KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia’s prime minister vowed he would not quit over a $700-million financial scandal, and accused protesters of showing “poor national spirit” by holding a massive rally to demand his resignation on the eve of the country’s National Day on Monday.
After a weekend of demonstrations, the government took back the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Cabinet ministers attending a gala parade involving 13,000 people. They watched jets whizz by above the landmark Independence Square, which over the weekend was surrounded by tens of thousands of protesters.
In his National Day speech late Sunday, Najib slammed protesters for showing a “shallow mind and poor national spirit.” He said the protests can disrupt public order and were not the right way to show unhappiness in a democratic country.
Najib said Malaysia was not a failed state and slammed protesters for tarnishing the country’s image. He vowed not to bow to pressure.
“Once the sails have been set, once the anchor has been raised, the captain and his crew would never change course,” he said.
Police sealed off the square over the weekend. Large crowds of protesters in yellow shirts of the Bersih movement — a coalition for clean and fair elections — camped overnight around the square, even after authorities blocked the organizer’s website and banned yellow attire and the group’s logo.
The rally ended peacefully after protesters ushered in the country’s 58th National Day at midnight Sunday amid tight security.
Police estimated the crowd size at 35,000, but Bersih says it swelled to 300,000 on Sunday from 200,000 on Saturday.
“What is 20,000?” Najib said, downplaying even the police number. “We can gather hundreds of thousands,” he said in a speech in a rural area in a northern state earlier Sunday. “The rest of the Malaysian population is with the government,” he was quoted as saying by the local media.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib’s resignation, added momentum to the rally when he turned up at the rally with his wife on both days.
Mahathir, who clamped down on dissent during his 22-year rule, said people power was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law. He stepped down in 2003 but remained influential.
Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East and fired his critical deputy, four other Cabinet members and the attorney general investigating him.
Many of the protesters, such as Azrul Khalib, slept on the street.
“This is a watershed moment. Malaysians are united in their anger at the mismanagement of this country. We are saying loudly that there should be a change in the leadership,” said Azrul.
He said he was aware that the rally will not bring change overnight, but he still participated because he wanted to be “part of efforts to build a new Malaysia.”
Some used colored chalk to scrawl their demands on the street, writing slogans such as, “We want change,” and “We want clean and fair (elections).”
Two previous Bersih rallies, in 2011 and 2012, were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons.
Analysts said the rally attracted a largely urban crowd with a smaller participation of ethnic Malays, which could be the reason why the Najib government allowed it to go on.
A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim, who form the core of the ruling party’s support. The country also has significant Chinese and Indian minorities who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government recent years.
Malaysia’s ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib’s increasing authoritarianism.
Still, the government feels “safe because it has not really affected the rural Malay segment, their bedrock support,” said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian. However, he said this doesn’t mean that rural Malays are happy with the government, as many are upset with the plunging currency and economic slowdown.
Support for Najib’s National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance.
Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low earlier this month.
In his speech, Najib rejected fears that the economy is crumbling. “We are stable, with strong fundamentals and will continue to survive and remain competitive,” he said.