Malaysia’s beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak called for national unity and rejected calls for his resignation during a public address Sunday, a day ahead of the country’s National Day. Protests demanding Najib’s resignation have continued to gather steam after last month’s report by the Wall Street Journal alleged that he had pocketed $700 million of public money.
“We will never allow anyone from within or from outside to simply walk in and steal, ruin or destroy all that we have built so far,” Malaysia’s state-run news agency Bernama quoted him as saying. “Let us all remember, if we are not united, lose our solidarity and cohesion, all problems will not be resolved, and everything we have laboriously built will be destroyed just like that.
“We reject any form of street protests that can disrupt public order and only inconvenience the people, because they do not directly reflect maturity, and are not the proper channel to voice opinions in a democratic country,” Najib added.
The main accusation against Najib is that he took $700 million from the indebted state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB), which he established in 2009 to try to turn Kuala Lumpur into a financial hub. According to the Journal, which accessed documents from a government probe, this money was deposited into his personal accounts -- an allegation that Najib has denied.
Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission has also cleared Najib of all charges, stating that the money was from unnamed foreign donors.
However, the probe has failed to satisfy protesters -- supported by the influential former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad -- who took to the streets over the weekend, urging Najib to step down. According to an estimate by Bersih -- the pro-democracy group behind the protests -- nearly 300,000 people gathered on the streets near Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Square over the last two days.
“There’s no more rule of law. The only way for the people to get back to the old system is for them to remove this prime minister,” Mahathir, the country’s longest-serving prime minister and Najib’s former ally, reportedly said Sunday.
Mahathir’s support is likely to intensify the protests as he was once a leader of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which represents the country’s Malay majority.
“The people as a whole do not want this kind of corrupt leader,” Mahathir reportedly added. “To remove him, the people must show people’s power.”
Najib, however, has so far weathered the storm, removing several leading officials -- including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sacked last month -- for criticizing his handling of the scandal.
“The rallies showed that civil society and the opposition can turn out the numbers, but whether actions like this can really make a difference is unclear,” Ibrahim Suffian, head of leading Malaysian polling firm Merdeka Centre, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “Najib can rest easy because the only way anyone could remove him is through parliament or the ruling party.”