KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian police Wednesday questioned former leader Mahathir Mohamad, who is seeking to oust the government at looming polls, for allegedly insulting a seafaring ethnic group when he attacked the country’s scandal-plagued premier.

Political tensions are rising, with Mahathir - who was premier for 22 years - gearing up to take on PM Najib Razak at elections that must be called by August. At a rally in Oct against a massive financial scandal embroiling the current govt, Mahathir had said Najib was descended from “Bugis pirates”. The Bugis are a seafaring ethnic group that come from neighbouring Indonesia.

The comments sparked anger among the Bugis community and last month the powerful Sultan of Selangor called for Mahathir to face a sedition probe as the remarks insulted his royal family, who claim descent from the ethnic group.

Malaysia has nine state sultans who have no formal power, but are accorded great respect.

On Wednesday Mahathir was questioned by police at his office in the administrative capital Putrajaya for 45 minutes, his lawyer Haniff Khatri told AFP.

He is being investigated for offences including alleged sedition, which has been used to jail numerous government critics in recent years, and making an insulting remark intended to cause a breach of the peace, the lawyer said.

Haniff said that Mahathir had already explained his remark was not directed at the Bugis community as a whole but “one person only”. “He will answer in court all the charges without any concern of what sentence may be meted out,” he said.

Najib is battling allegations billions of dollars were looted from a sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, that he founded. Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.