On Thursday the government in Malaysia did something that was unheard of: it lowered the consumer price of cooking gas by eight cents (HK$0.19) a kilogram in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. It was a small reduction but a major admission that the two states, which control 42 seats in parliament, could make or break the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. It is ironic that together the two states are the 13th largest producer of liquefied natural gas in the world, but gas prices there were higher than in peninsular Malaysia. East Malaysians had long complained about this and other disparities, but were always given the cold shoulder by the political centre. That has changed now they have a new rising political star - former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim - who is speaking up for them. The rise of Mr Anwar caps his remarkable return to public life since he was released from jail in 2004 after serving six years in prison over corruption charges, as well as sex charges that were later dismissed. On Monday night he hosted a rally attended by more than 20,000 people to mark his return to politics after a five-year ban. Mr Anwar now is promising east Malaysians the equality, justice and fairness that they have always desired - but never got. In exchange he is asking for political loyalty. When Mr Anwar, at the head of a newly formed People's Alliance opposition coalition, announced on Monday that he had the numbers to topple the government of Mr Abdullah, he was primarily referring to east Malaysians, whose 42 seats in the divided 222-seat parliament represents the trump card if Mr Anwar ever becomes prime minister. 'If anybody defects it will come from Sabah and to a lesser extent from Sarawak,' said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Monash University's Kuala Lumpur campus. 'They have a history of switching political loyalties and Anwar is working hard among them.' In the national election on March 8, the ruling National Front coalition - lead by Mr Abdullah, whose United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is the coalition's dominant party - lost five state governments and a two-thirds majority in parliament to Mr Anwar's loose People's Alliance coalition, which now has 82 seats. 'Anwar needs just 30 lawmakers to switch over to form the next government,' the academic said. It is a magic number that Malaysians are all talking about. At Monday's rally Mr Anwar announced: 'We have the numbers. Some [government lawmakers] are already with us, but in secret. We are having discussions with others. But we are not in a hurry. We will wait for the right time. We want to create a new era for Malaysia. 'We will hand the parliamentary opposition to Abdullah,' he said, drawing applause from the crowd. Later, in an interview, he said: 'But I will not do it just yet. I'll wait until I have a clear and comfortable majority before striking.' Ordinary Malaysians and political experts are divided over the question of whether Mr Anwar has the numbers or is grandstanding. Many ordinary Malaysians believe Mr Anwar has sufficient support, but is biding his time before showing his hand because his political enemies are awake and watching. Others say he is keeping Mr Abdullah off balance with his claim in order to buy time to unite his fragile opposition grouping into a strong and working coalition able to withstand pressure and survive. 'He is bluffing. He is playing politics,' said Fong Chan Onn, vice-president of the Malaysian Chinese Association. 'He is diverting attention from big ideological fights in his coalition.' People who know Mr Anwar well but are not in his political camp disagree that he is grandstanding. 'For me Anwar is a credible person and a politician who can be believed,' said political analyst James Wong, a senior researcher at Malaysiakini.com, an independent online news provider. 'The people who voted for him believe him, the government is denying it. We should keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. Anwar has a solid reputation and he will not tarnish it with cheap theatrics.' He said the reduction in gas price was a clear indication of a worried government rolling out the red carpet to the east Malaysians. 'Why are they suddenly getting VIP treatment?' Wong asked. 'They are the weak link in the ruling coalition and are likely to be the first to defect.' Besides a cut in the gas price, east Malaysians are getting more places in government than before, in addition to the high-profile post of parliamentary speaker and a multibillion-ringgit economic package that will lift the economically backward states. Mr Anwar has offered an incentive no east Malaysian leader can refuse - 20 per cent of oil and gas royalties to the state compared with the meagre 5 per cent given by the federal government for many years. Mr Abdullah's problems are compounded by the fact that his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, is leading a growing 'rebel' movement within Umno to force Mr Abdullah to resign immediately and hand over to his deputy, Najib Razak. Dr Mahathir has framed his cause as a movement to save Umno and Malay political dominance, which was lost by the 'incompetent' Mr Abdullah to Mr Anwar, whom he has described as a 'Jew-lover and lackey of the west'. The growing division over whether Mr Abdullah should quit immediately or hand over in 2010 as a face-saving gesture is seen by political analysts as a boon to Mr Anwar's quest to widen his parliamentary majority with defection from Umno lawmakers. 'Some Umno lawmakers are deeply disappointed with the infighting and want to switch camps,' said Azmin Ali, an Anwar confidant and vice-president of his People's Justice Party. 'They see Anwar as the future and Dr Mahathir as a return to a past that voters have rejected. 'It [defection] is happening from Umno and from east Malaysia,' Mr Azmin said. 'At the right time they will cross over and the Abdullah-edifice will collapse like a pack of cards ... it is just the right timing.' One senior aide who declined to be named said Mr Anwar had held secret meetings with government lawmakers in Indonesia and the Middle East, two countries where Malaysian leaders frequently travelled for recreational and religious purposes without raising eyebrows. 'The MPs are keen but worried. There is also a lot of hard bargaining, they want to be rewarded to make the jump.' Until now not a single government lawmaker has publicly declared an intention to switch sides. Many have consistently denied they are about to change political loyalties, a pattern consistent with previous defections, which are usually announced at the last minute to forestall counter action. Historically, defecting lawmakers have even been arrested and confined for days to prevent them from crossing over to save state governments from collapsing. 'All this speculation is rubbish. We are not crossing over,' said prominent lawmaker Bernard Dompok from Sabah state. 'Anwar is just playing his usual game of political brinkmanship.' Maximus Ongkili, another Sabah leader, agreed with Mr Dompok, saying that Mr Anwar was grandstanding. 'He does not have the numbers, never had, not at all. He is playing a dangerous game, he is destabilising the country.' A lawmaker from Sarawak widely known to have close links with Mr Anwar said on condition of anonymity that negotiations with Mr Anwar were continuing. He denied their political loyalties were for sale. 'You've got to understand that for us it is not just switching loyalties but winning recognition as equal partners in government and an equal share of national resources,' the lawmaker said. 'All these years there was only one power centre with Umno as the leader, but now there is Anwar, a second power centre. We have a choice now and both power centres need us. I think it is very good for all Malaysians that the domination by one party has ended. 'Some of us will switch sides for money and power but most will do so if our states get a bigger slice of the national cake. For most of us it is not a question of choosing between Anwar or Abdullah but how our people will benefit. We are the richest states, with vast oil and gas reserves, but are also the poorest in the federation. 'We feel it is now or never ... that the current configuration of political forces might not be sustained and might not happen again. We are anxious to make the most of it,' said the lawmaker, adding that the issue was more than just a matter of switching loyalties for political gain. The feverish speculation is taking a toll on the government, whose confidence is rattled and which is frequently forced to deny that Mr Anwar is eroding support and pushing it to the brink of collapse. Two days ago deputy premier Mr Najib again rubbished the claim that lawmakers were set to defect. 'There is no evidence that lawmakers from Umno or east Malaysia are jumping ship,' he said, adding however the government was 'watching it very closely'. He said a snap general election was a possibility if defections occurred suddenly. Foreign investors and the business community are worried that the prolonged uncertainty will adversely affect the economy and frighten away foreign investors. 'If Anwar has the numbers, then both sides seem equally matched. It could either mean frequent changes of government and resulting instability or a stable two-party government that would lift Malaysia as a mature political society,' said a senior diplomat at a European mission there. 'We can't say for sure how this crisis will play out.' For many ordinary Malaysians, the issue is already settled and it is only a matter of weeks, if not days, before they wake up to a new government with Mr Anwar at its head, like when they woke up on March 8 to a radically altered political landscape. 'Anwar is a good person and he has suffered so much by going to jail. Why can't people accept what he says? Why should he lie?' asked Ponnusamy Annamalai, 67, a newspaper vendor. 'But it will not be easy for him to become prime minister because his political enemies will stop him by whatever means.'