KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s scandal-ridden former leader Najib Razak was hit with a travel ban Saturday as speculation mounted he was about to flee the country following his election loss, in a possible bid to avoid prosecution over a financial scandal.
An angry crowd had gathered at a Kuala Lumpur airport, shouting at vehicles and seeking to stop them from entering, after Najib tweeted that he was going to take a “short break” with his family.
Reports had circulated online that he and his unpopular wife, Rosmah Mansor, were set to board a flight to Indonesia. The defeat of Najib’s National Front coalition in last week’s poll by an alliance led by his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad was a political earthquake that toppled an increasingly authoritarian regime that had ruled the country for six decades.
Late Saturday afternoon, Najib quit as head of the coalition and its main party. “I have taken the decision to step down as president of UMNO and chairman of Barisan Nasional [the National Front] immediately,” he told a news conference, surrounded by senior party members.
Speculation had been mounting that Najib, who has been embroiled in a massive scandal related to state fund 1MDB, might try to flee the country. Mahathir, who came out of retirement to take on his ex-protege, has pledged to investigate the controversy, in which Najib is accused of involvement in stealing huge sums of money.
At 92, Mahathir is the world’s oldest elected leader. He previously served as prime minister for over two decades, and was accused of ruling with an iron fist.
As images of a manifest for a flight to Jakarta circulated online, Najib said in social media posts he was planning to take a short break to rest after the election and would return in the coming week.
But as speculation mounted Najib and his wife were about to board a flight, the immigration department announced they were banned from leaving Malaysia.
“The immigration department has just now blacklisted Najib and Rosmah from leaving the country,” said Mustafar Ali, director-general of the immigration department.
Najib said in a tweet: “I have just been informed by the immigration department of Malaysia that my family and I are not allowed to go abroad. I respect the decision and I will remain in the country with my family.”
Rosmah has long been a lightning rod for public anger in Malaysia due to her reported love of luxury shopping trips and vast collection of designer handbags.
Earlier, dozens of people descended on the airport in a bid to stop them from leaving. Riot police were stationed by the gate where it was believed Najib would enter.
As a white van with heavily tinted windows attempted to pass by, the crowd surrounded the vehicle and demanded it be opened so they could see who was inside. They tried to rock the vehicle, and one man shouted, “I hate Rosmah.”
It was only allowed to pass after those inside rolled down a window to prove Najib was not in the van.
Businessman Raja Singham, 49, who had tried to block the van from entering, said: “We have suffered for so many years. I don’t want them to get out of the country.”
In the latest dizzying development after last week’s shock poll results, Mahathir announced Friday that the king had agreed to pardon jailed leading politician Anwar Ibrahim, his former nemesis and current ally. This would pave the way for Anwar’s return to politics and to potentially become premier later. Mahathir has said he plans to eventually hand the premiership to Anwar.
Anwar was heir apparent to Mahathir until they had a dramatic falling-out. Mahathir sacked him in 1998, and he was subsequently jailed. He was released and then imprisoned again under Najib’s rule in 2015.
Mahathir and Anwar reconciled in recent years in a bid to oust Najib.