Recent calls for Malay parties from both sides of the aisle to unite and defend the majority community's rights are part of a plot to thwart veteran leader Anwar Ibrahim from becoming Malaysia's next prime minister, several sources have told The Straits Times.
Datuk Seri Anwar heads Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in the four-member Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. The other members of the ruling coalition are the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and moderate Islamic party Parti Amanah Negara (PAN).
Mr Anwar is to take over the reins from Tun Dr Mahathir before the next general election, due by 2023, under a succession plan agreed by PH last year. But sources say a plan has been hatched to block his path.
The calls for Malay parties to unite have come from opposition party Umno, which has formed a pact with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), but Umno's invitation has been extended only to PPBM, and a group of MPs from PKR not aligned to Mr Anwar.
Traces of the plan surfaced on Tuesday when PH issued a statement denouncing Umno MP Hishammuddin Hussein for trying to mastermind a Malay unity government by courting PPBM and PKR, and excluding DAP and PAN from the administration. Datuk Seri Hishammuddin denied the claim.
But sources in both the government and opposition say Mr Hishammuddin, a former defence minister, is just a scapegoat for the move, which has been coordinated by Malay lawmakers from both sides.
A key marker of the plan was the Malay Dignity Congress on Oct 6.
ST understands that former minister Hamzah Zainuddin got the ball rolling on the congress, together with several other MPs who, like him, defected to PPBM from Umno last year.
About 10,000 people, mostly students from the four government-controlled universities who organised the congress, were in attendance to see Dr Mahathir and several ministers, including PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, stand shoulder to shoulder with top Malay opposition figures, including PAS president Hadi Awang and Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa.
Noticeably absent from the event was Mr Anwar, despite his Malay-led PKR forming the largest party in Parliament with 50 seats.
Meanwhile, some PH leaders have openly called for Dr Mahathir to remain in office until the next polls. They include PPBM members and, notably, Datuk Seri Azmin, who is himself seen as a strong candidate for prime minister.
Even the two giants of the opposition, Umno and PAS, have pledged their support for the 94-year-old premier to stay on.
Sources say Dr Mahathir himself has no part in the plan to thwart Mr Anwar. He rejected Umno's offer after the congress for PPBM to form a unity government with Umno and PAS, saying Malaysia must have a multiracial government.
It is understood that the power struggle stems from ambitious Malay politicians who are keen to protect their turf and fear Mr Anwar's administration will not favour their interests.
Mr Anwar appears to be well aware of these plans, and is himself shoring up support from across the aisle. In a recent heated exchange with Umno MPs in Parliament, he alluded to Umno members defecting to the ruling parties to avoid being charged with graft.
Mr Hishammuddin responded by saying that Mr Anwar's focus on Umno indicated "he needs our support to become Prime Minister, which begs the question of whether he is not confident of getting support from his own party".
PKR is said to be split by rival factions aligned to Mr Anwar and Mr Azmin, with about a third of the party's 50 MPs siding with Mr Azmin. Umno's 37 seats and PAS' 18 seats could be crucial in a race for a majority of the 222 seats in Parliament, if the PH coalition falls apart over the succession issue.
In the meantime, calls for Malay unity continue to resound.
On Oct 7, the pro-government New Straits Times carried an article "First Step to Bangsa Malaysia?", referring to a united Malaysian people. It argued that "the consolidation of Malay political parties in a new union is necessary for Bangsa Malaysia to flourish", citing leaders of PPBM, Umno, PAS and PKR.
It reported Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof as saying there had been discussions among Malay leaders of different parties that "to unite Bangsa Malaysia, Malays must unite first" and that this proposal was agreed to by Mr Hishammuddin.
Alongside this article, NST ran a letter penned by Mr Hishammuddin saying non-Malays "must not be worried, as we understand that Malay unity cannot come at the expense of the unity of all Malaysians".
On Thursday, Mr Hishammuddin also posted a picture on Facebook of himself with the Sultan of Selangor and Mr Azmin, who was formerly chief minister of the state, in an apparent signal that the challenge to Mr Anwar's ascension is still afoot.