Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin believes an electoral alliance with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to avoid cannibalising the opposition's support base, and clarity over a prime ministerial candidate are crucial if Prime Minister Najib Razak is to be defeated at the next general election.
Sacked as deputy prime minister last year after attacking Datuk Seri Najib over graft allegations, he is now trying to fill a vacuum in Malaysia's disparate opposition - that of peacemaker between feuding parties.
PAS, the country's biggest Islamic party that pulled out of the previous opposition alliance after a bitter falling out with the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), has refused to join the new Pakatan Harapan (PH), which also includes DAP.
However, as Mr Muhyiddin told The Straits Times, PAS "recognises that I can play a role in this cooperation" to ensure a united front by the opposition against the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) in the next general election due by 2018.
"The bigger picture is the need for us to work together to have enough seats to form the next government," he said in an interview this week.
WHY PPBM IS BUMIPUTERA-BASED
It is strategic in nature. Some people say you represent what Umno would want to be. Though it is a bumi-led party... you can see the list of members we have got in our party now - there are Malays, Indians, Chinese, and others from Sabah and Sarawak. In those areas... dominated by Umno... the presence of PPBM could give a new perspective and to some, a choice, or hope.
BEING 'MALAY FIRST'
I was branded as an ultra, like Tun Mahathir used to be similarly branded. Singaporeans, I think they know me better because I was there in Johor (as Menteri Besar) for more than 10 years. I had close rapport with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and, of course, now Mr Lee. Did I show myself as Malay first to the extent that I discriminated (against) the Chinese in Johor? When I was heading ministries, did I only care about Malays, and (was) not concerned about Indians?
What has happened with PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) before is they won not because of the Malay vote entirely, they won because they collaborated with DAP (Democratic Action Party) before. The issue, of course, is how do you engage with them, vis-a-vis not just the problems intra-PAS but between PAS and the other parties as well, in particular Amanah and DAP.
Since he formed a new party in August, he has been touted as a potential PM candidate for the opposition, with backing from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
But PH leaders insist that Anwar Ibrahim, currently in jail for a controversial sodomy conviction, remains their choice.
"We (opposition leaders) have never talked about it," said Mr Muhyiddin, who met Anwar when he was released to attend a defamation hearing this week.
"There's no point in talking about it before you have formed (a coalition)... Otherwise Malaysians will say you are not united."
The Najib administration has taken a beating in opinion polls since it was rocked by claims that more than US$700 million (S$961 million) from state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad was deposited in the PM's personal accounts.
But analysts are quick to warn that if opposition parties were to split the anti-government vote, it would allow BN to cruise to victory.
While Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and the PH have agreed not to contest the same seats to avoid splitting the vote, PAS insists it will not negotiate with PH's DAP and Amanah, set up by former PAS members.
Tensions between DAP and PAS over religious issues go back decades. But Anwar, who was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 and later emerged as de facto opposition leader, was able to galvanise the opposition, which denied BN its customary two-thirds supermajority in Parliament in 2008 and 2013.
The opposition alliance fell apart last year after he was convicted of sodomy and jailed.
The controversial sackings of Mr Muhyiddin and Anwar when they were deputy prime ministers have won them sympathy among the multi-ethnic electorate, especially disgruntled Umno supporters.
Analysts believe that having a unifying figure appeals to PAS, which has long vied with Umno to hold sway over the Malay-Muslim majority who are worried about losing their Malay privileges if there is a change of government.
And Mr Muhyiddin, whose meeting with Anwar included PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, said there was agreement that "PAS is integral to our agenda". "Within PAS there are different views, but that is an issue which their leadership has to manage. They cannot have a person that agrees, then someone else who disagrees," he said.
Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of think-tank Ideas, told The Straits Times: "Muhyiddin can play that Anwar role with PAS, but we need to see what Hadi says. PAS understands the need for one-on-one contests, but none of them knows how to do it."