Malaysian protesters slept in the streets of the capital overnight Saturday after thousands gathered in an anti-government rally that pointed to growing disquiet with Prime Minister Najib Razak over a funding scandal.
Earlier Saturday the crowd sang patriotic songs, waved flags and chanted slogans near Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square as police manned barricades and prevented entry to the area. There were about 1,000 people sleeping in the streets Sunday morning, while throughout Saturday protesters numbered about 25,000, City police Chief Tajuddin Mohd. Isa said.
The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, estimated 250,000 people attended its third major rally since Najib came to power in 2009. The government banned people from wearing the yellow T-shirts encouraged by protest organizers, while authorities blocked four websites linked to the rally.
“We are expecting a second wave of people to come today,” said Maria China Abdullah, chairwoman of the Bersih committee organizing the protest. “We are in the hundreds of thousands territory if you look at the whole picture.”
Tajuddin said two homemade explosives were thrown at tents near the Federal House which is near Independence Square in early evening Saturday. He said police are investigating and that the explosives were firecrackers tied to plastic bottles. The rally was peaceful otherwise, he said.
Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy has faced two months of upheaval, spurring an exodus of capital amid a worsening global economy, after a report alleged Najib received billions of ringgit in his private accounts in 2013. Najib has denied the claims and fired several critics.
While Najib has pushed back against detractors including former premier Mahathir Mohamad and retains the support of senior officers in his ruling United Malays National Organisation, the size of the rally indicates public dissatisfaction with his leadership at a time the economy is slowing.
“By not halting the rally and taking a softer approach, the hardline government has consolidated its position,” said Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales who has studied Malaysian politics since 1965. “I still can’t say the same about Najib -- his issues are still not resolved.”
The premier criticized protest organizers for being provocative and choosing a date so close to 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. While people have different political views they should honor those who died so the nation could gain independence, he said.
Mahathir made a brief appearance at the rally. He smiled and waved but did not address the crowd, telling people near him “I just came to see.”
The FireChat messaging application was downloaded 41,000 times from Aug. 22 to 26, according to developer Open Garden, which said people were concerned cellular networks may be congested during the protest that is due to run through Sunday.
In 2012, riot police clashed with protesters who broke through a barricade at the square, firing tear gas and water cannons. More than 400 people were arrested. There were no reported arrests Saturday.
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.
“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.”
Previous protests drew a mostly urban crowd of minority Chinese and Indians. Analysts this time are watching if there will be more ethnic Malays, the bedrock of support for UMNO.
“There are a lot of Chinese here, but also some Malays,” said Abdul Jaafar Mohd Aziz, a 37-year-old engineer attending Saturday’s rally. “The Malays may not go to the street but that doesn’t mean they are aren’t angry with Najib. Wait for the next election, then you will see.”
The political unease is distracting the administration from the financial turbulence hitting the country, 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.
“I’m here to support the Bersih demands,” said Desmond Foo, a 55-year-old business owner who came 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.”