PUTRAJAYA • Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has accused Malaysia's current leader Najib Razak of "destroying" the country by clinging to power despite a corruption scandal, and vowed to campaign vigorously for the opposition in coming elections.
Tun Dr Mahathir claimed that Datuk Seri Najib is going to turn Malaysia away from its moderate stance to be "very Malay and very Islamic" in order to win votes.
In an interview with AFP, the 91-year-old politician excoriated Mr Najib over the sensational graft allegations swirling around state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The man who strove to subdue Malaysia's opposition parties during his time in office from 1981 to 2003 said he could now work with them to topple Mr Najib, including the party of his jailed former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
Dr Mahathir quit Umno in February over the 1MDB scandal and has formed a new opposition party.
THE RACE CARD
He wants the election to be between Malays against Chinese or Chinese against Malays.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR MOHAMAD, on Mr Najib using matters of race and religion to gain votes.
"He (Najib) is destroying this country... he is bringing in racism... very, very serious crime has been committed," he said on Tuesday at his office in Putrajaya.
Dr Mahathir predicted that Mr Najib would play the race card to win support in the Malay-majority multiracial nation before the next election due by 2018. "He is going to be very Malay and very Islamic. He is moving away from that liberal attitude towards a more rigid and racist approach to the administration of this country. He wants the election to be between Malays against Chinese or Chinese against Malays."
In a July lawsuit, the United States Justice Department detailed how an unnamed "Malaysian Official No. 1" - later identified as Mr Najib - and his family members and close associates diverted billions from 1MDB, which he founded.
Under mounting pressure over the allegations, Mr Najib last year abruptly fired the Attorney-General and purged ruling party critics.
Mr Najib, 63, and 1MDB have denied any wrongdoing.
Dr Mahathir was once Mr Najib's mentor but has since come out of political retirement to attack him over the debt-laden 1MDB. He hopes to topple the ruling Umno party.
"For me overthrowing Najib is far more important than any personal feeling I have about anything else," Dr Mahathir said, in reference to patching up ties with Anwar and working with the opposition.
Anwar was heir apparent to Dr Mahathir until he was sacked in 1998 over their political differences. Anwar was subsequently charged and jailed for sodomy, but the pair appear to agree over the 1MDB scandal.
Critics accuse Dr Mahathir of hypocrisy, saying he also tolerated corruption and repressed dissent in his day.
The former premier warned that if Mr Najib is not ousted, Malaysians were in for tough times amid rising prices of goods and a slowing economy on the back of mounting national debt."If he is not replaced, things will get worse," he said.
"Wherever I go, people actually curse Najib. All over the country, you ask anyone, you ask a hawker, you ask a taxi driver, you ask anybody, they don't want Najib."
PM Najib has labelled his former mentor a traitor and warned of "nightmares" if Umno lost and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, that is working with Dr Mahathir, came to power.
Dr Chong Ja Ian, a political analyst from the National University of Singapore, said the opposition could do well at the next general election but face hurdles. "They don't have the resources that Umno can bring to bear," he said.