The former deputy prime minister is working hard to convince ruling party MPs to defect, writes Hamish McDonald in Kuching, Malaysia.

His Dayak ancestors were feared headhunters who once dominated this part of Borneo. Now James Masing is being headhunted.

The six federal members of parliament from his Sarawak People’s Party are being stalked by Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader who has set tomorrow as the date that Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of the past 45 years will fall.

To achieve that, Dr Anwar needs at least 30 of Barisan’s 140 MPs to jump across and join the 82 MPs of his People’s Alliance grouping of three parties, which rattled the Government with startling advances in federal and state elections in March.

The 31 MPs from Sarawak, all but one in Barisan, will be a critical bloc. Dr Masing said the Anwar group tries to call him constantly. “I refuse to entertain them,” he declared, although he admitted admitted to a sense that “Malaysia was changing”.

But Dr Anwar’s chief headhunter in Sarawak, Ng Kim Ho, predicted “substantial” numbers of MPs will jump. “We are anticipating even entire parties,” said Mr Ng, a lawyer who became a state MP for Dr Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) in March.

After returning to parliament in a byelection on August 26, following six years in jail on contentious sodomy and corruption charges, Dr Anwar, the former deputy prime minister, wasted no time challenging his former colleagues in Barisan: on tomorrow’s anniversary of Malaysia’s formation in 1963 from former British colonies in Malaya and Borneo, he would show the numbers to take power.

No Barisan MP has yet jumped ship. Parliament is not even sitting this week because of Ramadan, so much would depend on the attitude of Malaysia’s king to any list of support that Dr Anwar presents. “The political situation is changing every six hours,” Mr Ng said in Sarawak. “September 16 will occur but it might not be the date itself.”

But Barisan is showing signs of alarm and disarray. Last week, 49 members of its “backbenchers club” were sent on a agricultural study tour to Taiwan, with a reported 50,000 ringgits ($18,500) each in pocket money. On Friday, Anwar representatives flew to Taipei to keep working on them.

The Government also showed off its most powerful weapon, the Internal Security Act, which allows detention for up to two years without trial. Last week, police arrested a political blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin, as well as an opposition MP and a journalist under the act. Mr Anwar said it was to “engineer an atmosphere of fear and instability”.

Earlier, the armed forces chief, General Abdul Aziz Zainal, had made an unusual public request for the Government to act against anyone inciting racial hatreds, a veiled reminder of the Malay riots against Chinese in 1969. But the arrests were widely criticised, especially that of Penang journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, of the Sin Chew Daily, who had reported a remark by a local leader of Barisan’s dominant United Malays National Organisation, that the Chinese were “squatters” in Malaysia.

The official was quickly suspended from UMNO for three years, but even the two Barisan component parties based on Chinese voters joined protests that police were targeting the messenger, not the message. Tan was released on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the position of the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, was undercut from within his own party. The Trade and Industry Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who is an UMNO vice-president, said the agreed post-election succession plan, whereby Mr Abdullah would hand over to his deputy, Najib Tun Razak, in June 2010, was “too long”. Mr Najib then said it was up to UMNO branches, which meet in a party congress in December.

And the former prime minister of 21 years, Mahathir Mohamad, who disavowed Mr Abdullah after the March election setback and quit UMNO in May, said he wants to rejoin the party, foreshadowing more manoeuvres to oust the Prime Minister.

But this week, it is Dr Anwar’s political game from the outside. “It’s a psychological battle, though we are now playing for real,” Mr Ng said. “Without setting a target, that date would never come. Without also trying to get the members of parliament to jump – to persuade them, use all kinds of technique – they will continue to sit and wait.”

The Anwar side is appealing to longstanding grievances that Sarawak and Sabah have not received their fair share of development funds from Kuala Lumpur or the cabinet portfolios their parliamentary numbers justify.

The other signal talks to the herd instinct. Barisan MPs have spent their careers under the domination of strong leaders, Dr Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur, and in, Kuching, Sarawak’s chief minister of the past 27 years, Taib Mahmud.

“Half of the people in Barisan Nasional could not stand the pressures of being in opposition politics,” Mr Ng said. “They are so used to everything going their own way: All they need to do is kowtow to one big leader … These Barisan MPs, we know their characters and weaknesses: we have to be able to work on them. ‘I don’t want to be the last to jump’ – I think there is this kind of fear, they don’t want to miss the boat when the change comes.”

Sydney Morning Herald