Massive Rally Won’t Dislodge Malaysia's PM

Supporters of beleaguered Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak are claiming a tactical victory out of what might otherwise be regarded as a defeat – the presence of tens of thousands of yellow-shirted protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur over the weekend calling for his resignation.

United Malays National Organization leaders characterized the two-day rally organized by the reform movement Bersih 4.0 as composed almost entirely of the country’s Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, with only 10 to 20 percent of the protesters coming from the country’s majority ethnic Malay population.

That was an indication, in UMNO eyes, that the rally, to protest massive corruption in the disastrously managed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state-backed investment fund and managed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state-backed investment fund and the $700m mysteriously funneled into Najib’s bank account, was actually an attempt by the Chinese to destabilize the country’s democratically elected parliament, which is dominated by Malays.

Numbers not enough

Whatever the reason, despite a huge crowd estimated at 200,000 by the organizers, 80,000 by government-dominated local media and 35,000 by the police – “a sea of yellow shirts,” said Americk Sidhu, a prominent Indian lawyer – it clearly wasn’t enough to dislodge Najib. The betting is that unless there are further defections from his party or even more sensational revelations, he will cling to power until the next general election.

Whether the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, can maintain its hold beyond that time, however, is unsure, according to political analysts. There is widespread and growing disgust with the deep levels of corruption, particularly in UMNO. “UMNO is likely to be finished,” a Malay lawyer told Asia Sentinel.

The prime minister has waged a dogged fight to stay in office, firing his deputy prime minister and attorney general as they allegedly closed in him, and neutralizing several other figures. The investigation into the scandals has been effectively halted. Ominously, he and other UMNO leaders have openly used race to blame others for the country’s deepening economic and social troubles.

In the weekend’s event, the protesters were careful to stay within the boundaries of political protocol, thronging the city center but not entering Merdeka Square under police orders. Unlike previous Bersih rallies, the government, while threatening to arrest anybody who wore a yellow shirt emblazoned with the words Bersih 4.0, used kid-glove tactics, thus avoiding the allegations of police brutality made in previous rallies.

Pretty much a carnival atmosphere prevailed, with singing, prayer, skits, criticism of the government and interminable speeches. Hundreds of Bersih adherents crowded downtown restaurants and bars, turning the event into a largely happy one. Events continued into the early hours of Sunday, with thousands of people sleeping in the streets and wakening to aerobics and calisthenics workouts to resume the previous day’s crusade to oust the prime minister.

Using race

Nonetheless, “Malays think Bersih is entirely the [Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party],” said a Malay lawyer in an interview. Pro-UMNO bloggers repeated the theme, saying the event was actually a DAP action to attempt to wrest political power from ethnic Malays.

Bersih organizers disputed the claim, saying there was adequate participation by ethnic Malays.

“I was there,” Sidhu said. “There were many Malays but you know what, I didn't even think about it as I am colorblind. But look at the prayer sessions [in local mosques], the gathering at the National Mosque....who were these? Chinese Buddhists or Indian Hindus?”

However, their absence was clear. The first Bersih rallies drew a majority of ethnic Malays although subsequent rallies have seen Malay participation drop off. The first Bersih rally in 2007 to call campaign reform was composed of 80 percent Malays and 20 percent minorities. The ratio fell to 60 percent Malays in the second Bersih march and about 50-50 in the third.

The drop-off is regarded as due to the split in Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based fundamentalist Islamic party, which left the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition earlier this year over the refusal of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the moderate urban Parti Keadilan Rakyat to agree to the implementation of hudud, or seventh-century religious punishments including stoning of adulterers and amputation of limbs of thieves, in Kelantan, the only state that PAS governs.

At previous Bersih rallies, PAS provided organization and money to round up rural Malays and bus them to Kuala Lumpur for the protests. Ominously for the opposition, the lack of ethnic Malays meant that neither Parti Keadilan nor Gerakan Harapa Baru, composed of the moderates who quit PAS to remain in the opposition coalition, had the star power or the organizational abilities to get large numbers of ethnic Malays to the rally. If they are to come together as a cohesive force in the next general election to be held in 2018 at the latest, they need to do much better.

Dr. M takes a stroll

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been attempting to oust Najib from office for months, sought to bolster the impression of Malay support for the event by showing up on Saurday evening with his 89-year-old wife, Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, although he stayed only a short time and left. He returned, however, on Sunday to renew his call for Najib to go.

Accompanied again by Siti Hasmah and Zaid Ibrahim, the former law minister who left UMNO several years ago, Mahahir was swarmed by followers. “I just want Najib to step down,” he said. He called for continuing street demonstrations, noting the only thing that drove former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1986 were massive crowds.

Those crowds were in the millions, and they were backed by the country’s business, military and religious establishment along with common people. Malaysia, split due to Malays siding with the government out of fear and envy of the much richer Chinese, shows little promise of that kind of action.