Another advance for Malaysia's socialists

By Max Lane

The Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM), which won a seat in the country’s federal as well as in one state parliament, in the March 8 elections, made another advance on June 18 when home affairs minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar gave the PSM the green light to be registered as a legal party, subject to it showing that it has a national base. Direct Action spoke to PSM pro-tem secretary-general S. Arutchelvan about this and other issues.

What has happened in relation to the PSM’s registration as a legally recognised party?

Immediately after the election, in mid-April and May, we did a huge campaign through faxes to the home affairs ministry. On May 28, we submitted a memorandum to the minister. We tried to seize the opportunity because after the big losses by the National Front [BN] in the general election, PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government was trying to introduce some reforms. They acknowledged the mistake on how they handled some cases, and they also gave the People’s Justice Party [PKR, led by Anwar Ibrahim] permission to print their newspaper. So we told them that if they don’t register PSM, it will be seen that they are not for reform because the PSM case is the landmark case on freedom of association in Malaysia.

So the minister in an email has agreed to grant us registration after 10 years but we have to resubmit some forms. Most of the local media have been highlighting this development. I was invited to be on the prime time news and was also interviewed.

With a platform in the national parliament and one state parliament, what political perspectives will PSM try to popularise?

We are forming what is called the MPR, the Majlis Perundingan Rakyat, or People’s Consultative Assembly, in which the local people can play an important role in politics. We are trying to promote it as “contoh sosialis perintah” — an example of socialist government. On a national level, we are trying to push the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance [comprising the PKR, the Democratic Action Party and the Islamic Party] to implement its election pledges on building a welfare state. This means continuing to campaign for a minimum wage of 1500 ringgit [A$480] per month — there is no minimum wage at the moment — as well as for free education and health services and decent homes for all people. The campaign for the abolition of the Internal Security Act [ISA] is also crucial. These constitute the minimum program which we will push for.

Can you see any pressing issues that may radicalise wider layers of people? What campaigns do you think will develop?

The fuel hike and food crisis will definitely be issues which will radicalise the people. We have to use these objective conditions to advance our struggle.

Protes mobilised a million people against the fuel price increases in early July. Who is involved in Protes?

Protes was formed in 2006 when the government raised fuel prices by 19%. The members of Protes have been the four opposition parties as well as several NGOs. The chairperson of Protes is Dr Hatta, the national treasurer of the Islamic Party, PAS, and I am the deputy chairperson. Protes was seen as mainly a PAS-PSM alliance, then PKR became active during the anti-toll hike protests in 2007. This year, the PKR youth wing is also playing an important part in Protes.

What is the PSM’s role in Protes?

The PSM central committee has fully endorsed that our members play an important role in Protes because the issues championed by Protes affects the working class directly and these issues can help build a class alliance. We must understand there is of course a conservative element among PAS who would want to raise issues such as on attire, public conduct and so on. Therefore, we feel that PAS getting involved in this issue is very positive.

In the last Protes rally, the number of people arrested can be divided equally between PSM and others (PAS and PKR). Eighteen PSM members were arrested.

What actions have Protes already taken? How do you evaluate the public support so far?

The Protes rally in 2006 was very huge and very good. It made the government promise in 2007 that it will not raise price of petrol. But what Protes is trying to undertake now is something very big, if we can achieve the target. Protes demands that the fuel price revert to the original price.

You were able to campaign in the federal elections through an arrangement with PKR. How do you evaluate PKR’s role in the post-election context?

It’s still too early to stay. They have brought about some important changes like their position on the ISA, on urban poor and reducing the water rates. The PKR and the Pakatan are at a crossroad. It will just smooth the way for the capitalist system or take a left position and defend the people’s rights. Meanwhile the ruling party, UMNO, will use everything to maintain power. They are likely to try to inflame issues of race and religion.

Anwar Ibrahim seems to be trying to manoeuvre so that PKR takes over UMNO’s role. Is that a correct evaluation? How homogenous is the PKR? Are there different tendencies inside it?

The PKR is definitely more multiracial than UMNO and I don’t see them taking over UMNO’s role but there is always the fear that Anwar will go back to UMNO. The PKR is quite homogeneous. There is a left component in it but it is very small and has hardly any influence. So the PSM has decided to be a third force, outside of the Pakatan Rakayat or at its margins.

Our electoral victory provides us with the basis for getting closer to the people. That is one of the roles of the MPRs. We need to continue the discussion on reform versus revolution. We have to evaluate too how far the PSM will be able to stand with the PKR in any campaign for its minimum program. We have a challenge to win the people to accepting that socialism is the way forward. What too are the steps we need to take in the current transition period? Are we indeed in a transition period or is capitalism moving into some higher phase?

How strong is the shift away from ethnic politics, if there is any shift? What are the main challenges to win a hearing for socialist politics?

The last election result indicates there is a shift. It is not sure if the shift is temporary or permanent. But it is still too early to tell but some of the positions taken by the PKR and PAS on Malay rights are very good as these were the biggest stumbling block.