Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad campaigned for the opposition yesterday, the first time an ex-premier had spoken out at an opposition event during an election.
The Sungai Besar by-election in Selangor state pits a Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate from his former party Umno against two opposition candidates. One of the opposition candidates is from Parti Amanah Negara who Tun Dr 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 introduce a controversial Islamic penal code in Malaysia is opposed by Dr Mahathir.
His presence at the opposition rally extended his move to oppose Datuk Seri Najib and the Umno leaders who support the premier. Dr Mahathir quit Umno three months ago, and then banded with opposition leaders and civil society groups a week later to start the Save Malaysia campaign calling for Mr Najib's removal.
At the event yesterday, the 90-year-old statesman focused on his pet subject, the handling of the financial scandal surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd and alleged graft involving Mr Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing.
'NAJIB BURDENED THE PEOPLE'
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. ''
FORMER PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR MOHAMAD
"The by-election results won't change the government... But this is a chance to show that the people already don't support Najib," Dr Mahathir said at a Chinese restaurant in Sekinchan, the biggest town in Sungai Besar constituency. The some 300 people in the restaurant were overwhelmingly Chinese.
His presence at the 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.
Welcoming his arrival was Mr Lim Kit Siang, the veteran leader of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), and leaders of Amanah, including its Sungai Besar candidate, Mr Azhar Abdul Syukur.
The DAP, Amanah and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) form the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan. None of the senior leaders of PKR were present yesterday, a reflection of its disagreement as to whether Dr Mahathir should be accepted at the opposition table.
Dr Mahathir's appearance is welcomed by the opposition, which is hoping for a shot in the arm for its campaign in Sungai Besar and also in Kuala Kangsar constituency in Perak state, where there is a simultaneous by-election. The former PM still wields influence among elderly Chinese voters and many Malays.
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."
So far, cost-of-living and local development issues dominate the campaigning, which Dr Mahathir also touched on.
"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, has added to the financial strain felt by most ordinary Malaysians. Asked by reporters about the Dr Mahathir event, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said: "We feel sad that a former Umno president and prime minister is willing enough to go and smear a BN candidate and wanting to defeat BN in the by-elections."
But he added that Dr Mahathir could still be accepted back into Umno, "provided he is really with us and not backstabbing us".
The Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar polls are on June 18.