By Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times
BARISAN NASIONAL MPs yesterday voted strongly in Parliament for a government motion to support the unpopular fuel price hikes in an effort to defuse public anger and shore up the standing of the embattled Prime Minister.
The seemingly innocuous motion on subsidies had been viewed as a de facto vote of confidence in Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
The opposition's attempt to turn this government motion into a no-confidence vote had spooked the BN enough for the coalition whip to instruct its 140 MPs to vote for it. The opposition has 81 MPs, with one independent in the House.
The motion was carried by 129 votes after a boisterous debate that went on all day. Seventy-eight MPs voted against it.
'Thus, the motion is carried,' said Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia.
Under parliamentary rules, such a motion is carried with a simple majority of the votes from MPs present at the time.
Last week, a small Sabah BN component party had threatened to table a vote of no-confidence against Datuk Seri Abdullah, saying that it had lost confidence in his leadership.
The Sabah Progressive Party has two MPs, both of whom were not present yesterday. Its president Yong Teck Lee said in a statement that the party had recalled them after receiving reports of intimidation.
So far, no motion of confidence has been filed in Parliament.
While yesterday's motion carried no legal implications, including that of toppling the government, it was still significant for Mr Abdullah, who is facing a threat of defections from the BN ranks to the opposition.
It was the first show of power between the BN and opposition in Parliament.
A defeat would have put even greater pressure on Mr Abdullah, who is already facing a leadership challenge and calls to resign after leading the coalition to unprecedented losses in the March 8 polls.
But the battle is not over. The opposition is planning a major street demonstration next month to protest against the rise in petrol prices by 41 per cent and diesel by 63 per cent earlier this month.
Inflation had also risen to a 22-month high of 3.8 per cent last month.
Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Shahrir Samad, in tabling the motion, said the government's hand was forced by a global phenomenon of rising oil prices.
'The government has no choice. Demonstrations will not help. We will be the ones to lose out if the economy suffers due to political instability,' he said.
He said the government was already subsidising fuel up to RM27 billion (S$11.3 billion) this year, more than triple the RM8.8 billion last year. It is also spending more than RM4 billion on food subsidies.
Mr Abdullah's son-in-law, Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, an MP from Negeri Sembilan, slammed the opposition for being irresponsible in stirring up protests.
'It (rolling back subsidies) is an economic necessity,' he said, triggering protests when he sought to defend national oil company Petronas' handling of its record revenue.
But the opposition, led by Democratic Action Party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, did not buy the arguments.
Mr Lim, who is also the Penang Chief Minister, lambasted Petronas for lavish spending on private jets and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.
He also criticised Petronas for providing subsidised gas to private companies that produce electricity for the national utility company Tenaga Nasional.
'Malaysians are really suffering, and Petronas' revenue is being spent without consideration for the people,' he said.
The opposition made their point dramatically - on bicycles - when four of its MPs arrived in Parliament on pedal power yesterday morning.
'We want the people to know that we understand their hardships and that we will fight for them in Parliament,' said Mr N. Gobalakrishan, an MP from Kedah who arrived at Parliament sweating profusely.