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Socialist Party of Malaysia: The left in coalition politics (+ interview with PSM MP)

Jeyakumar (`Kumar') Devaraj (third from right) with PSM supporters.

By Jeyakumar Devaraj

November 8, 2008 -- Ever since the First International, building and working within coalitions with other groups has been one of the strategies used by the left to attempt to advance its political agenda. This practice has continued up until the present.

However the strategy of working in coalitions with other groups has, fairly often, led to controversy, disagreements and even acrimonious splits, both of the coalitions as well as within the left parties involved themselves.

Why does this happen? Is the strategy of coalition work worth the effort and trouble? What are the benefits of coalition building? What are measures a socialist party can take to avoid some of the negative consequences of coalition political work?

I intend to use the experience of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (Parti Sosialis Malaysia—PSM) as a basis for an analysis of these questions, although the specificities of the situation in other countries might be quite different from that of ours in Malaysia.

The benefits derived from coalition work

The PSM has been involved in coalition work ever since we formed the party. In fact, it was a coalition of groups working with plantation workers and urban pioneers that came together to form the PSM in 1996. While working to set up the PSM we continued with the coalition work to further the cause of the plantation workers and urban pioneers. This effort was widened in 2002 with the formation of the Network of Oppressed Peoples (JERIT), which widened the sectors being addressed to include factory workers, smallholders and youth.

This networking was and is an important component of our work with marginalised groups facing imminent eviction, for networking helps in spotlighting the injustice of the situation, and the complicity or worse of the government agencies involved, and helps generate public and media pressure that together with dogged resistance of the marginalised community to hold on to their land and/or houses has led to a number of small victories at the level of these communities. These small victories are important to the development of our movement – it is good for people to see that when people get together and act collectively, they can uphold their rights.

In 2004, the PSM took its praxis to a different level. We played a leading role in forming the Coalition Against the Privatisation of Health Care which managed to attract the support of 82 groups – opposition political parties, unions, NGOs, consumer groups and others. The PSM also played an important leadership role within the Coalition Protesting the US-Malaysia FTA, the Coalition to Prevent Privatisation of the Water Supply, the anti-Internal Security Act campaign, the campaign against the proposed goods and services tax and Protes – the anti-oil-price hike coalition. The PSM’s active involvement in all these coalitions was due to a decision taken at the 2003 party congress that the PSM should attempt to widen its appeal to larger sections of workers, small farmers and young people. We didn’t want to create the impression of a party that only handled evictions and retrenchments.

In the campaigns against privatisation and neoliberal trade agreements, working within a coalition was very useful to us. In many instances, the analysis and campaign material (pamphlets, posters and articles) were produced by the PSM. However the coalition gave us a wide network through which we could get our analysis to the people, as well as to the activists of the other groups within the coalition. For example, the Coalition Against the Privatisation of Health Care could pamphlet 20 government hospitals throughout the country on the same morning because of the network created by the coalition. Such activities helped raise the profile of the PSM and establish the relevance of our analysis. The PSM was also able to impress upon the coalition partners that we are serious, that we could meet our targets, and that our activists are disciplined and unafraid of the police. Such impressions are important for a new left party trying to introduce itself into the national political landscape.

The PSM came into being in the mid 1990s -- a particularly bad time for the left worldwide. The left had been thoroughly defeated, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc as one of the most obvious manifestations. Left parties had thrown in the towel and either dissolved themselves or attempted to re-brand themselves. In Malaysia, where socialism had become a bad word associated with violence, authoritarianism and atheism, the last socialist party, the Malaysian Peoples Socialist Party (PSRM) , dropped the term socialist from its name and constitution. Against this backdrop, very few thought that the PSM had any chance of surviving let alone growing.

However today, several of the leaders of the parties comprising the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (or People’s Alliance – a coalition that includes the People's Justice Party [Parti Keadilan Rakyat – PKR], the Democratic Action Party [DAP] and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia [Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party – PAS]) claim to be socialist. One of the Pakatan Rakyat component parties played the ``Internationale’’ at its annual conference earlier this year. Several young people have set the ``Internationale’’ as the ring tone for their cell phones. This rehabilitation of the left is of course due to a multitude of factors, including the arrogance of US imperialism, the mess that neoliberal capitalism is making of the world, the efforts of the veterans of the Malaysian left struggle in the 1950s onwards to re-tell their side of the story through numerous publications, and the news from Venezuela and other Latin American countries.

But the impact of a small unregistered party standing with oppressed communities and actually pulling off small local victories, coordinating nation-wide campaigns against privatisation despite getting arrested and tear-gassed time and again must have also played a part in the rehabilitation of the left in at least a portion of the population.

Coalition politics post-2008 election

The March 2008 elections was a watershed event that has brought about a new political environment. The PSM now has two elected members of parliament, a state assembly member in the Pakatan Rakyat -controlled state of Selangor, and a federal member of parliament in the Pakatan Rakyat -controlled state of Perak. While not a member of the newly formalised Pakatan Rakyat coalition, the PSM is now associated with the state governments in two states.

How have we defined that relationship?

A separate identity: We had no difficulty in deciding to uphold our separate identity, though there were many friends and supporters who wanted us to merge with one of the component parties within the Pakatan Rakyat . Our decision to maintain our separate identity derives from our analysis of the Pakatan Rakyat as at best a reformist formation that will not challenge private ownership of the means of production within the country or corporate-led globalisation and unequal terms of trade internationally.

Our analysis is that the pledges of the Pakatan Rakyat governments to look after welfare of the population will soon run up against the anti-labour requirements of its neoliberal macro-economic policies. Most Pakatan Rakyat leaders appear to accept without question the “need” to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country. A senior Pakatan Rakyat leader proposed that corporate tax be reduced from its current 25% to 17% as a measure to boost the flagging economy. He didn’t seem to be aware that such a move would necessitate the much more regressive goods and services tax. Competing for FDI means that we continue “the race to the bottom” – but most Pakatan Rakyat leaders seem quite blissfully unaware of this!

However – and this for us this is an important factor to take into our calculations – at present many Malaysians have high hopes on the Pakatan Rakyat for this is the first time in five decades that the Barisan Nasional stranglehold on Malaysian politics has been broken.This is definitely not the time for strident attacks on Pakatan Rakyat , for in the unfolding struggle for federal power between the massively corrupt and chauvinistic Barisan Nasional and the yet unsullied Pakatan Rakyat , the majority of Malaysians are rooting for Pakatan Rakyat .

[The Barisan Nasional or National Front is the ruling coalition, made up of Malaysia’s three largest race-based parties — the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).]

Support for a minimum program: The Pakatan Rakyat has promised
  • a clean and transparent government, where corruption which has reached epidemic proportions under the Barisan Nasional will be brought under control;
  • the abrogation of ethnic-based quotas. Affirmative action to be defined by socioeconomic need and not ethnicity.
  • The creation of a welfare state where the needs of the poorest and the marginalised will be met.

All of these are in line with the principles of the PSM, and we have announced our readiness to help implement these. We want the Pakatan Rakyat to deliver on these promises

The PSM has already proposed to the Pakatan Rakyat state governments that they:

i) Abrogate the granting of land that has been tilled for decades by small farmers to developers and companies by the Barisan Nasional government. We are arguing that giving the land without considering the plight of the farmers who have been there for three generations, even if technically “legal”, is unethical, and on that ground, the Pakatan Rakyat government should use its powers of land acquisition and grant the small farmers the right to continue their farming.

ii) Use the Land Acquisition Act to resolve the problem of retrenched estate workers who have been fighting for years for alternative housing. We have asked the state governments to take a few acres of estate land to be distributed as housing lots to these workers.

iii) Cease the promotion of health tourism as the accelerated development of the market for private medicine undermines the competency of the public hospitals.

The Pakatan Rakyat state governments have not taken a position on these issues as yet, but we intend to follow up on them.

Criticism of anti-people positions or policies: The PSM has taken a position that we should give the Pakatan Rakyat some room to implement its policies and not be overly critical of it. However if Pakatan Rakyat leaders espouse positions that attack ordinary people, we should speak up and do so firmly.

Such a situation arose recently when a DAP exco member in the state government of Perak stated that the government would not hesitate to evict a group of 12 urban pioneers from their riverside houses if they refused to move out on their own – the government is offering a paltry RM3000 and the option of renting a flat unit. The people concerned are asking for alternative housing lots.

The PSM central committee member who is helping to coordinate the urban pioneers’ coalition responded with a press statement forcefully criticising the exco member’s statement. This was disseminated through email, and other DAP elected representatives have responded to the PSM assuring that there will not be any forced evictions.

The dialetics of `success’

As Marxists we would be grossly negligent if we do not anticipate the developments within our movement that might be created by the changes in the political scenario. (Many of our friends, especially from the Trotskyist tradition, consider the PSM as weak on ideology. But one doesn’t have to be erudite in Marxist literature to understand, and more importantly, apply basic Marxist tenets as a guide to one’s praxis!)

Coalition politics might create opportunities and situations which might help us in the short run. However, we must be acutely cognisant of the fact that our current “successes” will create forces and processes that can alter the nature of our organisation – and these changes might undermine our long-term objectives.

Let’s take the situation that the PSM is facing as an example. The political tsunami of March 2008 in Malaysia has brought two of our leaders into parliament/state assembly – the first time in 34 years that socialist candidates have actually won in an election in Malaysia. Of course, this has boosted the spirits of our members and supporters and we are getting far more press coverage than before. We also find our access to ordinary people has become so much easier.

But we have to remain vigilant that our “success” doesn’t undermine our long-term goal of putting forward a socialist option for the people of Malaysia. Among the problems that are already apparent are:

  1. The politics of hand-outs The Selangor state government has made available RM500,000 for each state assembly member from the Pakatan Rakyat . So our candidate has to dispense this huge sum of money to needy residents in his constituency. Giving out money isn’t that simple if one wants to ensure it reaches the really needy and that there is no misappropriation. All this takes time – one runs the dual danger of being caught up in the bureaucratic processes of handling and accounting for the money, and the perception of the public that you are some sort of perennial Santa Claus. Even worse is the possibility that we become hooked to this availability of funds to be dispensed to the constituents – to the extent that we find it difficult to operate without these funds. Barisan Nasional politicians are in this quandary. Their constituents expect a Santa Claus. We are creating the same expectation in our constituents. Dependency on funds will make us dependent on the coalition even when it lurches rightward!
  1. The politics of welfare Malaysian voters are used to bringing their problems to their elected representatives. Both elected PSM members are swamped with “welfare” cases. Though we both have full-timers who help us handle these cases, a lot of time is taken in handling these. Before we won, the portion of time taken up by welfare work was much less than now. We could spend more time on developing campaigns against neoliberal policies. Now we are bogged down with “servicing” the constituency and there is proportionately much less time spent in highlighting the deficiencies of the capitalist system.
  1. Over-emphasis on the elected member The public and the press promote the elected member over the team. We too are constrained by the need to promote the elected members – to show that they are delivering on their election promises; that they are good pro-people politicians, etc. The PSM had a fairly egalitarian structure where group work and consensus was important. Electoral success has tended to change the dynamics within the group because of the prominence given to the elected member. A good militant grassroots organiser may not be the best person to handle meetings and debates that come with positions in parliament, the state assembly and muncipal councils [the PSM also has some local council postions]. Someone with better academic qualifications could play such roles better, but that person’s politics may not be as radical as the grassroot person’s. The PSM’s “success” will tend to lead to the relative loss of prominence and influence of the militant grassroots organisers unless this tendency is recognised and countered.
  1. Dependency on funds for the party machinery Electoral success has led (for us) to a massive increase in funds available for our work. Our number of full-timers has jumped from one prior to the election to seven currently – and this not including the two elected members. The implications of this has to be considered. Would it tend to make us try to maintain good relations with a Pakatan Rakyat government even if it is implementing neoliberal policies because we do not want to jeopardise our electoral opportunities at the next elections?

Looking at these influences it isn’t difficult to understand why coalition work often leads to divisions and splits within socialist parties which start out with a definite anti-capitalist orientation. Exposure to bourgeois parliamentary politics and especially the experience of executive power as a member of a coalition government will tend to dilute one’s anti-capitalist position. And this probably happens fastest and most thoroughly in the leaders of the party who participate in electoral politics.

Principles of engagement in coalition politics?

If there are so many difficulties and dangers inherent in coalition politics involving non-socialist parties why even consider taking part in such endeavours?

The PSM did consider not participating in the electoral process. But most Malaysians take elections seriously. There is a tremendous mobilisation of the public during the few weeks prior to elections and for a time afterwards. We decided that we need to participate and use the carnival-like atmosphere to popularise our symbol and highlight our analyses. Not participating might keep us “pure” but also might render us irrelevant in the eyes of the public.

Participating and losing is alright the first time around. Or even the second time. But a party cannot keep on losing in every election it participates in. That would make us seem ineffectual and a bit of a joke! But winning and being associated with the ruling government, even at state level, is quite a different ball game.

I think we have to take the dangers of flirting with bourgeois politics very seriously. It should be considered a “poisoned chalice” and handled with utmost care! I now intend to intend to generalise from our limited experience and put forward a set of principles of engagement in coalition-electoral politics for us to consider.

1. Ideological clarity is of paramount importance.

  • We need to be clear with regards to the political ideology of our coalition partners. Do the coalition partners accept the need to eradicate the private ownership of the means of production? This is a crucial issue. If they do not, then they will only go as far as reform, and when the chips are down, they will take steps to protect capitalism.
  • We also need to be clear where we draw the line. Can we go along with policies of a neoliberal nature? These will seriously undermine our credibility and support. What the people need now the world over is a party that will stand up fearlessly to any further neoliberal-type assaults on their income, jobs, amenities and pensions. Providing a rallying point for this defensive struggle of the people will win us much more genuine support than staying on in coalition governments in the hope we can lessen some of the more negative effects of their pro-capitalist policies!
  • We need to clearly define our priorities. I would argue that presenting a clear socialist critique – that the root problem is private ownership of capital and the production for profit – should always remain the top priority.

2. It is crucial that the culture of consultation and democratic decision making within the party is preserved and strengthened. This again relates to the first principle of ideological clarity. There may develop situations where there are difficult political choices to be made. An example would be the coalition we are in has decided to implement certain neoliberal policies that are against the interests of ordinary people. But our withdrawal of support will lead to the collapse of the coalition and the grouping waiting in the wings to take over is worse.

Comrade Kumar's distinctive `rust bucket': no perks for the PSM MP

In a situation such as this it would be healthy for the party to conduct in-depth discussions at branch and as well at national levels to arrive at a consensus of how to deal with the situation. The discussion can be widened to include our supporters – a form of a referendum, so that the decision is well understood by the rank and file as well as the supporters.

3. For the above two processes to take place, we must ensure that our representatives who we pushed into parliament, legislative assemblies and local government councils do not become too comfortable with their new positions and prestige, access to government executive power and financial privileges. Otherwise, these representatives, who would also be among our party’s natural leaders, might become a force of conservatism within our ranks and lead to the party staying on in a coalition that has begun implementing neoliberal policies.

There are several steps that one should take to ensure that our elected representatives do not get turned-over by the system that we have thrust them into.

  • There should be financial accounting. The elected representatives must only keep a small portion of the handsome income that they are rewarded with by the system. This should be clearly defined before candidature.
  • Decision making must be consensual – especially on issues involving party strategy. Of course we can leave the issues pertaining to the “servicing” of the constituency more to the candidates who won, but the crucial issues of the relationship with the coalition must be discussed openly and democratically.
  • There should be active and conscious attempts to counter the tendency to portray the elected candidates as “cult” figures. Yes, we need to sell our party and our analysis to the people, but cultism creates too many negative and dangerous trends within our movement.
  • Perhaps a rotation of members to the elected posts should be practiced. No one member should be left in an elected post for too long. This would be bad for his/her socialist soul!
  • Other modes of political work that do not depend on our access to parliament or the state should continue and be actively developed. For, after all, we have to keep the option of going into attack mode against the coalition if it seriously embarks on a neoliberal trajectory!

Coalition politics does offer the left opportunities to spread its analysis and win over more supporters and members. But it is a double-edged sword which may actually result in the subversion of our aims and the destruction of our party.

Left parties involving themselves in coalition politics should be ever vigilant. Clear ideology, democratic decision making, avoidance of cultism and a spirit of sacrifice on the part of the elected representatives are all necessary to avoid the disasters that have befallen several of the left parties that have taken the electoral route and attempted coalition politics.

[Jeyakumar Devaraj is a central committee member of the Socialist Party of Malaysia. He defeated MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu in the March 2008 general election to become the MP for Sungai Siput in Malaysia’s national parliament. This talk was presented to the PSM’s Socialism Malaysia 2008 conference in Kajang on November 8, 2008.]

Malaysian socialist MP on the ‘dialectics of success’

By Lisa MacDonald

November 2008 -- The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), formed only in 1996, shocked Malaysia’s political establishment by winning two seats in the March 8 general elections. Nasir Hashim was elected to the Selangor state legislative assembly and Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj was elected to the national parliament. 

Jeyakumar told Green Left Weekly that the main aim of the PSM’s electoral campaigning is to “rehabilitate socialism” in Malaysia. “Malaysia has a very rich socialist history, but since the mid-1970s, the left has been very weak, the result of severe repression and the international situation.

“When the PSM came into existence, socialism was a bad word for many people. So the first thing the party wanted to do was show that socialism is still relevant and has solutions to people’s problems.”

“By standing socialist candidates, we could get national media attention for our ideas and activities — opportunities to capture people’s imaginations”, Jeyakumar explained.

For example, “Our candidates have always openly declared their assets. The other opposition parties talk about the need to do this, but don’t do it. By being the only party that has done this, we’ve captured ordinary people’s attention.”

In the 1999 elections, in which Jeyakumar stood for the PSM against a government minister, there was massive fraud. “The minister bussed in people to vote for him and we documented that with photographs”, he recounted.

The PSM took the case to court. “Our evidence was very strong but they managed to throw it out on a technicality. But it caught national headlines; here was a small party taking on a minister in court.

“Something like this highlights the fact that our small party has got the fighting spirit, discipline and cadre to take a stand against injustice. Local people said, ‘For the first time someone is standing up! Who are these guys?’

“A lot of the vote for the PSM was a vote against the corrupt establishment parties, but our work on the ground also played a very important role — the fact that for 10 years we’d been involved with the communities”, Jeyakumar said.

“Many of our leaders have been arrested time and again, for standing up against petrol hikes, the Internal Security Act, evictions. I have been arrested about seven times on various issues.

“We are seen as the people who will fight, not for themselves but for other people. Even though a small party, we are seen as principled and consistent.”

Commenting on what he called the “dialectics of success” — the contradictions facing a socialist party that has won seats in a capitalist parliament — Jeyakumar said: “It is a minefield. There’s a lot of potential, but you can end up pretty messed up.

“Winning positions in parliament has boosted the spirits of our members and supporters, we are getting far more media coverage and our access to ordinary people has become easier. But we have to remain vigilant that our ‘success’ does not undermine our long-term goal of putting forward a socialist option.”

For example, he explained, the Selangor state government has made $500,000 available to every MP to distribute to needy constituents. “It’s good to have money, but managing $500,000 every year takes up so much time that you don’t have much left to point out that the system is capitalist, that there’s oppression and so.

“It tends to shift your work into a very welfarist, Santa Claus mode, but you cannot just say, ‘I am a socialist, I don’t want your $500,000’. People know that the government has given you this money.”

All federal MPs are also supposed to receive $500,000 for distribution to the needy, but to date no opposition MP has been given a cent. In response, the PSM called a meeting of all its contacts in the local communities and developed a list of projects that should be funded by the government.

The projects included a Muslim community orphans service, an old people’s home run by a Chinese group, a service for people with disabilities and a Tamil family school. “We put these in a formal application to the government; they came from the people”, Jeyakumar said.

“But two months later the answer came back: ‘Your application cannot be considered.’ So now we have produced a leaflet in the three languages explaining what we asked for, the consultation process we used and the government’s response. The leaflet asks the community what they think we should do about it.

“So this has been made a political process, not a welfare process. And if we get the money after fighting for it, it has a different meaning for people.

“We are trying to form a ‘people’s consultative council’. We call local leaders together, we sit with the people and discuss with them.

“We reject the deference given everywhere to MPs. We tell them that we don’t have the answers; we can help coordinate some things because we have resources, but they need to tell us the answers.

“This is all unchartered territory for us; what we have done so far is based on our experiences. But none of the opposition parties have done anything like it and this makes us stand out. People see us doing things this way and some decide to join the party.”

The PSM is also very conscious of rejecting the personal material advantages that come with elected office. “Now, as an MP, I can buy a house and a new car. There’s a lot of money available.

“By taking the position that we will not buy a new car unless our old car breaks down, we have made local people question things. It is a chance to show that socialists do not become MPs to get more money for themselves.

“We have to be very, very careful that we do not get sucked into and tied to the system. A lot of left parties, once they have got into the system, have split.

“If an elected representative gets too used to the high income, the power and the prestige, then at the next election they will be keen to stand again, and keen that the party doesn’t take any stands that might jeopardise their chances of re-election.

“Elected members can become a force for conservatism in the party, and that can destroy the party. So it is important that Nasir and myself, as the first PSM members to be elected to parliament, help ensure that the party has very strict rules to keep MPs principled and accountable to the party.”

[From Green Left Weekly issue #777, December 3, 2008.]


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