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Socialist Party of Malaysia: ‘Real power comes from the people’
Scenes from Socialism 2009. Photos by Paul Benedek. Made with Slideshow Embed Tool.
By Paul Benedek, Kuala Lumpur
More than 200 activists, including a large proportion of youth and women, packed Kuala Lumpur’s Chinese Assembly Hall for the first day of Socialism 2009, an annual conference organised by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM). It took place November 14 and 15.The focus was an analysis of “the two-party system in Malaysia” after the “electoral tsunami” in March 2008. With the opposition People's Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) winning five out of 13 states, it raised the possibility of an opposition group taking power in Malaysia for the first time in 50 years.
The PSM shocked the political establishment by winning a seat in the national parliament and one in the Selangor State Assembly — the first socialists elected to parliament since the 1960s. PSM central committee member Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, elected to the national parliament by defeating a powerful government minister, was labelled the “giant killer” by the press.
The PSM organised the conference as a discussion among the broader left, with the majority of attendees and speakers not PSM members. Speakers included well-known Malaysian academics and NGO activists, as well as opposition Pakatan Rakyat leaders.
Addressing the conference, Devaraj argued that for real change was needed in Malaysia’s political system. He said parties are needed that are “based on the people”, giving Venezuela as an example of a genuine alternative under construction.
Researcher Toh Kin Woon argued for a political “third force” that puts the case for equality, justice and social services, beyond the two-party system.
PSM general secretary and Kajang local councillor S. Arutchelvan argued that “real power comes from the people”. He said the PSM is working with the people to fight the US Free Trade Agreement, against the regressive goods and services tax, and for a minimum wage. Arutchelvan said, despite the limitations of the opposition, the prospect of toppling the National Front (Barisan Nasional) government, which has been in power for five decades, excited people. He said the PSM needs to relate to that.
The PSM was formed on May Day 1998, by plantation workers and anti-eviction activists. It is a relatively young party, although its tradition goes back far beyond its 11 years of existence. The PSM was formed at a difficult time for the Malaysian left: the brutal Internal Security Act (still in existence) allowed for arbitrary jailing of leftists; the Soviet Union had collapsed and capitalism was triumphantly declaring “the end of history”; and a party called the “Malay Peoples Socialist Party” had dropped the word “socialism” from its name.
Despite tough conditions, the PSM has been a remarkable success. Having applied for party registration on its day of formation, only to be denied on the grounds of being a “threat to national security”, the party fought a 10-year struggle for legitimacy, culminating in victory last year in finally being officially registered as a political party, allowing it to stand in elections under its own name.
Arutchelvan said: “The government spent 11 years trying to stop the PSM getting registered [as a political party], so it must see potential there!”
The PSM has grown rapidly, with a 400% increase in party membership between 2003 and 2008. The PSM went from two branches in 1999 to 14 branches, with offices in seven states and members across the country. The party produces newspapers in three languages – a monthly paper in Malay, and bi-monthly papers in Mandarin and Tamil.
Sixty per cent of the PSM is under 40 years of age. The conference was even more youthful than this, with many young people below the age of 30. The PSM has launched a youth organisation, despite laws outlawing politics on university campuses.
The PSM also has three local councillors – however, these positions are appointed and the PSM is campaigning for local councillors to be elected (the PSM’s councillors were appointed by non-socialist state representatives, reflecting the party's standing in the movements and with the grassroots).
The PSM takes a very non-sectarian view towards socialists from varying traditions – seeking to incorporate various trends and contributions, rather than looking for every difference. The PSM is putting socialism back on the map in Malaysia, and gradually eroding the socialism ``taboo'’. In fact, the PSM is far stronger than the Malay Peoples Party, the party which dropped the word “socialism” from its name in the 1990s. Socialism is quickly becoming associated in Malaysia with those who are most active in fighting for the rights of plantation workers, students, factory workers, urban squatters and those fighting for democratic rights.
The PSM played a leading role in a 40,000-strong anti-ISA protest on August 1. It is fighting neoliberalism, campaigning against the privatisation of health and water services, the goods and services tax and the US Free Trade Agreement.
The Socialism 2009 conference featured a discussion on “fighting neoliberal attacks and capitalism in South East Asia”, involving representatives from left groups from across the region. Common and specific features of the anti-captialist struggle were discussed by speakers from the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) and Working Peoples Association (PRP) of Indonesia; Laban ng Masa and the Party of the Masses (PLM) of the Philippines; Turn Left of Thailand; and the PSM and Democratic Action Party (part of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat) of Malaysia.
Themes included the struggle to defend public assets including health, education, water and power from privatisation; struggles against the degradation of the land and the environment; the struggle for basic health, education and housing for the people; combating capitalist ideology; and how to involve the masses in struggle and strengthen grassroots organisation and people’s power. The conference was also attended by activists from KASBI (Congress of Indonesian Union Alliance) and KPRM (Political Committee of the Poor) from Indonesia; Singapore's Democratic Party and Democratic Youth; and myself from the Socialist Alliance and the Democratic Socialist Party.
The next international conference, Socialism 2010, will be held in the Philippines .