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Malaysia: 'A testing time for PSM'

Interview with PSM leader S. Arutchelvan, PSM secretary-general, conducted by Peter Boyle.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general S.Arutchelvan has been surprised by positive media coverage today in the Star, Malaysia's leading English-language newspaper – owned by a component party of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN).


The PSM has received growing media attention since it won its first federal and state parliamentary seats in the March 8 general elections, under the banner of Parti Keadilan/Justice Party (PKR). Another pleasant surprise came when they held a post-election meeting in their office in Semenyih, Selangor – in the seat that Arutchelvan contested but lost by just 1000 votes out of 21,000.

"We had a gathering at our service centre in Semenyih. We expected 300 to attend. To be safe, we ordered food for 500 but 1,000 came! Fifty people became members."

On the other hand, the governing BN has now begun to organise street protests ostensibly in defence of "Malay rights" – a menacing echo of events in May 1969 when opposition electoral wins were met with bloody race riots organised by government politicians. This then became the excuse for a period of martial law (until 1971) and the entrenchment of discriminatory laws against half the population of Malaysia.

I interviewed Comrade Arutchelvan through the internet on March 18.

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 Picture of S.Arutchelvan by the Star

Q: How has the BN government reacted to the considerable losses it made in the recent general election? Was the recent "Malay rights" demonstration outside the Komtar building in Penang a warning that the ruling party May be contemplating a 1969-style backlash against opposition electoral victories?

A: They seem to be trying. But their demonstrations are not bringing in the crowds. Their divide and rule tactics among Chinese and Malay is not working as the Islamic Party (PAS) as well as PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim and other Malay leaders have come strongly to defend why they want NEP [NEP = New Economic Policy, the name for the discriminatory policies against non-Malay citzens introduced in the 1970s by the ruling BN] to go. Unlike previously, when the Malays were forced to support the NEP, this is not happening this time.

Comrade Nasir Hashim's election under the Keadilan logo to a seat in the Selangor State Legislative Assembly places him nominally as part of a state government. What challenges does this pose?

First they is a strong lobby among civil society movement that Nasir has to be given an exco [Executive Committee – state cabinet] position – that will make him directly part of the state government but there seems to be some hesitancy among the opposition including PKR because he is PSM. He will have to wait and see.

Based on his track record, Nasir deserves an exco position but the PSM will also wait and see. If he becomes an exco, then we will have more resources and will help the party but on the other hand we have to be careful as not all in the new Selangor government share the same aspiration or ideology with us. Nasir will have to choose when he agrees and when he doesn't. That is going to be difficult. However, currently,
based on the manifesto of the PKR, we are fine with this position.

Jeyakumar Devaraj, who won your first federal parliamentary seat, is now widely known and applauded as the nemesis of the notorious former minister of works and MIC chief Samy Vellu. Are there plans to capitalise on this extraordinary projection?

Kumar has an easier job as he is in opposition in federal parliament. But Kumar's role in opposing the Free Trade Agreeement with the US, neoliberal policies, etc would make this interesting because not all the federal opposition would share similar his political sentiments on these issues. We expect Kumar to make headway in parliament and show some differences.

What were the underlying reasons for the electoral swing against the BN? Was a rebellion against corruption a key issue and if so is it likely that the opposition-run state governments might make serious inroads to the ingrained culture of corruption in government?

It was protest vote against PM Badawi where people don't have confidence in him. Other isssues were rising inflation, corruption and high crime rate. Anwar also did play a role. My biggest worry is the culture of corruption and the fear that new opposition govet can get sucked into it. It will the biggest challenge.

Are there any prospects for political tranformations in a left-wing direction in PKR and other opposition parties?

Very unlikely. The left within PKR is very weak but these are the people we have to work with. There is also a left component within PAS and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). It is also a testing time for PSM to service our base areas in Sungai Siput, Jelapang, Semenyih and Kota Damansara and see how we can build our local power base with the people and see if it can be a model for PSM to play a bigger role nationally,
in the future.

[Peter Boyle is national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia. The latest statements and reports by the PSM can be found at]

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