This weekend, Malaysia will have a mammoth 34-hour “Bersih 4” rally in the national capital Kuala Lumpur and regional capitals Kuching and Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands are expected to color the cities yellow, echoed by the Malaysian diaspora in 56 cities worldwide.
“Bersih” means “clean” in Malaysia’s national language. It is the fourth rally organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a coalition now consisting of 88 civil society groups, which I chair.
The previous Bersih rallies held in 2007, 2011 and 2012, – all in yellow, our official color – had sought to advance Malaysia’s democratization process, by not only demanding for electoral reforms, but also catalyzing citizens to take ownership of their country.
This time, we are calling for clean elections, a clean government and the right to dissent, so that we may strengthen parliamentary democracy and save our ailing economy.
We are also calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak. He chaired a state development company, 1MDB, which is now RM42 billion in debt with dubious dealings. Funds related to 1MDB totaling nearly US$700 million were found to have gone into his personal accounts in Malaysia, before nearly all of it was transferred back to another personal account in Singapore, which was closed after the funds were transferred out somewhere overseas.
Najib and his ministers have been quoted in news reports effectively saying that the money was used as a slush fund to win the 2013 general elections. His coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) won the poll with only 47 percent of votes but 60 percent of the parliamentary seats due to extensive malapportionment and gerrymandering of the constituencies.
In any decent parliamentary democracy, a prime minister implicated in corruption of such scale would have been investigated for corruption and/or election misconduct by the police and charged if there is sufficient evidence.
But before that, the prime minister might have resigned, been ousted by his parliamentary caucus or defeated in the parliament through a vote of confidence. In the best scenario, with the consent of head of state for parliamentary dissolution, he would be fighting a fresh election.
Unlike executive presidents who enjoy full-term tenure unless being impeached, prime ministers in a parliamentary democracy serve only as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Parliament.
Najib has instead responded by disarming and silencing his critics. He threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal, suspended two local business dailies and blocked an investigative news portal for exposing the 1MDB scandals.
He sacked his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and another senior minister for questioning him on the matter. The Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was paralyzed with ministerial appointments which effectively removed its chair and three other members.
A multi-agency special taskforce on the 1MDB scandal was dismantled, with the Attorney-General abruptly removed, and officials from the Central Bank and Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) arrested and investigated.
Already hit by the 6 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed in May to replenish the state coffers, Malaysia’s economy is on a free fall as the assault on public institutions hurts market confidence.
The Malaysian ringgit has depreciated below the levels of RM4 to US$1 and RM3 to S$1. The Malaysian and Singaporean currencies were on par in value when the two countries split exactly 50 years ago.
The Bersih 4 rally will end just before the nation’s independence celebration on Aug. 31. In Kuala Lumpur, the rally venue will be in the vicinity of Merdeka Square, where the first announcements of Merdeka –Independence – were made in 1957 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the father of the country