The police have arrested an opposition politician, a prominent blogger and a journalist, according to officials and reports, in a sudden crackdown as the opposition plots to seize power.
The three were all held under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for detention without trial and has been used against government opponents in the past.
Political observers said they feared the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which was humiliated in March elections and is now threatened by the opposition's plans, was planning a repeat of an infamous 1987 crackdown.
"Is Malaysia in the grip of another ISA madness, akin to Operation Lalang 21 years ago when there were mass arrests under the ISA and closure of three newspapers?" said opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang who was jailed in that campaign.
Malaysia's leading blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin (left), who has targeted government figures on his website Malaysia Today, was the first to be taken into custody.Tan Hoon Cheng (right), a reporter for the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily,was also arrested after reporting on an outburst from a ruling party member who called the ethnic Chinese community "squatters".
Her report triggered a major row in the coalition which is made up of race-based parties. The leading party, which represents majority Muslim Malays, was forced to punish the member responsible.
"Her colleagues from Sin Chew Daily are shocked about the arrest," the newspaper said in a statement. "Sin Chew Daily will stand firmly by our editorial position."
Teresa Kok (left), a lawmaker from the Chinese-based DAP which is a member of the opposition alliance, had also beenarrested under the ISA.
While details are sketchy, Kok has been defending herself against allegations that she complained about the noise of morning prayers at a mosque in her electorate. She has said the accusation is "preposterous".
The Internal Security Act, which human rights groups have pushed to have abolished, allows for renewable two-year periods of detention without trial and is normally used against suspected terrorists.
The opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim who is plotting to topple the government as soon as next week, condemned the move to deploy the law as "draconian and unjustified."
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is believed to have launched the crackdown to bolster his position within the ruling Umno party.
He is facing increasing calls from party leaders to step down much earlier than what he has earlier promised - that he will hand over power to his deputy in mid-2010.
Show cause letters for dailies
The Centre for Independent Journalism said the measures "bear a disturbing resemblance to the period in the lead-up to the Operasi Lalang in 1987" when dozens of activists, artists, academics and politicians were detained.
"Both incidents are similar in that it relates to ongoing political crisis within Umno, but manifested as alleged racial tension by the government," it said in a statement.
Three Malaysian newspapers - the Sin Chew Daily, The Sun which is a free English-language daily, and Suara Keadilan which is published by the opposition - were also today threatened with suspension.
The three had been issued with show-cause letters from the home ministry, requiring them to explain their actions or face suspension.