Bersih out to woo Malays ahead of November rally

Ms Maria Chin Abdullah (second from left), Bersih's chairman, with other activists following a press conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The November rally will be the second in 15 months that aims to oust Datuk Seri Najib over claims that more t
Ms Maria Chin Abdullah (second from left), Bersih's chairman, with other activists following a press conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The November rally will be the second in 15 months that aims to oust Datuk Seri Najib over claims that more than US$700 million (S$955 million) from state investor 1MDB was deposited in his personal bank accounts.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It plans seven-week roadshow to galvanise rural Malays to call for PM Najib to resign

Bersih has announced a seven-week nationwide roadshow, ahead of its Nov 19 street protest, in a bid to galvanise largely Malay rural citizens to call for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign over a corruption scandal.

The electoral reform advocacy group claims the Malaysian leader used illegal funds to win the 2013 general election.

This will be Bersih's fifth mass rally in its 10-year history. It is also the second in 15 months that aims to oust Datuk Seri Najib over claims that more than US$700 million (S$955 million) from state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was deposited in his personal bank accounts.

Mr Najib has claimed that at least US$681 million was a donation from the Saudi royal family to help his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition stay in power, but the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) said in July that US$3.5 billion was siphoned out of 1MDB, with over US$700 million ending up in the accounts of a "Malaysian Official 1" (MO1) who had control over the troubled government firm.

Bersih chief Maria Chin Abdullah told a press conference yesterday that senior Cabinet minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan's confirmation two weeks ago that the premier was MO1 "further affirms what all Malaysians feared - fraudulent funds have been used by the Prime Minister to win the 13th general election in 2013".

NO CHOICE

Most rural voters ask the question, 'If not BN, then who?' The perception is that all sides are pretty bad.

MR EDDIN KHOO, founder of the non-profit Pusaka, on rural voters' fast-eroding faith in both the opposition and the ruling parties.

The nationwide campaign will take the form of vehicle convoys that will start their journeys on Oct 1 from six points across the country, including East Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak, and travel through 246 cities and towns.

The convoys will culminate in the Nov 19 rally, which could take place at several venues besides Kuala Lumpur. The move is a bid to overcome the striking lack of participation from the majority ethnic group in last year's Bersih rally, a situation exploited by Mr Najib's Malay-controlled government. It accused Bersih, an alliance of 94 civil society organisations, of a Chinese-led plot to usurp political power.

Ms Chin told The Straits Times yesterday that Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) - the country's biggest Islamic party whose supporters had ensured the first three Bersih rallies were mostly made up of Malays, but who were absent at the last rally - has refused to cooperate with Bersih for the Nov 19 rally.

PAS' absence from last year's rally was considered a key factor resulting in it being a predominantly Chinese affair, but which still brought close to 100,000 to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, bringing the capital to a standstill over two days.

"Of course, we would prefer to have PAS on board. But the convoy is supposed to get us that representation," said Ms Chin.

But analysts say that the perception that rural Malays - the nation's most important vote bank in an electoral system that is heavily skewed in their favour - are unaware of the 1MDB scandal and electoral irregularities is a myth.

Instead, continued uncertainty over the opposition's ability to form a stable government and overcome accusations that they will neglect Malays is the main obstacle.

"Most rural voters ask the question, 'If not BN, then who?' The perception is that all sides are pretty bad," said Mr Eddin Khoo, who founded Pusaka, a non-profit organisation that works to revitalise traditional Malay culture.

However, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's expected participation in Bersih's rally, having campaigned for Mr Najib's removal for nearly two years, could help the group gain the ears of rural Malays. Tun Dr Mahathir "exercises subliminal authority" in the Malay heartland, said Mr Khoo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Bersih out to woo Malays ahead of November rally'. Print Edition | Subscribe