KUALA LUMPUR: Leaders from across Malaysia’s political spectrum joined forces Friday to call for the removal of scandal-hit premier Najib Razak, in a sharp escalation of a festering corruption crisis.
“We call upon all Malaysians, irrespective of race, religion, political situation, creed or parties, young and old, to join us in saving Malaysia from the government headed by Najib Razak,” read a joint statement endorsed by heavyweights from the ruling party, opposition, and civil-society groups.
The alliance brought together previously bitter political foes and was led by 90-year-old former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has spearheaded calls to remove Najib over allegations of corruption and misrule.
“We must rid ourselves of Najib as prime minister,” Mahathir, who quit the Najib-controlled ruling party earlier this week in protest, said at a Kuala Lumpur press conference.
The call is the biggest challenge yet to Najib and gives voice to a growing sense of public disgust with his tenure.
‘Badly tarnished Malaysia’
Najib, 62, has been under fire for a year over allegations that billions of dollars were stolen from a state firm he founded, and his own acceptance of a murky $681 million overseas payment.
Reports have also emerged of the luxurious lifestyles, lavish spending and jet-set travel arrangements of his family.
Even before the graft allegations emerged, Najib had faced mounting criticism for eroding civil liberties, allowing multi-racial Malaysia’s ethnic divisions to widen, and poor economic stewardship.
Najib denies wrongdoing, saying the corruption accusations are part of an unspecified political conspiracy.
Responding to the fresh call for his removal, a Najib spokesman said it revealed “political opportunism and desperation” by Mahathir and others, and that only elections could change the leadership.
Najib has curbed investigations into the scandals and purged his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) of critics, essentially shutting off internal party challenges.
Whistle-blowers have been arrested, while media outlets reporting on the allegations have been muzzled, raising concerns over rights and freedom speech.
“Today Malaysia is badly tarnished,” the joint statement said, calling for political reforms.
Those present included former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin, whom Najib sacked last year after he urged a probe into the funding questions.
They also included top leaders of Malaysia’s opposition parties and of an electoral-reform movement that staged huge demonstrations last year over the scandals.
Critics say perhaps billion of dollars were skimmed from state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) in complex overseas transactions.
1MDB, established in 2009 by Najib, denies wrongdoing.
But US authorities are reportedly looking into 1MDB-related fund flows, while Swiss, British, Singaporean and Hong Kong authorities also are scrutinising them.
Swiss authorities said recently up to $4 billion may have been stolen from Malaysian state firms and that they were investigating possible fraud and money-laundering.
Najib at first hotly denied allegations that the mysterious $681 million payment was transferred to his personal bank accounts in 2013.
But the government now claims it was a gift from the Saudi royal family, most of which was returned.
The Saudis are yet to officially confirm that claim, which is broadly ridiculed in Malaysia as far-fetched.
A Wall Street Journal investigative report this week said the money originated from 1MDB, not the Saudis.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian think tank IDEAS, said pressure on Najib was increasing.
“The momentum is building against Najib and is stronger than before. It can possibly snowball into bigger pressure, but the resistance from the government and UMNO will be strong as well,” he said.