Thousands of Malaysians gathered near Kuala Lumpur’s historic Independence Square, demanding Prime Minister Najib Razak resign in the latest of a series of challenges to his government.
The crowds sang patriotic songs, waved flags and chanted slogans as security forces blocked entry to the square itself. City police chief Tajuddin Mohd. Isa, who said that there were 25,000 protesters, described the event as “quite calm.” The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, estimated 200,000 people were at its third major rally since Najib came to power in 2009. The government Saturday banned people from wearing yellow T-shirts used by protest organizers.
“I was a bit scared to come to the protest in a yellow T-shirt,” said Mary Chia, a 56-year-old retired teacher, wearing a shirt in that color and straining to speak above the buzzing of vuvuzelas. “But I am here. I want a better Malaysia for my family.”
Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy has faced two months of political upheaval, spurring capital flight amid a worsening global economy, after a report alleged that Najib received billions of ringgit in his private accounts in 2013. Najib, who has denied all charges and fired several critics, retains the support of senior officials in the ruling United Malays National Organisation party.
The premier has criticized protest organizers for being provocative and choosing a date so close to Malaysia’s Independence Day on Aug. 31, saying a national holiday shouldn’t be used as a stage for political strife.
The rally organizers and participants are “shallow and poor” in patriotism, the official Bernama news agency cited him as saying Saturday. Although people have different political ideologies, they should honor those who died so that the nation could gain independence, he said.
The Wall Street Journal reported on July 3 that about $700 million may have moved through government agencies and companies linked to state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd., and ended up in accounts bearing Najib’s name before elections in 2013. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission said the money was from donors in the Middle East, and not 1MDB. The accounts have since been closed.
Najib has denied taking money for personal gain. The receipt of political funds was to meet the needs of the party and the community and wasn’t a new practice, Bernama reported Aug. 9, citing Najib.
The political unease is distracting the administration from the financial turbulence hitting the country amid a broader regional slump, said Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Singapore.
Foreign funds have dumped more than $3 billion of local equities this year and the ringgit fell to a 17-year low. Malaysia adjoins the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, and is a regional hub for maritime trade.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has blocked four websites linked to the rally organizers, according to state news agency Bernama. The FireChat off-the-grid messaging application has been downloaded 41,000 times during from Aug. 22 to 26, according to developer Open Garden, which said people are concerned cellular networks may be congested.
“Malaysians are sending a strong message to the government,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a Bersih leader, addressing the crowd through a loud hailer from the back of a truck. “Members of parliament must now move a motion of no confidence in Najib’s government.”
Bersih Chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah said that Malaysians want Najib to stand down, and that they want a clean government and clean elections.
Police have backed away from a possible plan to use tasers, MalaysiaKini reported this week. In 2012, riot police clashed with protesters who broke through a barricade at Independence Square, firing tear gas and water cannons. More than 400 people were arrested. There no arrests Saturday, according to police.
Bersih used social media and leaflets to help organize the protest, which includes the cities of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu in eastern Malaysia. The Home Ministry has declared the event illegal while police said organizers haven’t been granted the necessary permits. The protests were also held in countries including Australia.
“I’m here to support the Bersih demands,” said Desmond Foo, a 55-year-old business owner who undertook a four-hour drive to Kuala Lumpur with more than 200 people from Johor Bahru, on the border with Singapore. “We want clean elections, a clean government and, mostly, we want to save the economy from sinking.”