Malaysia's Anwar Raises the Temperature

Going back on his public assertions that he would become Malaysia’s premier by September 16, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim held a press conference to announce what he has already announced repeatedly – that at least 31 federal lawmakers from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition would cross over to his side.

The onetime deputy prime minister and finance minister's unrelenting quest to become prime minister has pushed political stability in Malaysia to a boiling point, critics say. Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi immediately dismissed Anwar's claims as "preposterous" and challenged him to reveal the names of potential defectors. Anwar says he is unwilling to do so for fear that Barisan may harass and intimidate the leapfrogging lawmakers.

Whether Anwar becomes prime minister may be less significant than whether Badawi remains one. Anwar's assiduous assault has in part galvanized anti-Badawi forces within the Barisan, especially in the flailing United Malays National Organisation, the country's largest ethnic party, which leads the coalition.

The UMNO Supreme Council is to meet Thursday and could possibly push out the embattled Badawi. The former premier Mahathir Mohamad has thrown his support behind his longtime foe, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, in the contest in December party polls for the UMNO presidency and by default, the country's top job. Muhyiddin Yassin, an UMNO vice-president and Minister of International Trade and Industry, invited Mahathir back into the party last week and openly challenged Badawi's stated "transition plan” to hand over the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2010. In response, the scandal-scarred Najib, who is viewed with open suspicion in the party because of allegations of his connection to the 2006 execution murder of a Mongolian woman, made a U-turn on his earlier commitment to the plan and now says it must be endorsed by the grassroots at branch and division elections.

Another major defector is Zaid Ibrahim, who was brought into the government by Badawi after disastrous March 8 national elections as a reformer to clean up the country’s judicial system. Zaid who resigned when the government cracked down on journalists last week, using the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which provides for virtually unlimited detention without warrant or habeas corpus. Although he is rumored to be joining Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Abdullah Badawi refused to accept his resignation, and his status is unclear.

The Barisan, which has ruled for over half a century, appears to be taking Anwar's claims seriously. On Sept 8, it packed 41 backbenchers to Taiwan, ostensibly to study agriculture although they've been put up at an agriculture leisure park and repeatedly spotted toting golf clubs. Pakatan, the coalition led by Anwar, in turn sent a team from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Anwar's party and the largest parliamentary opposition, in hot pursuit to woo the Barisan lawmakers.

"While we have time, we will be enjoying coffee and breakfast with them to talk about how to change Malaysia," Tian Chua, Keadilan information chief and lawmaker, told a local blog September 12. Barisan lawmakers have reportedly denied meeting the Pakatan delegation.

There are also reports that the government is planning to send Malaysia’s current Agong, or king, the Sultan of Terengganu, to Saudi Arabia to perform religious duties during Ramadan. If Anwar were to lure the requisite number of lawmakers to his side, he would need to present the letters of resignation from the Barisan to the Agong. Everybody is due to come back Saturday, however. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Racial and religious sentiments are also boiling up as parties like the ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the fundamentalist Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS) have greater parliamentary representation and clout as members of Pakatan. Previously-sensitive issues are being bandied about with little concern about the multi-cultural population, which includes about 60 percent Muslim Malays, 25 percent Chinese and about 8 percent Indians. The remainder are indigenous peoples and others.

Reportedly insensitive handling of the Muslim community's feelings and interests have landed Teresa Kok, a DAP federal and state lawmaker and state councillor, in jail under the ISA along with two journalists. Shortly after Pakatan took over the Selangor state government after the March 8 general election, Kok announced that the government had approved a high-tech pig farm in the state, although eating pork is anathema to Muslims. She has also been accused of seeking to replace Jawi, the traditional Malay script, on road signs with Chinese characters and Tamil script, and complaining that the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, was too loud. She has denied the allegations and says she is being targeted by UMNO.

Raja Petra Kamarudin, the prolific editor of the political news site Malaysia Today and Anwar's high school friend, has also been detained under the ISA for articles that allegedly insulted Islam and Muslims. Raja Petra, known for his constant assault on the administration and UMNO, has been sued for defamation countless times and charged with several counts of sedition and criminal defamation.

The crackdown on the media indicates that Badawi is losing his grip on power, if he ever truly had any to start with. A female reporter with the largest Chinese-language daily, Sin Chew, was also detained under the ISA for 18 hours – a record short period -- over a report that she wrote about a minor UMNO politician calling the Chinese "squatters" in a rally. The politician says he was merely stating a historical fact that earlier Chinese immigrants came with the goal of making as much money as possible to return to China. He has refused to apologize, although Vice Premier Najib did, however.