KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's embattled prime minister provoked fierce criticism Friday by not attending an event at which he was to defend himself over an escalating scandal threatening to engulf his administration.
Prime Minister Najib Razak had been expected to use the public forum to hit back at critics of a state-owned development company he launched that is reeling under billions of dollars of debt and accusations of fraud.
But after 89-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - the chief voice pushing for Najib's ouster over the affair - showed up to speak at the event, police ordered it shut down, citing unspecified "public order and national harmony" concerns.
Political opponents and Malaysia's active social-media scene accused Najib of engineering the cancellation to avoid facing his main accuser in public.
"He lost an opportunity to win over support for himself, to explain everything... that no money is missing," Mahathir was quoted saying by The Malaysian Insider news portal.
Najib launched the company, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), in 2009 and, as concurrent finance minister, is responsible for its operations.
But it is reeling under an estimated $11 billion debt, which has weighed on the ringgit currency and sparked fears for the country's sovereign credit rating.
Reports this year also have alleged that possibly billions of dollars have gone missing through mismanagement and murky overseas transactions.
Najib and 1MDB have denied wrongdoing, saying the company is on solid footing.
But both opposition and ruling party critics have accused 1MDB of providing incomplete and shifting explanations.
Najib's office blamed his no-show on the security warning from his national police chief.
But critics mocked that, noting that the event was held at Najib's own ruling-party headquarters.
"Najib has only himself and the (police chief) to blame if even more Malaysians are now convinced that the prime minister has a lot to hide," said leading opposition parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang.
In February, the New York Times published a lengthy expose detailing multi-million-dollar purchases of luxury US real estate by a close Najib family associate, financier Low Taek Jho, whom various reports also have linked to 1MDB's dealings.
Low has denied involvement.
Najib clung to power in 2013 polls, but lost the popular vote to an opposition that promised to end endemic corruption and oppression under the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.
Mahathir, who governed with a tight fist from 1981 until his 2003 retirement, has said the coalition will suffer a historic loss of power unless Najib is replaced.
Crony capitalism and abuse of democratic rights was rife under Mahathir, but he remains influential, and Malaysians have watched his anti-Najib campaign with fascination.
Under pressure, Najib earlier this year ordered his auditor-general to examine 1MDB's books. Its report has not yet been released.
Critics including Mahathir have called for criminal investigations, but little has been done by Najib's regime.
Malaysia's central bank on Wednesday, however, said it had launched an investigation into whether 1MDB had broken any rules on offshore borrowing and investments.