Malaysia’s government faces a storm of criticism over a series of arrests under internal security laws, with several cabinet ministers breaking ranks to speak out against the move.

The furore highlighted disarray within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has been rattled by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s plans to seize power by persuading government lawmakers to defect.

Anwar has set a Tuesday deadline to topple the coalition, but said on the weekend that although he has enough support for a takeover, the timing could be delayed in order to preserve national stability.

Cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim, who is in charge of legal affairs, led the criticism of the Saturday arrests of an opposition politician, the nation’s leading blogger, and a reporter for a Chinese-language daily.

Zaid said the government was wrong to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) which provides for indefinite detention without trial, and was willing to step down for his stance if necessary.

“The ISA is open to abuse. If we cannot be fair in implementing it, then we should confine its use to terrorists,” he said, according to the New Straits Times.

The arrests triggered fears that the government was planning a wider crackdown on dissent to crush Anwar’s ambitions, but the quick release of the journalist on Sunday eased fears of a national crisis.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar defended the arrests but said the police carried them out without instructions from him, in comments ridiculed by the opposition which said he and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were accountable.

Abdullah must explain whether the crackdown was rolled out “in order to protect his position as prime minister now that he is under attack,” opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang told a press conference.

Lim said it appeared that deputy premier Najib Razak, and Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin were “teaming up” to challenge Abdullah who has faced repeated calls to quit since a drubbing in March general elections.

Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek also called on police to explain the ISA arrests, and welcomed the release of the journalist, whose offence was to report racist remarks made by a ruling party politician.

Opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok, from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party which is a member of the opposition alliance, was also arrested over allegations she complained about the noise of morning prayers at a mosque.

She has said the accusation is “preposterous”.

The other detainee is Malaysia’s leading blogger, 58-year-old Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who has repeatedly targeted government figures on his website “Malaysia Today”.

He has already been charged with sedition and defamation after linking Najib and his wife to the sensational murder of a Mongolian woman.

Sydney Morning Herald