Just what will it take to topple Prime Minister Najib?

Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC BY 2.0

There’s a crackdown on dissent happening in Malaysia that’s silencing critics of scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib. But with the power of the government, and the leading political party, in his pocket he’s likely to survive the latest round of protest unscathed. 

By Argee Abadines

Prime Minister Najib is still hounded over the alleged US $681 million diverted from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), despite preliminary investigations declaring him innocent of any wrongdoing.  According to the US government, as much as US $3.5 billion disappeared from the 1MDB property, energy and infrastructure fund.

And as pressure for a more independent and credible investigation into what happened builds, 40,000 anti-government protesters wearing yellow T-shirts converged on the streets of Kuala Lumpur demanding his resignation. But the size of the rally is tiny compared to the current wave of protests by South Koreans which have reached hundreds of thousands.

To topple Najib, the opposition needs to summon a bigger crowd and send a stronger message. At their peak, last year’s demonstrations were reportedly much larger, reaching 200,000 people.It also needs to make the protest rallies more frequent.

A clean operation?

The organisers of Saturday’s rally were members of the pro-democracy group Bersih (which means “clean” in Malay), a coalition of nongovernmental organisations seeking to reform and clean up Malaysia’s electoral process. This is Bersih’s fifth mass anti-government protest since 2007 and the second one in the past 15 months.  

Most of Bersih’s protestors are ethnic Chinese, and the group has been very active in reaching into small towns to try to convince Malay voters of its call for change. Saturday’s rally was festive with lots of drums, songs, and chants calling for a “clean Malaysia”. Protestors marched toward towards Dataran Merdeka, which means independence square, but it was blocked off, and so instead they headed for the KLCC and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.

Wearing a Bersih 5 t-shirt, former Malaysian Prime Minister and founder of the new Bersatu party, Mahathir Mohamed also joined the protest and encouraged people to get on board.  Last year, he and his wife also joined Bersih’s fourth rally.

Meanwhile, Najib was in Peru to attend the APEC Summit, and he blasted the gathering as a “tool of the opposition” which was attempting to unseat a democratically elected government. He added that rallies are both constitutionally wrong and illegal.

Pre-rally crackdown

As the day of the rally drew near, Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah was arrested in a bid to weaken the demonstration. Authorities detained her under the 2015 Security Offences Act which was created specifically to deter terrorist activities. She was released 11 days later. 

And while it seems likely the rallies will continue, it also seems that Najib’s responses to them will continue to become increasingly authoritarian in nature. For one example, the government has blocked websites such as the Sarawak Report, and the internet site of the Bersih Movement itself, which has provided extensive and critical coverage of the 1MDB scandal.

This silencing of the media has angered many Malaysians but is unlikely to push Najib to step down. After all, the media has long been highly controlled and monitored in Malaysia. The country ranks 146 out of 180 countries regarding press freedom in 2016.

As a result, the news available in Malaysia will remain biased towards the government. And as such, it will take more than these rallies to push for Najib to step down – government forces will continue to silence the voices that want to keep the 1MDB financial scandal in the limelight.

Strong-armed by the sedition law

The other tool at the Government’s hand is the controversial Sedition Law, which Najib promised to repeal in 2012, that now imposes a minimum jail term of three years for those found guilty under its provisions. It also allows authorities the right to block websites that they deem seditious. The strengthening of this power is one reason why Malaysian’s discontent with Najib has dramatically grown, particularly its use to obstruct anti-government entities.

Another reason could be the ethnic quotas on government-funded universities which mean meritocracy is not improving. In 2013, only 23% of the 41,573 slots available in state universities were allotted to the minority ethnic Chinese and Indians. This is in sharp contrast to Najib’s earlier promise to emphasise ethnic plurality. 

This broken promise could backfire on the Prime Minister, and drive more ethnic minorities to support the Opposition party in the 2018 general elections. However, Najib’s power base are the Bumiputeras (an ethnic Malay group that makes up 60% of Malaysia’s population) so unless this majority of people starts to support the opposition the chances of Najib’s ouster are very slim.

It also helps that the national budget is being used for cash handouts to keep Najib’s party’s supporters and ethnic minorities happy in preparation for upcoming elections.  All of these factors combined means the odds of a Najib victory remain high. After all, he and his people they have the political machinery of the government on their side. 

A flood of support?

At the heart of Najib’s confidence in his position is the fact that he continues to enjoy political support from the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has dominated Malaysian politics for over 30 years and from his political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). However, the 2008 general elections showed that Barisan Nasional’s former invincibility may be cracking and it failed to get a supermajority in Parliament.

The party then continued to slide in the 2013 general electionsgarnering only 47% of the popular vote. However, it still retained control of the parliament by holding 60% of the parliamentary seats available. As such, the thing that would actually force Najib to step down would be losing this political support.

In fact, Mahathir has predicted that Barisan Nasional will lose the general elections in 2018 if Najib continues to lead.  However, he also acknowledged that the opposition is not strong and has its own issues to resolve. That means Najib simply has to rally his party and get them to work on tough policy changes that appeal to the masses, especially the middle class which has been hit hard by the global and domestic economic slowdown.

In Malaysia’s last visit to the ballot, Najib’s UMNO party won in two special elections, potentially building momentum for the party entering the next general elections, whether in 2017 or 2018. Clearly, the strength of UMNO is still evident, Najib will likely survive this financial scandal and finish his term.