KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of Malaysians streamed into central Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to call for the prime minister's ouster over corruption allegations and demand broader reforms, spurning warnings by police who have declared the rally illegal.
Ordinary citizens converged on the capital's historic heart, many of them defiantly wearing the yellow t-shirts - banned by the government - of Malaysia's leading pro-reform movement for the beginning of a planned two-day rally.
But early arrivals were encountering roadblocks set up at key points and manned by a heavy security presence determined to thwart plans for an overnight occupation of the capital's central Independence Square.
Members of Prime Minister Najib Razak's ministers have admitted he received nearly US$700 million (S$989 million) in mysterious deposits into his personal bank accounts starting in 2013.
The revelation, brought to light by the Wall Street Journal last month, has angered many Malaysians, including members of Najib's ruling party, already fed up with recurring government graft scandals.
"We want to show Najib that a lot of people don't want him," said Sheila Devaraj, 58, a retired school teacher.
Echoing the concerns of many, she complained of rising prices, worries over economic growth and the nation's plummeting currency.
"The (Najib) scandal is an insult that adds to all our sufferings," she said, dressed in yellow.
Previous rallies by the civil-society movement Bersih, which was initially formed years ago to push for electoral reform, have ended in clashes with police, most recently in 2012.
There were no incidents reported as of early Saturday afternoon.
Tensions have escalated in recent days, with police and Najib calling the rally provocative and disrespectful as Malaysia prepares to celebrate National Day on Monday, with ceremonies also set for Independence Square.
"Don't they understand? Are they that shallow and poor in their patriotism and love for their motherland?" Najib was quoted saying Saturday by state-run Bernama news agency.
Najib had earlier said National Day should not be used as "a stage for political disputes".
Transparency International urged the government to allow the rally.
"The government of Malaysia should listen to the concerns of its people," the corruption watchdog's Chairman Jose Ugaz said in a statement Saturday.
Najib's cabinet ministers say the money transfers were "political donations" from unidentified Middle Eastern sources.
They say there was nothing improper, but no further details have been given.
The accounts have since been closed and the current whereabouts of the money have not been explained.
Najib has called the graft allegations a "conspiracy" by unnamed opponents to topple him.
But the explanations have been widely mocked, including by influential retired former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who warns that Najib is leading the country down a dead end and called the "political donations" claims "absurd".
Status of investigations unclear
Najib recently sacked officials or absorbed into his cabinet parliamentarians who were probing the matter, leaving the status of investigations unclear.
The premier had already been under pressure over months of allegations that huge sums had disappeared from deals involving heavily-indebted state investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib launched in 2009.
Recent reports also have detailed alleged multi-million dollar overseas investments by Najib family members.
Najib and 1MDB vehemently deny wrongdoing.
The 58-year-old ruling regime already was losing voter support over its authoritarian tactics and recurring scandals.
After taking power in 2009, Najib vowed to tackle persistent corruption, end authoritarianism, and reform a system of controversial race-based preferences for the Muslim ethnic Malays who are the multi-ethnic country's majority group.
But those initiatives are either stalled or have been reversed by Najib, leaving many angry over what are perceived as broken promises.
Exacerbating the public unease are fears that the global economic turmoil will impede Malaysian growth just as many complain that a new consumption tax has caused prices to spike.
The ringgit currency has slid to 17-year lows, with investors rattled by the international outlook and the Najib funding fiasco.
Most political analysts expect Najib and his government to ride out the turmoil, however, owing to its control over key institutions such as the police and judiciary.