najib’s approach to retaining power until the next general election, which will be held in August 2018