Weekend rallies that saw tens of thousands of people in Kuala Lumpur demand the resignation of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najeeb Razzak failed to draw ethnic Malays, indicating a funding scandal hasn’t spurred major dissent in the premier’s grass roots base.

What’s going on?

Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy has faced two months of upheaval over claims Najeeb received billions of ringgit linked to a troubled state investment fund in his private accounts. Najeeb denied the allegations, fired several critics and pushed back against detractors. The furore has contributed to a decline in the ringgit, while foreign funds have dumped more than $3 billion (Dh11 billion) of the nation’s shares this year as the economy slows.

But Malaysia is thriving?

Malaysia boasts one of south-east Asia’s most vibrant economies, the fruit of decades of industrial growth and political stability.

Its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society encompasses a majority Muslim population in most of its states and an economically-powerful Chinese community. Consisting of two regions separated by some 1,000km of the South China Sea, Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories. It is one of the region’s key tourist destinations, offering excellent beaches and brilliant scenery. Dense rainforests in the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, are a refuge for wildlife and tribal traditions.

What’s its make up?

Ethnic Malays comprise some 60 per cent of the population. Chinese constitute around 26 per cent; Indians and indigenous peoples make up the rest. The communities coexist in relative harmony, although there is little racial interaction.

What’s the scandal all about?

The scandal started when the Wall Street Journal reported on July 3 that about $700 million may have moved through government agencies and companies linked to state investment company 1 Malaysia Development Bhd., and ended up in accounts bearing Najeeb’s name before the 2013 election.

The PM was cleared?

Yes. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission said the money was from donors in the Middle East, not 1MDB. The accounts have since been closed. Najeeb has denied taking money for personal gain. The receipt of political funds was to meet the needs of the party and the community and wasn’t a new practice, Bernama reported on August 9, citing Najeeb.

Is the opposition divided?

Yes. Najeeb’s been aided by an opposition in disarray. The alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim that had been eating into UMNO’s support crumbled in June in the aftermath of Anwar’s imprisonment for sodomy, a charge he denies. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, an opposition party that is predominantly Malay, showed lacklustre support for the weekend rally, though it plans its own anti-Najeeb gathering in September.

Stirring the opposition

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who has been spearheading calls for Najeeb’s resignation, added momentum to the rally when he turned up at the rally with his wife on both days.

He towered over his country’s politics for more than two decades.

While his colourful reputation abroad stemmed from frequent barbed comments about the West and his scant regard for human rights, his authoritarian but essentially pragmatic policies at home won him much popular support and helped transform Malaysia into an Asian economic tiger. During the process he turned himself into one of Asia’s longest-serving leader, and when he retired in 2003 he had been in office for 22 years.

Throughout his rule Dr Mahathir, now 90, took a tough stand against those who opposed him or threatened his power.

Can the PM ride it out?

Things were not always this bad for Najeeb. The British-educated economist began his tenure in 2009 with a promising start, by pledging a raft of reforms long championed by the opposition.

National unity: He rebranded his Malay-Muslim dominated Barisan Nasional coalition as one that cared for Malaysians of all faiths and ethnicities.

Ethnic minorities: He pledged to roll back affirmative action policies that favoured the ethnic Malay majority over other races, to make the economy more transparent and based on merit.

His message was welcomed even by supporters of the political opposition, but there were concerns over whether he could make the old guard in his party accept the idea. Today, ethnic minorities say they are no closer to meritocracy, especially in the enrolment of government universities.

His carefully cultivated image as a champion of national unity was shattered after he blamed his coalition’s weaker majority on the lack of ethnic Chinese votes, calling it a “Chinese tsunami”.

More civil liberties: Prime Minister Najeeb encouraged the public to reach out to him through social media. He is active on Twitter and on Facebook and he even has a Chinese language Facebook page to communicate with Malaysian Chinese voters. For the first time in Malaysian history, the public could voice their concerns directly to the prime minister.

However, as public anger built against him, the authorities blocked access to news sites that covered the 1MDB scandal extensively and vowed to move against “rumour mongers”.

Sedition: One of the laws frequently used against government critics is the sedition act, which Najeeb had initially promised to abolish but instead strengthened without explanation.

He did get rid of a raft of security laws that allowed for detention without trial, including the Internal Security Act. But activists said their replacements were just as bad.

Malaysia was also criticised for jailing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, which was widely perceived as a politically trumped-up charge.

Fiscal reforms

Najeeb promised to take Malaysia from a country dependent on cheap exports and raw materials, to a high-income economy.

To invest in these projects, he needed more revenue by pushing through two key reforms that had been stalled for years.

Image caption Najeeb has been accused of alienating his country’s religious minority groups

He cut back food and fuel subsidies and implemented a broad-based consumption tax called the GST, despite fierce opposition from within his own party.

Moderate Islam

Najeeb wanted to take an active role in resolving issues between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Malaysia is currently facilitating peace talks between Muslim rebels and the Philippines and Thai government.

He also started a programme called the global movement of moderates, which gained support from US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

“The real divide is not between Muslims and non-Muslims or between the developed and developing worlds. It is between moderates and extremists,” he said in his address to the United Nations in 2010.

However, religious minorities accuse Najeeb of failing to practice moderation at home and fuelling Islamisation.

The Rosmah factor

Najeeb’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, is routinely criticised for her alleged love of luxury items and shopping sprees.

A series of pictures of her holding different coloured handbags, which sell for thousands of dollars each, circulated online.

The prime minister dismissed these claims of a lavish lifestyle as political-motivated assaults.

Rosmah also angered struggling Malaysians when she lamented that she had to pay her hairstylist $400 (Dh1,450) for a home visit.

The allegations took a more serious turn when her bank account details were leaked at the height of her husband’s financial scandal. It was reported that some half a million dollars was deposited into her account, raising questions of where the money had come from.

Her lawyer said this was an “improper and outright breach” of her client’s personal information.

— Compiled from agencies