Malaysian socialists host international conference

By Nick Everett

Over the weekend of November 7-9, 2008, socialists from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Australia, Britain, Sweden and Taiwan gathered near Kuala Lumpur for Socialism 2008, a conference hosted by the Parti Socialis Malaysia (Malaysian Socialist Party, PSM). This was the second international conference organised by the PSM, the first being held in 2005. Socialism 2006 was held in Bangkok and Socialism 2007 was held in Manila.

Launched on May 1, 1998, the PSM’s origins date back to 1991, when several grassroots organisations working with the urban and rural poor formed an alliance. In 1994, this alliance revived the tradition of May Day mobilisations in Malaysia and in 1995, after several years of consistent work amongst plantation workers, urban poor and industrial workers, it transformed into an alliance for a new, socialist political party. However, it took a further two and a half years before the alliance made a formal application to register the PSM as a political party.

On March 8 this year, two PSM members became the first socialists elected to the Malaysian parliament, and a state legislature, in four decades. Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj was elected to the federal parliament and Dr Nasir Hashim was elected to the Selangor state legislature. The PSM candidates were obliged to contest the elections under the banner of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Peoples Justice Party, PKR), having being denied registration by the government. Only on June 4 did the government allow the registration of the PSM to proceed.

Since the March 8 election, the PSM has increased its membership considerably, to 250 cadre, and has established four new branches, giving it a presence in seven of Malaysia’s 13 states. The PSM has committed itself to trying to establish peoples’ councils in areas where it has won electoral registration to direct their MPs’ work. In addition, the PSM has played an instrumental role within PROTES — a coalition formed to oppose the government’s fuel price hikes.

Socialism 2008 was launched with a 500-strong opening rally, which featured speeches by Nasir Hashim (chairperson of the PSM), Syed Sharir (president of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress), Saraswathy (PSM deputy chairperson), Leung Kwok-Hung (Legislative Council member in Hong Kong), Francisco Nemenzo (from Laban ng Masa in the Philippines) and Colleen Bolger (from Socialist Alternative, Australia).

The conference opened the following day, November 8, with a session on “Crisis in Capitalism: Financial, Food and Fuel Crisis”, addressed by Lim Mah Hui, an economist, and Mickael Von Knorring, from the Swedish Left Party. The second session “Climate Change: How to Weather it?” was chaired by Nizam Mahshar, from Friends of the Earth, and addressed by Terry Townsend, editor of the Sydney-based Links website, and Jonathan Neale, a leading member of the UK Socialist Workers Party.

A session on “Revolution and Counter Revolution in Latin America”, was addressed by Jorge Martin, international secretary of Hands Off Venezuela, and Lisa Macdonald, national coordinator for Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.

Martin argued that Venezuela still had a “capitalist economy and a capitalist state”, but that Venezuela was the epicentre of a continent-wide mass movement against capitalism. Macdonald described the social gains of the revolution and noted that President Hugo Chavez’s government consistently sided with workers, but stated that there is still a “dictatorship of capital” in Venezuela.

Following the speakers, there was a lively debate about the class character of the Venezuelan state and the trajectory of the revolution. Adrian Skerritt, a member of the Australian group Solidarity (aligned with the British SWP), argued that Chavez was attempting to impose a “revolution from above” and that if socialism was to be built in Venezuela, working people needed to make their own “revolution from below”. However, other contributors to the discussion noted that it was Venezuela’s working people who forced the capitalist coup government of Pedro Carmona from power on April 13 2002 and brought Chavez back to head a working people’s government.

A session on “South East Asia: People’s Power and Betrayals” was addressed by Giles Ji Ungpakorn, from Turn Left Thailand, and Francisco Nemenzo. Ungkaporn described the political crisis in Thailand since 2005 as essentially a conflict between two elite factions: a pro-democracy capitalist party, the TRT-PPP led by PM Thaksin; and conservative anti-democracy groups seeking to oust the government through a military coup.

Nemenzo presented a brief history of the radical movement in the Philippines since 1985, when, he argued, the Philippines Communist Party developed a sectarian orientation to the mass anti-dictatorship movement that toppled the Marcos regime.

The fifth session on 8 November was on “Nepal under Maoists”. The invited speaker from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), CPN-M, was not able to make it to the forum but had sent his apologies and solidarity greetings. Farooq Tariq, from the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), and Siritunga, from the United Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, discussed the recent electoral success of the CPN-M, which has now formed a government in Nepal. But both concluded that the CPN-M leadership had a pessimistic assessment of the prospects of a socialist transformation of Nepal and, assessing that Nepal was still a “feudal” society, were seeking to “modernise” Nepal by implementing a neoliberal program with the assistance from the IMF and World Bank. However, such a course of action, they noted, was already stirring dissent within the CPN-M’s mass base.

The final day of the conference, commenced with the session “Left in Coalition Politics”, addressed by Jesus Syaiful Anam, an Indonesia-based member of the International Marxist Tendency, and Jeyakumar Devaraj (Kumar), central committee member of the PSM and MP for Sungai Siput. Kumar stated that the Malaysian opposition alliance, Pakitan Rakyat, advocated immediate abolition of the repressive Internal Security Act, but favoured a “capitalist development model”. He said that to argue for a “third party” in the present context would marginalise the PSM as the public perception was that there were two parties to choose from — Pakitan Rakyat or Barisan Nasional. While coalition politics offered party-building opportunities to the PSM, Kumar said that this “is a doubled-edged sword which may actually result in the subversion of our aims and destruction of our party”. He reported that the PSM was seeking to present a radical, working-class alternative to the bourgeois opposition parties and cited as an example their decision that PSM parliamentarians would contribute two thirds of their Rngt 15,000 (A$6,000) per month salary back to the party.

The final day of the conference featured sessions on: “PSM: 10 Years and Beyond”, addressed by Tan Jing Quee, a former leader of the Socialist Front in Singapore, and PSM secretary-general Arul; “Islam and Socialism”, addressed by Farooq Tariq and Mat Sabu, vice president of the Islamic Party (PAS); and “Building the Class Forces”, chaired by PSM treasurer Sivarajan, and addressed by, among others, PSM chairperson Nasir Hashim and Oppressed Peoples’ Network (JERIT) coordinator Kohil.

[Nick Everett attended Socialism 2008 as a representative of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]