Fellow Malaysians be forewarned

September 3, 2015

Fellow Malaysians be forewarned

Malaysia– Tanah Air Kita Semua– is for all of us.  It is a land of promise; we can together build a better  future for ourselves and for generations to come, if we remain united as a people and work hard for change. Do not allow  Prime Minister Najib and his paid accomplices to destroy what we tried to build since Independence in 1957. We do not need a leader who is all for himself, the consequences be damned. Please take care.–Din Merican

It was obvious to my wife and I, and other Malaysians who were at the Bersih 4.0 rally on August 29 and August 30, that this pre-Merdeka day civil society protest against the corrupt and dishonest Najib regime was a great success. We had the full cooperation of our “Abang Polis” (The Royal Malaysian Police) who made it possible for us to exercise our right of dissent. Because Bersih shook Prime Minister Najib, pro-UMNO supporters are now trying to make this into a Malay versus Chinese affair, citing the lack of Malay participation. I hear that the UMNO pro-Najib  faction is planning an anti-Bersih event soon.

Please stay calm and do not allow yourself to be provoked into acting with emotion and anger. Bersih 4.0 is not about race; it is about Malaysians going to the streets to register their dissatisfaction with corruption and abuses of power by Prime Minister Najib Razak who has lost our trust and confidence in his leadership of our country.

Public Warning

Prime Minister Najib desperately wants to cling to power and will stop at nothing to achieve his objective. I suspect that he will create social unrest by playing the race card to enable him to suspend democracy and resort to emergency powers to govern. Please do not fall into his trap.

Malaysia– Tanah Air Kita Semua– is for all of us.  It is a land of promise; we can together build a better  future for ourselves and for generations to come, if we remain united as a people and work hard for change. Do not allow  Prime Minister Najib and his paid accomplices to destroy what we tried to build since Independence in 1957. We do not need a leader who is all for himself, the consequences be damned. Please take care.–Din Merican

A Participant’s Perspective on Bersih 4.0

September 2, 2015

Dr Wong Chin Huat: A Participant’s Perspective on Bersih 4.0

by Dr. Wong Chin Huat@Facebook


The question most frequently asked on Bersih 4 is: why are they so few Malays? I do not buy the two most common answers: first, PAS does not participate and Harapan Baru does not have the clout; second, Malays are worried of violence and chaos.

For me, the answer is straightforward: the Malays feel politically vulnerable because three main Malay-based parties – first PKR, then PAS, now UMNO – are split while the Chinese are seemingly so united behind the opposition especially DAP.

Wong Chin Huat Bersih 4.0bMalaysian Malays at Prayers –Bersih 4.0

To discourage the Malays to join Bersih 4, one may just need to warn them: if Malays join in enthusiastically, then not only Najib will go, UMNO will lose power too and the now politically assertive Chinese will dismantle NEP and weaken Islam.

Against this backdrop, even if PAS has mobilised, Malay turnout will still be weak because of this anxiety. And “violence and chaos” cited in the Merdeka Centre is but the code word for the collapse of UMNO’s one-party state.

Will I blame our Malay friends who don’t join us? Of course not. Everyone has every right to want the country to be cleaner, freer and more democratic. That needs not have anything to do with ethnicity or religion.

Wong Chin Huat Bersih 4.0Sleeping on the Street for Bersih 4.0

I will not even blame them on their anxiety. Can people force themselves to not be anxious? Simply because the dismantling of UMNO’s one-party state is a colossal change, all of us need a soft landing, not only the Malays who have been told that they will be “bangsat” without UMNO.

Malaysia’s political system has been so winner-takes-all, with losers not only marginalised but often also persecuted. Clearly, this is the fear many UMNO members harbour.

We cannot have a smooth transition until we can convince fellow Malaysians in UMNO this: the party(-state) is over but UMNO can choose to transform itself into a competitive democratic parties — like Indonesia’s Golkar, Taiwan’s KMT and Mexico’s PRI.

It is more realistic to ensure you can come back after losing than insisting you will have lost.

In full recognition of the political reality, Bersih 2.0 makes it clear while pressing for Najib’s resignation is necessary for the institutional reforms we need, Bersih 4 is not a rally to end UMNO’s rule and will not force Najib out ala the Philippines’ People’s Power or Arab Spring.

Wong Chin Huat Bersih 4.0aResting at Bersih 4.0

We will end the rally peacefully tonight (August 30) with the Merdeka countdown.We aim to empower Malaysians so that independence is a psychological reality that they fear neither each other because of differences nor the authoritarian government.

If everything ends well tonight, this goal would have been achieved although the push for Najib’s exit remains an uphill battle.

Coming back to the low Malay turnout, while we certainly need to work harder to get more Malays to the streets, should we go this far to border lamenting: why are there so many Chinese? Should the Chinese feel sorry that there are too many of them?

It is time we break this myth that we cannot do anything legitimately until we get the all ethnic representation, or worse, in the right composition: 1 Malay, 1 Chinese, 1 Indian, 1 Sarawakian, 1 Sabahan, etc.

I slept on the pavement on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman last night. It was like a refugee camp with many people — mostly in the illegal yellow Bersih 4  T-shirts — sleeping on not only the pavements, but also middle of the road. Some brought sleeping bags, some used newspapers as their mat, others just slept on the road.

Why did they sacrifice their comfort in bed? Many of them, like me, have booked hotel room for refreshing but chose to sleep on the streets just to show our yearning for change. Most of them were Chinese while there were also some Malays — middle-aged men, youth and a couple.

Woke up at about 6 am, I saw a good group of volunteers giving away free coffee, with placards printing “Tak mau duit kopi” and chantings: “minum kopi, tak mau duit kopi”. I was so moved by their creativity.

Have I forgotten to mention this? They were all Chinese. So were a bunch of volunteers I bumped into last night busy collecting rubbish — they were all Chinese too.

I examine my own anxiety which appeared since the beginning of the rally — that there were too few Malays. I ask myself: what’s wrong that most of them are Chinese? Should I feel sorry that some of my bedfellows on Jalan TAR are not Malays? Should I wish that some of the volunteers should not be there because they are not Malays?

Din and Kamsiah at Bersih4.0

No, why should all the good things they do be less good just because they happen to be in one ethno-religious category and not the other? Why? Aren’t we hypocritical if we let our pragmatism go mad to the extent that we judge one not by one’s behavior but by one’s colour or creed?

BERSIH'S demands5 Bersih Demands

I see two positive implications in the phenomenal Chinese turnout in the Bersih 4 rally, beyond their patriotism and sense of political efficacy.

First, most of them probably have not been exposed to Malay language and culture from indie musics, poetry reading to prayers in the open in such intensity. Many may have yet to remember not to blow their vuvuzela and chant during Muslims’ prayer time.

Some may have overlooked cultural sensitivity in their rejection of corrupt leaders. But this is a learning process, isnt?

Second, if Bersih 4 ends well and peacefully, this will set a precedent that grand rallies can be peaceful, inclusive and strengthening our nationhood, even when the ethnic composition of protesters is skewed.

There will be a long warfare of perception after tonight finale. On one end, UMNO’s mouthpiece will do their best to portray Bersih 4 as a Chinese plot to topple UMNO and sideline the Malays.

On the other end, naysayers will repeat the old tune that Bersih 4 is a failure because Najib will not resign after tonight. I urge all friends out there in Bersih 4 to tell your own story, best with powerful pictures worthy of thousand words.

We have two stories to tell to every other Malaysian whom we may encounter in daily life or on social media:First, the Bersih 4 rally is dominated, not by ethnic Chinese, but patriotic Malaysians.

Second, the Bersih 4 rally is  a great success, no by any means a failure, because we find hope and solidarity in each other.We are Malaysia.


It’s the Economy, Mr. Najib, so don’t blink

August 31, 2015

It’s the Economy, Mr. Najib, so don’t blink

by Martin Khor@www.thestar.com.my

FT Najib

TODAY(August 31) marks the completion of 58 years of Merdeka. On the economy, there is much to be proud of, with nearly six decades of generally good growth. One key reason is that the national economy has become well diversified. At Independence, Malaya was dependent on exporting just rubber and tin.

Through the years, more commodities including palm oil and petroleum were introduced and the raw materials were processed and manufactured, for example, into rubber gloves and furniture.

The manufacturing sector also diversified to include electronics. Construction has boomed and has high potential. There have been mistakes, too, along the way. Policies could have been better designed and implemented. And growth, though quite well-distributed, could have been more inclusive.

There are many regions and communities still left out of development. This Merdeka, we should resolve that those living at the bottom of the pyramid should receive the most attention and resources.

There is no reason why, 58 years after Merdeka, Malaysia cannot cater to the needs and interests of the poor and vulnerable. Despite the achievements, the economy is now facing what could be its greatest test. We are already inside the start of an economic crisis, and it will get worse before it gets better.

The fall in prices of petroleum and palm oil has rightly been blamed. Our economy is still reliant on commodities and thus affected by the booms and busts of the global commodity cycle, which turned downwards in the past couple of years. Even more important, Malaysia has also become dependent on another boom-bust cycle – that of global finance, the rapid inflows and outflows of funds.

This cycle is even more volatile and dangerous than the commodity cycle. Volatile because the flows can be huge and can change suddenly, and dangerous because the change can damage many parts of the system. There is a large body of literature on the dangers of global financial flows, when trillions of dollars of short-term funds go hunting for investment venues and modes in search of higher yield.

These funds choose Malaysia and other emerging economies to place many billions of dollars. When fundamentals or perceptions change, the funds move out.

Allowing the free flow of speculative funds is not a good idea. When too much comes in, effects include stock market and property price bubbles and currency appreciation.

And when the investors exit, there are other bad effects, as is now becoming evident. Foreign funds in the stock and bond markets are leaving the country. The ringgit has fallen more than 20% since a year ago, with expectations of further falls prompting further outflows. Local capital flight is also taking place.

Since the trade surplus has declined, it cannot fully offset the outflow of funds. Thus the overall balance of payments is now negative and this is reflected in the falls in the foreign reserves from US$132 bil (or RM424 bil at the exchange rate then) on August 29, 2014 to US$94.5bil (or RM356bil) on August 14, 2015.

Unless the investor mood reverses, there is potential ground for higher foreign outflows. The relevant foreign funds are in four categories: equities, bonds and deposits (denominated in ringgit) and loans to Malaysia denominated in foreign currency. Foreign investors have around RM300-400bil in the stock market. This year up to 31 July, they pulled out RM11.7bil from the stock market, according to MIDF Research. Foreign funds invested in bonds denominated in ringgit are high and falling fast. Foreigners own RM206.8bil of government and corporate bonds at end-July, down from RM226bil at end-2014 and RM257bil in July 2014, according to government data.

They also own deposits in Malaysian institutions of RM91bil as at end-March. Thus, there are RM600-700bil of foreign funds in the country as equities, bonds and deposits. If a sizable amount moves out, this would further drain the foreign reserves which stood at RM356bil on Aug 14.

On top of this, the public and private sectors also had RM399bil of external debt (of which RM157bil is short-term) denominated in foreign currencies as at end-March 2015, according to Bank Negara.

The country has thus become dependent on foreign funds and lenders to maintain their assets in and loans to Malaysia. The foreign reserves are still quite high, but has been declining and subject to future stress if outflows continue.

It is timely that an economic task force has been set up by the Prime Minister and it should examine all facets of the emerging crisis.

Should the country re-establish a currency peg? If this is done, there should also be controls on capital outflows, otherwise the fixing of the currency may not prevent and may instead cause further large capital outflows. The 1998-2000 policy measures that overcame the crisis were successful because they were done in combination: a fixed exchange system; control over certain types of capital outflows; and reflationary monetary and fiscal policies. One without the others would not have worked.

The committee should also consider whether it was wise to have recently liberalised the financial system so much, to now have such free inflows and outflows of funds. Excessive fund inflows and debts could have been limited in the first place, as done in some other countries. Local institutions should also not have been encouraged or allowed to invest so much abroad; now it is not easy to get them to reverse the flow.

The policies have resulted in high dependence on foreign funds, and the economy being susceptible to the stress of capital outflows. We shouldn’t welcome or attract all the funds that want to enter to do so, and then later bewail the fact that these same funds now want to exit when the economy cannot afford them to do so.

In any case, it is important to give priority to reviving the economy, which is now clearly under stress and already inside a crisis.


Happy 58th Birthday, my Country

August 30, 2015

Happy 58th Birthday, my Country

Din and Kamsiah at Bersih4.0August 31, 2015, Malaysia, my country, turns 58. I congratulate fellow Malaysians. I pray that we remain free, strong and united as a people, that we will no longer in the coming years be identified by the color of our skin, our ethnicity and religion, and that we will live in peace. We must not just call ourselves Malaysians, we must think and act like Malaysians.

We face difficult times in the months ahead. The politicians like  Prime Minister Najib Razak want you and I to think that our economic fundamentals are strong. Economists and pundits have been paid to endorse that view. If we believe them, we do so at our own peril. If you want to know about our economic health, please talk to small businessmen and the ordinary struggling Malaysian workers, and they will  tell you the truth.

The performance of the Ringgit against the US dollar and other major currencies including those in ASEAN is good indicator of loss of confidence in our government led by Najib Tun Razak.  I was with my wife, Dr. Kamsiah at the Bersih rally in the Dataran Merdeka and Jalan Tun Perak area this afternoon and was privileged to have the opportunity to a number of Malaysians who had spent the previous night sleeping in the open space. They showed great courage and determination, not despair because they know change is coming because they want change.

Our Prime Minister cannot connect with ordinary Malaysians like I was able to do. I am one of them. Like these Malaysians, I know what it takes to make our country great again. It will require commitment, hard work and self belief.  So my fellow Malaysians, Malaysia is you and I, not brick and mortar. You and I as free individuals can determine its future. When politicians let us down, we remove them. Prime Minister Najib can no longer be trusted.  And that is  why thousands upon thousands of Malaysians at Bersih 4.0 want him to go.

Congratulations to you all, my fellow Malaysians on Merdeka Day. Let us resolve on this special day to do our best for our King and country. –Din Merican

Farewell, Bersih 4. We shall meet again. READ THIS:


Going Rogue: Malaysia and the 1MDB Scandal

August 29, 2015

Bersih4We are Malaysians, so we must be who we say we are.–Din Merican

The respected, admired and well-regarded London School of Economics don, Dr. Danny Quah provides the rationale for Bersih 4.0. And here I quote his eloquent statement:

One of Britain’s greatest friends – a former colony that admired and reflected the grand British ideals of democracy, Rule of Law, free speech, and egalitarianism – has gone rogue…It does not take authoritarian autocracy to run a country into the ground. Regardless of the system of government, it takes only political elites out of touch with their people, a co-opted judiciary, an electoral process that even while open fails to surface progressive leadership, and a system that keeps to the law but fails to protect those speaking truth to power. Malaysia now has all of these sorry attributes.–Dr. Danny Quah

So go forth my fellow Malaysians at Bersih 4.0 and show the world that we want positive change and have the will to make Malaysia great again. We  must, we can, and we will succeed. All that is needed is the collective will to make it happen. We are Malaysians and proud to be Malaysians always, no matter where in this wide world we may be.–Din Merican

Going Rogue: Malaysia and the 1MDB Scandal


In 1971, more than forty years before the world would turn its attention to the so-called one percent and the problem of income inequality, Malaysia embarked on one of history’s boldest and most noble experiments to reduce social disparity. Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, or NEP, would seek to “eradicate poverty for all” and “eliminate identification of race by economic function and geographic location.” This polity that had achieved national independence just over a decade before, this country that was still a low-income emerging economy, was setting out to solve the massive problem of injustice and inequality over which other societies much more mature continued to struggle.

Malaysia was a democracy that hewed to the Rule of Law. The New Economic Policy (NEP) -1970-1990– would be Malaysia’s key political driver. Over the decades that followed, the NEP’s mantra would serve as a backdrop to almost all political discourse in the country. NEP-themed policies would, among much else, flesh out the concept of Bumiputera – an ethnic-driven formulation of native peoples in Malaysia.

Najib The SapumanMalaysia’s  most tainted Prime Minister 

It is difficult to grow an economy – look at train wrecks strewn around the world. But seeking to do so and at the same reduce ethnic- and rural-urban inequality, and maintain social harmony among diverse ethnic and religious groups is an order of magnitude more arduous. Malaysia succeeded: From tropical jungle, Malaysia has grown to have an average income now well above the world emerging-economy average. Its urban infrastructure and worker skills approach those in the first world. Malaysia’s top bankers, business people, and entrepreneurs are admired everywhere. NEP reduced pockets of extreme poverty and created a significant, thriving, and successful Bumiputera middle class – a group of professionals and intellectuals whose contributions to Malaysian society would be the pride of any country.

And, although from time to time patchily diverging from the ideal, throughout this history Malaysia worked hard to maintain its young democracy and its adherence to Rule of Law, and to support a healthy vigorous open sphere of public debate. Sensitive racial questions were out of bounds, but open questioning of the government was lively. Top government officials routinely had the judiciary rule against them. And a national identity emerged, one that combined the best aspects of local culture and an easy-going, open-minded cosmopolitanism developed from, among other things, the many Malaysians who have seen significant international experience. More so than when at home, Malaysians outside Malaysia saw each other for the warm and lively friends they genuinely were for one another, people who felt driven by a mission to make their country better.

Since his 2009 swearing-in, Malaysia’s current Prime Minister has sought to articulate an international vision for a “coalition of moderates.” As leader of a successful moderate Muslim country, he carried an authority and credibility sorely needed in global discourse. He was widely accepted in international circles, and even famously golfed with Barack Obama.

All this is now at risk.

However noble the goal of reducing social disparity, and however laudable the democracy, transparency, and Rule of Law to which Malaysia has desperately clung, this NEP half-century has seen the emergence of an increasingly hateful race-based narrative to Malaysia’s political and economic strategies. The Bumiputera concept has become conflated with questions of religion, and threatens the open society that Malaysia has built. That concept is now considered by many – both Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera alike – to hold back continued social development for the country. Significant Bumiputera and rural poverty remain. Ever more frequent accounts have appeared of government agencies intended to reduce Bumiputera poverty yet only enriching the elites of that group. A recent article by one of Malaysia’s most thoughtful interlocutors has had to ask:

Why after decades of rigorous development planning, 40% of Malaysian households earn only about RM1,847 a month? Why after more than four decades of the NEP, 75.5% of those at the bottom are Bumiputeras? Why in spite of the billions poured into education and boarding schools, 64.3% of the Bumiputera workforce have only SPM qualifications? Why some 90% of the unemployable university graduates are Bumiputras? Why of the $54 billion worth of shares pumped to Bumiputera individuals and institutions between 1984 and 2005, only $2 billion remained in Bumiputera hands today?

In March 2010 at an international investors’ conference, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced an urgent need for a revision to the NEP, towards a national development strategy more transparent, merit-driven, and market-friendly, and towards a new needs-based affirmative action. The Prime Minister had just won a resounding electoral victory; he had the backing of all Malaysians. (I am told by reliable sources that even Malaysia’s opposition MPs felt like standing up and cheering.)  But then elements within the Prime Minister’s political party mounted significant pushback, the moment passed, and he did not stay the course. Open democratic process has not kept in check the rise of extremists rallying together the Bumiputera grassroots, good people who have been told this time will be different, this time more of the same will help them, despite its having failed to do so these last 50 years.  Since 2010 no one has been able to recount significant action on that announcement.

A Malaysia of Cronies

All this is background. The practice continues to worsen in a Malaysia of cronies undermining good intentions and exploiting for self-interest the very instruments designed to help others. The latest most visible instance of this is 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, an investment fund set up to steward the nation’s resources. Elsewhere in the world, international scrutiny of sovereign wealth management vehicles has led to their applying the highest possible standards of financial probity; indeed, among the world’s most respected, successful, and scrupulously managed of those is Malaysia’s own Khazanah Nasional. By contrast, 1MDB has seen billions of dollars of public money moved around the world in suspicious circumstances, with allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars were funneled into the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. (Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency has ruled that the money came from legitimate “donations,” without specifying who the donor was.) All of this has dragged down in the world’s eyes Malaysia’s otherwise globally esteemed financial infrastructure.

And the egregious actions continue: shutting down the press has become the next step in that escalation. In July 2015 Malaysian authorities blocked a website that had become a significant and honest whistleblower on high-level developments in Malaysia. That same month Malaysian authorities suspended The Edge newspaper for its reports on 1MDB. Criminal defamation litigation threatened by the prime minister against the Wall Street Journal on its 1MDB reporting turned into a fiasco of the most basic legal ineptitude. Towards the end of July Najib removed from Cabinet his own deputy prime minister, the government’s most significant and prominent voice to raise questions on 1MDB. While four different official Malaysian government investigations are underway, there has now been a sudden replacement of the attorney-general and chief prosecutor. The deputy public prosecutor and others involved in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission have been arrested. The Prime Minister moved four members of the 1MDB parliamentary committee into his cabinet, thereby shutting down all further proceedings even as the committee’s official report comes due. Opposition MPs have been prevented from leaving the country on their way to discussing 1MDB and the political crisis in Malaysia.

In all this turmoil, many of Malaysia’s most remarkable leaders and numerous ordinary people have spoken out on the need for the country to get back to its roots. The country again needs to have a government that runs for the well-being of its people. Malaysia’s current political leadership no longer articulates a vision that serves Malaysia’s people. Malaysia’s leadership is no longer one admired by and hopeful for others around the world.

One of Britain’s greatest friends – a former colony that admired and reflected the grand British ideals of democracy, Rule of Law, free speech, and egalitarianism – has gone rogue.

Gandhi quote

It does not take authoritarian autocracy to run a country into the ground. Regardless of the system of government, it takes only political elites out of touch with their people, a co-opted judiciary, an electoral process that even while open fails to surface progressive leadership, and a system that keeps to the law but fails to protect those speaking truth to power. Malaysia now has all of these sorry attributes.

Danny Quah is Professor of Economics and International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Director of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre at LSE. He had previously served on Malaysia’s National Economic Advisory Council, 2009-2011.

Bersih 4.0 is a Call for Democratic Reform in Malaysia

August 28, 2015

Good Luck to All Malaysians at Bersih 4.0. Don’t be easily provoked byDM B.40 agent provocateurs who will be among you on August 29 and 30. It is important that we keep our cool so that our protest will be peaceful and orderly. All will be lost if we cannot maintain order and discipline. Never give the Prime Minister the opportunity to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree. Remember the rest of the world is watching us in our struggle for democracy and good governance.–Din Merican

Opinion: Bersih 4.0 is a Call for Democratic Reform in Malaysia

by Maria Chin Abdullah



This weekend, Malaysia will have a mammoth 34-hour “Bersih 4” rally in the national capital Kuala Lumpur and regional capitals Kuching and Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands are expected to color the cities yellow, echoed by the Malaysian diaspora in 56 cities worldwide.

“Bersih” means “clean” in Malaysia’s national language. It is the fourth rally organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a coalition now consisting of 88 civil society groups, which I chair.

The previous Bersih rallies held in 2007, 2011 and 2012, – all in yellow, our official color – had sought to advance Malaysia’s democratization process, by not only demanding for electoral reforms, but also catalyzing citizens to take ownership of their country.

This time, we are calling for clean elections, a clean government and the right to dissent, so that we may strengthen parliamentary democracy and save our ailing economy.

I have a Dream

We are also calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak. He chaired a state development company, 1MDB, which is now RM42 billion in debt with dubious dealings. Funds related to 1MDB totaling nearly US$700 million were found to have gone into his personal accounts in Malaysia, before nearly all of it was transferred back to another personal account in Singapore, which was closed after the funds were transferred out somewhere overseas.

Najib and his ministers have been quoted in news reports effectively saying that the money was used as a slush fund to win the 2013 general elections.  His coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) won the poll with only 47 percent of votes but 60 percent of the parliamentary seats due to extensive malapportionment and gerrymandering of the constituencies.

In any decent parliamentary democracy, a prime minister implicated in corruption of such scale would have been investigated for corruption and/or election misconduct by the Police and charged if there is sufficient evidence.

But before that, the Prime Minister might have resigned, been ousted by his parliamentary caucus or defeated in the parliament through a vote of confidence. In the best scenario, with the consent of head of state for parliamentary dissolution, he would be fighting a fresh election.

Unlike executive presidents who enjoy full-term tenure unless being impeached, prime ministers in a parliamentary democracy serve only as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Parliament.

Najib has instead responded by disarming and silencing his critics. He threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal, suspended two local business dailies and blocked an investigative news portal for exposing the 1MDB scandals.

He sacked his Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and another senior minister for questioning him on the matter. The Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was paralyzed with ministerial appointments which effectively removed its chair and three other members.

A multi-agency special task force on the 1MDB scandal was dismantled, with the Attorney-General abruptly removed, and officials from the Central Bank and Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) arrested and investigated.   

Already hit by the 6 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed in May to replenish the state coffers, Malaysia’s economy is on a free fall as the assault on public institutions hurts market confidence.

The Malaysian ringgit has depreciated below the levels of RM4 to US$1 and RM3 to S$1.  The Malaysian and Singaporean currencies were on par in value when the two countries split exactly 50 years ago.

The Bersih 4 rally will end just before the nation’s independence celebration on August 31. In Kuala Lumpur, the rally venue will be in the vicinity of Merdeka Square, where the first announcements of Merdeka –Independence – were made in 1957 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the father of the country.

But this is neither another Arab Spring nor another color revolution. Malaysia’s struggle for democracy is completely different from those of the Arab countries for two reasons.

First, Malaysia started off as a democracy in 1963 when four former British colonies – Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore – merged. Second, we are multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual while having a Malay-Muslim majority.

The first fact made us a Westminster parliamentary democracy with constitutional monarchs at both federal and state levels. The second fact, many pundits believe, poses a challenge to democracy or even statehood.

Najib’s institutional might to defy all democratic checks and balances stems from the dominance of ethno-religious politics in Malaysia. His United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has ruled Malaya and later Malaysia in coalition since 1955, two years before Malaya’s independence.

When a Sino-Malay riot broke out in Kuala Lumpur after the ruling coalition suffered significant setbacks in the 1969 elections, his father and then Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak took the opportunity to turn the country into a de facto one-party state with elections.

The party-state has three pillars: electoral manipulation, suppression of dissent and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that privileges the Malay-Muslims to tie them to UMNO.

The one-party state morphed into personal rule under 23 years of Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership.

Dr.  Mahathir made the seat of Prime Minister more powerful than an executive president by sacking top judges, taming the Parliament, and creating a huge Prime Minister’s Department (PMD) that makes even the cabinet a rubber stamp.

Today, in Najib’s 37-member cabinet, 11 are placed in the Prime Minister’s Department and Razak also holds the powerful Finance portfolio, a convention set by Mahathir.

Mahathir, once Najib’s pivotal backer, has turned around to be his strongest critic. The former premier wants Najib to resign to save UMNO and revive his old-style authoritarianism. For Bersih, we don’t want to just change a corrupt Prime Minister. We want to change a political system that produces corrupt, authoritarian politicians in the name of ethno-religious nationalism. We don’t want a revolution. We want a smooth transition from a decaying one-party state to a vibrant multiparty democracy. That cannot happen in another Arab Spring.

We have dared Najib to do two things. First, promise safety for the Bersih 4 rally so that he could dismiss us if Malaysians do not support our call. Second, seek a vote of confidence in the Parliament after the rally – if he has the backing of the Parliament, then regardless of the rally’s size, we accept his right to stay in power.

Unsurprisingly, Najib has ignored our challenges. He instead falls back to communalism to defend corruption. His spin doctors are now saying the US$700 million is a donation from Arab royals to fight an opposition purportedly controlled by the Jews.

While the Inspector-General of Police threatens us with arrests, thuggish groups are making open threats to rough up Bersih protesters. We experienced both police violence and the threat of riots in the Bersih 2 rally in 2012.

Paradoxically, Police violence has united Malaysians asking for democracy and good governance. Under fire of water cannons and tear gas, we realized we are not each other’s enemy despite our differences in ethnicity, faith, language and social class.

We went to the streets to seek democracy, only to find the nation we have long been denied, crying as we sang our national anthem Negaraku [My Country] in the streets.  We felt we were truly independent, overcoming both our distrust of each other and our fear of government. Bersih has proved to be a vehicle of not only democracy, but also of patriotism.

This time we Malaysians will rise again to the occasion. We will prove that diversity is not an obstacle to democracy. As corruption destroys us, where communalism divides us, democracy will unite and heal us.

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

Maria Chin Abdullah is chairman of the Bersih political reform NGO.  This was written for Asia Sentinel