A defiant demonstrator is detained during a protest against Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. Photo: Reuters
Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has widened a crackdown on his critics as he fights to hold on to power amid explosive corruption allegations.
Police arrested the leaders of protest rallies scheduled for the capital Kuala Lumpur at the weekend and took pre-emptive action on Saturday to prevent them going ahead, taking away about 20 protesters.
Three Anti-Corruption Commission officials involved in an investigation into the allegations have also been arrested, local media reported.
With South-east Asia’s top diplomats and their key trading partners arriving in Kuala Lumpur for annual talks this week, Mr Najib lashed out at “white people”, referring to foreigners who he claimed were attempting to topple his government.
“I cannot allow white people, the foreigners, to determine our future. What is their right?” he told a crowd of supporters.
Mr Najib also declared he will not bow to pressure to resign despite the scandal having paralysed much of his government and contributed to Malaysia’s currency, the ringgit, dropping to a 16-year low as investor sentiment collapsed.
“I was chosen democratically,” he said, referring to a 2013 election where his ruling coalition lost the popular vote but held on to power through a gerrymandered electoral system. “I am not arrogant but I have been trusted by members to lead the party.”
The scandal has already bitterly divided the ruling coalition’s main party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). It now looks likely to overshadow meetings this week of the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, including the United States and Australia.
But in Washington officials told journalists that US Secretary of State John Kerry will steer clear of allegations swirling around state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fund which Mr Najib oversees.
“The secretary of state of the United States is not going to get into the middle of an internal political scandal or legal investigation that is occurring in a foreign country merely because he’s attending meetings there,” a senior State Department official said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is also expected to steer clear of the controversy that has engulfed Mr Najib, who Tony Abbott has in the past praised as one of the world’s top Muslim leaders.
Mr Najib is scheduled to open the talks that will discuss key regional issues including China’s expansion of disputed atolls in the South China Sea, where there are overlapping claims by five countries.
US officials said Mr Kerry will press Malaysia to redouble efforts against people trafficking following the discovery of mass graves of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingyas from Myanmar earlier this year.
Only days after Mr Najib last week sacked his deputy prime minister, who had been one of his critics, and his attorney-general, who was leading a corruption probe, he accused Malaysians of “fanning the fire” through social media.
“You are innocent until proven guilty. But on social media, you are guilty and have to prove your innocence,” the prime minister said.
The allegations are the biggest threat to Mr Najib’s credibility since the Anglophone son of a former prime minister took office in 2009.
Several investigations are underway into the state fund, which has debts of more than $US11 billion. Mr Najib has denied taking any money for personal gain, claiming the allegations are part of a malicious campaign to force him from office.
The fund has denied transferring $US700 million to Mr Najib and an interim government report has found nothing suspicious.
However Malaysia’s 90-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has led relentless attacks on Mr Najib over the fund.
“[Just because] one person tells me to go I will not bow down,” Mr Najib said. He has threatened to sue The Wall Street Journal and British-based whistleblower publication the Sarawak Report over the allegations.
The Sarawak Report reported last week that investigators had prepared draft charge sheets against Mr Najib.
But Malaysian police chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi denied the existence of the sheets, accusing the website of being “evil” and vowing to take action against its editor Clare Rewcastle Brown, who has stood by the report.
Authorities have suspended respected publications The Edge Weekly and The Financial Daily, which had led local coverage of the allegations. The passports of some opposition figures and journalists have also been suspended.
Some commentators say Mr Najib’s crackdown has shored up his position within UMNO, which has remained in power in one form or another since 1957, while others say his actions reveal weakness and are likely to deepen the leadership crisis.