KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters gathered at an unsanctioned rally on Saturday to demand action against Prime Minister Najib Razak over the mismanagement of billions of dollars by a state fund.
Malaysia’s opposition are counting on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal to turn as many voters as they can against Najib, who can call for national polls anytime between now and the middle of next year.
The prime minister has so far been able to weather the scandal, consolidating power by clamping down on dissenters and curbing local media and activists even as he faces a fierce challenge from his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad.
But rising living costs and a broad-based consumption tax are leaving people like Hasmurni Tamby, a 42-year-old single mother of five, fed up with the way things are going under Najib.
“Prices of everything have gone up but not our salaries. We can’t save. So we don’t want this leader anymore,” said Hasmurni, who traveled several hours north from her home state of Malacca to attend the evening rally.
Saturday’s rally was touted as the finale of a two month-long anti-kleptocracy roadshow, a platform set up by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to convince the majority Malay-Muslim voters in rural battleground areas that the country has suffered from Najib’s handling of 1MDB.
Najib’s popularity took a hit from persistent bad press linked to 1MDB, especially after the U.S. Department of Justice filed civil suits to recover over $1.7 billion alleged to have been misappropriated from the 1MDB fund.
A rebounding economy and strengthening ringgit currency, however, are working in Najib’s favor.
The prime minister is expected to announce plenty of people-centric initiatives later this month when he tables his last budget before the polls. Just a few months prior, he announced billions in housing and cash aid for the Malay community.
But Mahathir, who saw through Malaysia’s industrialization as its longest-serving prime minister, warned that nothing good will come out of allowing his former protege to continue to rule.
“Never before have we had a prime minister who is a thief. He steals so he can have a comfortable life,” Mahathir told the crowd when delivering the final speech of the night.
“We need to bring down kleptocracy in our country... Najib’s fate is in our hands. We can get rid of him, just by voting PH,” the former prime minister said.
Reporting by Emily Chow, Writing by Joseph Sipalan,; Editing by Richard Balmforth