Updated at 7:55 a.m. ET on 2017-08-15
A day after chairs, shoes and lit flares were tossed during a political forum, Malaysian opposition leaders and analysts expressed concern Monday that more violence could tarnish the upcoming general election.
On Sunday, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took questions during the “Nothing to Hide 2.0” forum when violence broke out. Prime Minister Najib Razak was invited to the forum but did not attend.
Pandemonium erupted after people hurled slippers and chairs toward the stage. At least two flares were lit and pitched at the audience while fisticuffs broke out between men inside and outside the hall.
Mahathir and opposition leaders were uninjured and escorted out of the building. Two people, including a journalist, were slightly injured.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Monday condemned the violence and called on police to take appropriate action.
“Although we have different opinions, no violence should be committed toward any individual or leader,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Anwar Ibrahim, a leading figure of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR), warned that political violence could increase.
“Such incidents are feared to rise ahead of the 14th general election,” Anwar, who remains in prison after his sodomy conviction, said in a statement on Monday. “The government is responsible to ensure that the rights and freedom of speech must be protected, including that of Mahathir’s.”
Malaysia’s general elections take place every five years but the sitting prime minister announces the date. The next election must take place by June 2018 at the latest.
The forum organized by the United Malaysian Indigenous Party (PPBM) in Selangor state drew about 600 people. It was supposed to be a face-to-face forum between the 92-year-old Mahathir and Najib.
Mahathir, one of Najib’s most-vocal critics, is PPBM chairman. He has been leading calls for Najib to resign over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving debt-laden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state-owned investment fund. The government has said it found no criminal wrongdoing at 1MDB and Najib has denied embezzlement allegations.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (center) takes questions at the forum, Aug. 13, 2017. [FadzilAziz/BenarNews]
Three teenagers, ages 17, 18, and 19, were remanded in connection with the incident.
“I confirm that we have granted four days remand for three suspects in the incident,” Shah Alam assistant police commissioner Shafien Mamat told BenarNews. Investigations were focused on violations of the Peaceful Assembly Act and laws pertaining to corrosive substances and explosives, along with dangerous weapons.
“That is not the custom of the Malays’
Azmi Hassan, a geopolitical professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, warned violence could continue as the current political climate focuses on personalities rather than issues.
“Yes, this unfortunate trend will continue in the future,” Hassan told BenarNews. “In fact, it is a sign of immaturity of Malaysians when facing political matters. A debate should be focused on policies and the direction of political parties and not on matters that are not related to the future of a nation.”
“Such level of political immaturity should be condemned and stopped,” Hassan said.
Mohamed Azmin Ali, PKR’s deputy president, said he was appalled by violence at the forum.
“Democracy is about contesting ideas. You may disagree with Mahathir but you don’t respond with chairs, slippers and shoes,” he said. “That is not the custom of the Malays. If you don’t agree, argue back with facts and figures.”
Meanwhile, UMNO youth leader Razlan Rafii slammed opposition leaders for blaming Najib’s party for the chaos.
“Everything on Sunday, from the venue to the security preparations and the questions, were moderated and taken care of by PPBM members, and therefore, there was no basis for them to blame others,” he told BenarNews.
“Just admit the opposition coalition is synonymous with street riots and now political hooliganism,” he said.
Fadzil Aziz in Selangor and Hata Wahari and N. Natha in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
An injured journalist is taken for treatment after the violence at Sunday’s political forum, Aug. 13, 2017. [FadzilAziz/BenarNews]
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the general election must be held by March 2018 at the latest.