Malaysia: Socialists at forefront of changing politics

On July 29, six leaders of the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) were released from prison, 34 days after their arrest on June 25. Their release was a result of the tremendous sustained and energetic campaign that received broad support, especially in Malaysia. Thirty members of the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) were arrested on charges of “waging war against the king” on June 25, as they were handing out leaflets calling for the resignation of the Malaysian government. Twenty-four were released soon after, but six remained in detention. They were also accused of attempting to revive communism in Malaysia, an accusation based on the fact that in the bus they were using, police found t-shirts with pictures of Ching Peng, the former chairperson of the now defunct Communist Party of Malaysia (MCP), which led a guerrilla war against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s.

After being released on day seven of their arrest on the above charges, they were rearrested on the spot under an Emergency Ordinance. The formal justification for this was changed twice - the last version claimed that they were a threat to public order and accused of being the organisers of a demonstration for electoral reform. They were kept in solitary confinement, subjected to long interrogations, denied serious access to lawyers and family and physically abused, including hours-long standing interrogations. Two detainees were taken to clinics due to heart conditions.

More recently, the government has been emphasising the “threat” of the revival of communism. According to a report issued by the PSM, “Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Nazri Abdul Aziz, [said that] communism is still a threat to national security and that is why six activists who are also members of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) who were caught on claims of campaigning for the Bersih 2.0 July 9 rally best remain behind doors. The name of the law is just Emergency Ordinance. The communist (insurgency), even though it has been declared over, the EO [Emergency Ordinance] is still in effect so that this (communism) will not happen.” Nazri said that as long as communism is around, both the Internal Security Act and EO will remain.

The six detainees are: federal member of parliament Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, Choo Chon Kai, M. Sukumaran, R. Sarat Babu, M. Sarasvathy and A. Letchumanan.

Breaking down the old politics

Malaysian politics has been undergoing a prolonged challenge to the old order since major anti-government, pro-democracy protests exploded in the aftermath of the Indonesian people’s overthrow of the dictator Suharto in 1998.

The Malaysian reformasi (radical reform) movement, provoked by the arrest and persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, a rival to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, but reflecting profound changes in Malaysian society, gave birth to a new political party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR — People’s Justice Party), with Ibrahim as leader.

The PKR brought together former Malaysian People’s Party activists and human rights activists as well as people who had supported Ibrahim while he had been a member of the ruling party and new people. The PKR represented a major break in the politics of Malaysia, where the ruling class, a coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian capitalists, has relied on mobilising people along racial lines. Espousing a basic pro-welfare (capitalist) state model combined with liberal democratic political values, the PKR has also lent its support to street protest movements, especially in support of electoral reforms. In 2008, the PKR, in alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), won almost 40% of the vote, denying the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, a two-thirds majority for the first time. In addition, the new opposition coalition, Pakatan (People’s Pact), won a majority in key states on the economically developed west coast.

Among the new members of parliament was Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj from the PSM, who had stood on the PKR ticket while openly identifying as PSM and campaigning on PSM policies as well as the PKR’s program, which emphasises human rights and the enforcement of a minimum wage, which still does not exist in Malaysia.

The Barisan Nasional government has made some gains in recent by-elections. However, the decade-long erosion of old racialist politics has not been reversed. The ethnic composition of the urban working class has changed dramatically as the Malaysian economy has grown, with a larger Malay component. Non-racially based issues — such as democratic rights, labour rights, privatisation of health and social welfare and anti-corruption — are gaining growing support.

This trend spells eventual doom for the Barisan Nasional, a coalition of the United Malay National Organisation, Malaysian Chinese Congress and Malaysian Indian Congress, all top-down parties in the grip of very conservative capitalist cliques.

New politics

What is even more threatening to the 50-year political monopoly of the Barisan Nasional (BN) is that the new politics is increasingly based on mobilisations of the rakyat. The Malay word rakyat, in both Malaysia and Indonesia, means “the people” or, more specifically, “the common people”. The PKR put the word into its name, and the PKR leadership has made regular use of it, deliberately counterposing it to appeals to specific ethnic groups. The “common people versus the elite” is the axis it has been promoting, rather than Malays versus Chinese versus Indians. A key method has been street mobilisations of the rakyat, something which began in 1998. There have been regular large mobilisations punctuating Malaysian politics over the last decade.

The arrests of the six PSM leaders came in the lead-up to a July 9 mass protest demanding electoral reform and clean elections, called by Bersih 2.0 (Clean 2.0). During the initial period of their detention, some police and government officials explicitly linked the arrests to their being connected to Bersih 2.0 after the government declared Bersih a “subversive” organisation. Permission for Bersih’s July mass protest was withdrawn, although it went ahead anyway, gathering around 50,000 people despite the capital, Kuala Lumpur, being virtually sealed off. The demonstration was attacked by the police and with water cannon. Almost 200 hundred people were detained overnight or for a few days.

PSM’s role

The formation of the PKR after the Malaysian reformasi in 1998, the success of Pakatan in the 2008 elections and the success of repeated mass protests, including the July Bersih demonstration, are the most obvious manifestations of the erosion of the old pattern of Malaysian politics. The PSM, with one member of federal parliament and one state member, is still a small party. However, its consistency, courage and determination to build a bottom-up, grassroots democratic socialist party, exhibited in action, have put it in the vanguard of the process. Its defiance of the reactionary state, its persistence in getting the party officially registered despite many obstacles, its defence of plantation workers, factory workers and squatters and especially its open and consistent defence of socialism and the right to be a socialist is steadily increasing its authority. One of the first statements issued by Dr Jayakumar from prison was his essay: “Why I am socialist”.

While the PKR has also given support to mass rakyat politics, its strategy remains primarily electoral. The PSM’s strategy gives more emphasis to mass protest politics. At its last congress, it confirmed its mass politics approach, emphasising that mobilisations should be peaceful, confirming its orientation to elections, but without precluding other expressions of support for change by the masses. In the aftermath of the July 9 Bersih protests, the PSM is also reaching out to a youth radicalisation. In an essay, the PSM secretary-general, S. Arutchelvan, wrote on July 10:

“BERSIH can be the basis for a new movement of the rakyat. Those leading the mobilisations on the street on July 9 were not the leaderships of BERSIH or of the Pakatan. They were the youth who were looking to a new democratic state. It was the many youth leading, boldly stepping forward. This movement of the rakyat, under the leadership of the youth, will forge a new generation that loves justice, peace and genuine change.”

The release of the PSM six as a result of an energetic and broad defence campaign is itself a manifestation of the changing nature of Malaysian politics. In a press release by the PSM on July 30, they reflected on the strong support from: “the civil society movements, the NGOs, the legal assistance from the lawyers, Pakatan Rakyat Parties the DAP, PKR, PAS as well as PRM. Also individuals from BN like Khairy Jamaluddin, individuals in GERAKAN, MCA and MIC . The great solidarity of the International Community as well as the international socialist parties all over the world.” The fact that individual politicians in the ruling coalition and its parties – BN, MCA and MIC – as well as all the Pakatan parties campaigned for the six’s release reflects the increasing resistance to the old authoritarian style of politics. The PSM’s daily reports over the last few weeks also provided ample evidence of the wide range of community and NGO groups supporting the release of the Six and rejecting the government’s accusations.