Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Malaysia Braces for Saturday's Anti-Government Rally

  • Bersih group convoys unable to stop in small, rural towns
  • Group plans rally in capital against premier on weekend

At a night market north of the Malaysian capital, Ezat Nasir paced up and down as he awaited the arrival of anti-government activists. An avowed supporter of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling party, his job was to scare the group away.

Campaigners with the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections drove past the bazaar -- bustling with families enjoying a balmy Saturday evening -- and left the township of Bukit Sentosa without stopping to distribute leaflets. "Sorry, due to security reason," a member of the convoy texted Bloomberg News.

Saturday sees the first major anti-government rally in over a year organized by the group, known as Bersih, in Kuala Lumpur. Last year it said 300,000 people turned out, calling for Najib to resign over a funding scandal. But most protesters were ethnic Chinese, rather than the Malays who are Najib’s power base. Bersih’s goal with its visits to small towns had been to try and reach those Malay voters in what is a predominantly Islamic country.

"This is my town and I’m going to defend it against Bersih," said Ezat, who had to deliver a report to people he did not name on what his group -- which he said numbered as many as 150 men -- did to deter the activists. "Bersih is trying to topple the government, and that’s not right. If they want a change in government, do it democratically on election day."

Government Handouts

The struggle by opposition parties and Bersih to make a dent in Najib’s support highlights how he has managed to shrug off the scandal, in part by increasing handouts to farmers, government workers and low-income Malaysians.

Even so, efforts by his United Malays National Organisation to discredit Bersih show Najib is not complacent about his grip on power, especially as some parts of the economy lose traction. Consumer sentiment has languished below the level of optimism for much of his second term.

Policemen installed roadblocks and toted machine guns and rifles at some towns Bersih planned to stop at last week. While the police didn’t reply to a query on the reason for that action, a Bersih spokeswoman said it was most likely to prevent clashes breaking out between the groups. That didn’t stop the so-called Red Shirts, led by a division leader from Najib’s party, from gathering.

Bersih reported physical attacks on motorcades and uploaded videos of convoys surrounded by masked men or being blocked. Police temporarily detained Red Shirts leader Jamal Yunos, who said he wasn’t acting in an UMNO capacity.

Read more: A story on the recent Malaysia budget amid early election talk

UMNO Secretary-General Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said the party has nothing to do with the Red Shirts even if members choose to participate, the Star reported Thursday. Najib told reporters this week he didn’t want any physical clashes, with the Red Shirts saying they would congregate at similar spots to Bersih. His office didn’t provide a comment when requested. 

Police have warned both sides about protesting and said there would be stern action if Bersih proceeds on Saturday. Civil servants, who make up about 11 percent of the labor force, have been told they risk dismissal or a pay cut if they join the rallies, Chief Secretary to the Government Ali Hamsa was cited by Bernama as saying.

UMNO leads the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957. It has for decades propagated policies that provide favorable access to education, jobs and housing for Malays and indigenous people, known collectively as Bumiputeras. It also lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013.

The planned Bersih rally comes amid whispers Najib, with one state election and two by-election wins under his belt this year, could hold a vote as soon as March. A ballot is due by 2018.

The opposition has sought to lure Malays discontented at living costs and disillusioned over allegations of graft surrounding Najib. A new party -- Bersatu ---formed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is targeting UMNO’s base. Najib was cleared of graft over hundreds of millions of dollars that appeared in his accounts before the 2013 vote.

‘Tipping Point’

"UMNO’s core is safe but every core has a fringe," said Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "It is over this fringe that the battle is fought. When enough UMNO members who are not happy with Najib switch sides, that’s the tipping point."

Still, analysts said a sizable turnout Saturday is needed to gain traction.

"If Malays do not make up a major part of those attending Bersih, it will show the opposition is failing to win over the voters it needs, is still reliant on its core of Chinese and urban liberals," said Sholto Byrnes, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. "It’s a big test for the opposition."

Muslim leaders have advised followers against joining anti-government protests. Still, not everyone is heeding those sermons.

Zul Ishak, an investment banker who retired to run a store in a town an hour from the capital, said he was considering attending the Bersih rally, disillusioned by the scandals that have hit Najib. "I used to agree with what the government was doing, but not anymore.”

For others, it makes little difference who is in charge as long as their needs are met.

"I’m not too happy with Najib but what assurance do we have that another leader would be different?" asked Aini Nordin, who was shopping for shoes for her children in a town where the Bersih convoy skipped its stop. "At least the BN government knows what it’s doing. The opposition just talks."

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