Dozens of lawmakers from the ruling coalition left Monday for Taiwan on an educational tour, in an apparent bid to prevent them from joining an opposition push to topple the government.
The opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, who has vowed to unseat the coalition by September 16, said the trip was an attempt to "corral and seclude" parliamentarians amid the high-stakes negotiations.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose ruling party leads the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, has vowed to thwart Anwar's plan to secure the 30 lawmakers he needs to form a new administration.
"Some National Front leaders are getting cold feet and more than a touch of panic," said Lim Kit Siang from the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the three-member opposition alliance.
"All in all, it is a national shame that the MPs should be treated like delinquent children who have to be packed off overseas and secluded from mischief, treating the National Front MPs as no better than chattel," he added.
But Tiong King Sing, chairman of the government backbenchers' club that organised the hastily arranged tour, defended it as an educational programme.
"It is not a forced trip. We are going to Taiwan to obtain some ideas on how to bolster our agriculture output. It has nothing to do with September 16. They can do what they want to do on that date," he told AFP.
Tiong said 50 MPs were participating in the eight-day tour, and that dozens had left on Monday. The Star newspaper said in an SMS alert that 41 had departed.
There are a total of 140 coalition lawmakers in parliament, and most of the would-be defectors were believed to be from the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island.
Anwar said he was on track to meet the deadline, though political observers have expressed scepticism he can recruit enough defectors by that date.
The 61-year-old opposition leader said government attempts to compel lawmakers to leave the country would not work.
"We have seen some very positive signs, but we have also seen the desperate acts by the government, threats and using institutions to discourage them," he said in Jakarta.
The opposition alliance gained unprecedented ground in March general elections, securing a third of parliamentary seats and five states from the coalition, which has ruled since independence from Britain half a century ago.