SEKINCHAN, MALAYSIA - Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad campaigned for the opposition on Saturday (June 11), the first time a former premier had spoken out at an event organised by the opposition during an election.
The Sungai Besar by-election in Selangor state pits a Barisan Nasional candidate from his former party Umno against two opposition candidates. One of the opposition candidates is from Parti Amanah Negara, whom Tun Mahathir is backing as part of his larger plan to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The third candidate is from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), whose plans to bring in controversial Islamic penal code into Malaysia is opposed by Dr Mahathir.
"The by-election results won't change the government... But this is a chance to show the people already don't support Najib," Dr Mahathir said at a Chinese restaurant in Sekinchan, the biggest town in the Sungai Besar constituency.
The crowd of some 300 people were overwhelmingly Chinese.
His presence at the opposition-organised event is significant as during his 22 years as prime minister till 2003, Dr Mahathir actively suppressed the opposition and jailed many of their leaders.
Formerly Datuk Seri Najib's cheerleader, Dr Mahathir quit Umno in February as he attacked the Prime Minister over the handling of the financial scandal revolving around state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the millions of dollars found in Mr Najib's personal bank accounts in 2013.
Mr Najib has denied any wrongdoing. He has admitted that there was weak management of 1MDB funds, that the money found in his accounts were from Saudi Arabia and most had been returned.
Dr Mahathir, 90, was flanked during his speech by Mr Lim Kit Siang, the veteran leader of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, and leaders of Amanah. But none of the big guns from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) were present, showing discord within this party on whether to accept Dr Mahathir at the opposition table.
The plan by Dr Mahathir to work with the opposition and with political activists whom he once shunned is part of his strategy to put public pressure on Mr Najib to quit.
Dr Mahathir is expected to step up his campaigning for the opposition in Sungai Besar and also in Kuala Kangsar constituency in Perak state, where there is a simultaneous by-election.
On the stump yesterday, the former premier said: "When Najib resigns we would return to a democratic country. We could choose a leader who is not like Najib."
The event, hosted by Pakatan Harapan - whose three members are the DAP, PKR and Amanah - is part of an outreach to inject the 1MDB scandal into the twin by-elections.
So far, cost of living issues and local development issues dominate the campaigning.
"Najib wants the money for his own use, not for business," said Dr Mahathir in his speech.
Touching on livelihood issues, Dr Mahathir said Mr Najib is out of touch with the people.
"He only cares about living a luxurious life," he said, adding that Mr Najib and his wife have "wasted the country's money".
"We do not agree with the way Najib administers, he has caused a lot of burden for the people by introducing the consumption tax, taking away subsidies. The people are now suffering, regardless of race," Dr Mahathir said.
"If the people continue to support Najib then this country will go to the dogs," he said.
The unpopular 6 per cent goods and services tax introduced in April last year, as well as the rising cost of living, have added to the financial strain felt by most ordinary Malaysians.
Voting for the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar polls is on June 18.