Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s grip on power looked increasingly tenuous yesterday as his government was riven by dissension within Cabinet ranks over the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) last week.

Popular de facto Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, who on Sunday said that the ISA law should only be used for terrorists, tendered his resignation.

Several other ministers also criticised Friday night’s swoop, suggesting that the Cabinet was not consulted before the arrests of a prominent blogger, a journalist with a mass-selling Chinese newspaper, and an opposition MP.

The government has since released Sin Chew reporter Tan Hoon Cheng, detained for reporting an Umno politician’s statement belittling the Chinese community. Blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin and opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Teresa Kok remain in custody.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, who rebuked Datuk Zaid, was quoted in the Utusan Malaysia yesterday as saying there would be a crisis in governance if ministers spoke out of turn.

Despite his sharp words, however, Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein spoke out against the use of the ISA against Ms Tan.

He said the ISA should not be invoked to save or protect an individual, clearly referring to the Home Minister who had cited this as the reason for Ms Tan being taken into custody.

‘For the other two cases I feel the authorities are better in the know of the risks they posed but I do not have the information on it to comment if the arrests were justified.

‘But in the context of the reporter, the minister concerned has stated the reasons but I personally feel the ISA should not have been used for the reasons he mentioned,’ Datuk Hishammuddin told reporters.

Other ministers who spoke out were Transport Minister Ong Tee Keat, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Shahrir Samad, Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai, Foreign Minister Rais Yatim, Human Resources Minister S. Subramaniam, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Bernard Dompok.

PM Abdullah has refused to accept Mr Zaid’s resignation, telling him to go on leave and reconsider his decision.

Mr Zaid said he would issue a statement today. A source told The Straits Times that he had asked Mr Abdullah to meet certain conditions, but did not disclose what these were.

Mr Zaid, 57, who was appointed to the Cabinet to reform Malaysia’s judiciary, was one of the Premier’s strongest loyalists, and is popular among the liberal civil society community but has very little clout in Umno.

The controversy swirling over the ISA crackdown is only the latest for Mr Abdullah whose ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is under siege by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Mr Anwar held a mass rally last night in Petaling Jaya to protest against the arrests and reiterate his plan to topple the BN this month.

The BN is gripped by infighting among its components, and Mr Abdullah is under attack within his own Umno party, where a significant segment wants him to retire ahead of his originally planned deadline of 2010.

The Premier met his deputy Najib Razak for four hours yesterday afternoon – for the second time in three days – and later insisted that his plans to hand over power to Datuk Seri Najib in mid-2010 were unchanged.

Mr Najib did not comment on the meeting but The Star newspaper, quoting sources, said that he told the Premier that he backed the transition plan provided it had the support of the party’s grassroots.

Party officials say there is a growing view in Umno that Mr Abdullah has become a major liability and unless he is removed, the party that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957 could find itself out of power in coming months.

‘I don’t think it is a question of whether he can hold on,’ says a senior member of Umno Supreme Council, the party’s main decision-making body. ‘The momentum for him to resign is simply too strong.’

Straits Times