Behind Malaysia's biggest May Day rally since independence

S. Arutchelvan (Arul), secretary general the Socialist Party of Malaysia.

By Peter Boyle

May 14, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The 2014 May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, was the biggest in the country since 1947 when the British colonial authorities violently repressed the labour movement, which had become one of the most strongly organised in Asia, having organised the majority of the workforce.

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal spoke to S. Arutchelvan (Arul), secretary general the Socialist Party of Malaysia. He was also spokesperson for the May 1 Committee. Arul will be one of the international guest speaker in the People's Power in the “Asian Century” seminar to be held in conjunction with the 10th national conference of the Socialist Alliance, in Sydney June 7-9, 2014.

For more details of the Socialist Alliance conference and to register see HERE.

For more on the Socialist Party of Malaysia, click HERE.

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The May Day protest in Kuala Lumpur looked very big? What is your estimate of the size and was this the biggest ever May day?

I think it was the biggest May Day rally since independence. The crowd estimated by Malaysiakini was 50,000. The police estimated 15,000. I would put the figure as above 30,000. The biggest-ever May Day rally before in our country was probably held in Singapore (which was part of Malaya, then a British colony) in 1947 which was about 50,000-strong.

After that May Day actions were largely smaller and usually indoors because of police repression. Even those indoor rallies stopped after 1987 when the government arrested and detained without trial a large number of progressive social activists in its “Operasi Lalang” sweep.

The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) restarted May Day street rallies tradition in 1994, braving police attacks. We did this for 20 years and eventually a few trade unions dared to join us.

What was the reason for the big turn out this year?

This year the May Day rally called for the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) – which is planned to be implemented on April 1, 2015 – to be abolished. We started building May Day on this theme from last year, branding 2014 as the year to protest GST tax, rather than the official “Visit Malaysia Year”.

We also declared May 1 as the date for a mass rally. Since the election defeat in May last year of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Front) – which currently excludes the PSM – mass street actions in Malaysia have declined and lost momentum. The previous biggest rally was the youth-organised rally on New Year's Eve, which drew around 8000 people.

The opposition parties in Pakatan Rakyat also announced their support for the May 1 anti-GST rally. Hence the huge and the combined forces

What political forces built May Day this year?

There were mainly two main forces in this year's May Day: the opposition Pakatan Rakyat parties, which gathered at three points, and the non-Pakatan Rakyat groupings, which included the civil society movement and the rest which could be called the “Third Force”. This includes the PSM and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), community-based groups and issue-orientated coalitions like BERSIH (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections) and Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly).

The Third Force gathered at Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) and was a very well organised. It did the longest march to Datarn merdeka (Independence Square) was the most creative in terms of slogans, etc.

Previous May Day rallies came up against against attempts by the police to suppress the actions. What accounts for the change in official response?

Since the big BERSIH rallies, the government has been on the defensive when it comes to public rallies. Old laws like the Police Act requiring permits to assemble have begun to be ignored by the people. Hence the Barisan Nasional (BN) government tried to reform the law to make authorsied public assembly possible under a new Public Assembly Act. But again a judgement in the Appeal Court, just a week before the May Day rally, said that you cannot charge people for “illegal assembly” because it goes against the freedom of assembly enshrined in the constitution.

So there were legal battles won.

Besides the BN government realises that if it tries to stop people from assembling this will only backfire. This year they invited us about two weeks before the May Day rally to discuss it – which is quite unusual.

Does the big response to May Day say something about the rise of class issues over issues of race and religion that have long dominated Malaysian politics?

I think groups like PSM and JERIT (Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas – “Oppressed People's Network”) consistently try to build movement based on class issues rather than race and religion. This year the hardship experience by the people in Malaysia is very real and this was reflected during our recent nationwide road show. So the gathering has the strong support of the people. The BN government tried to undermine the assembly as usual but it failed. The government spent huge amounts of money on advertisements saying the GST is a good tax and used by 160 other countries. But they remained on the defensive as we pointed the GST is a tax regime that shifts the tax burden from the rich to the poor.

Most younger Malaysian are also quite fed up with the race and religion issue and they have realised that these are just tools to divide the people. This year the Utusan Melayu, a pro-government newspaper, used a new twist. It reported that the May Day gathering was supporting gay and lesbian rights and tried to used it discourage socially conservative workers from attending.

What are the consequences of the recent push around Hudud (the extension of parts of Islamic law to the broader population) by the Party of Islam (PAS), which is part of the Pakatan Rakyat?

Hudud is an issue which the Pakatan Rakyat has to deal with. It has the potential to destroy the opposition coalition. PAS feels that it needs Hudud to win Muslim votes and this push is coming from the more fundamentalist elements in that party. But most non-Muslims in Malaysia voted for PAS candidates in the last election precisely because it promoted a welfare state and not an Islamic state. On the other hand, this Hudud push is also making more progressive Malay youth join the socialist and anarchist movements. They feel that change is not possible with the current traditional political parties.


One other reason why the Malaysian May Day rally this year was allowed to proceed without any significant suppression by the police was that it happened very soon (a few days) after Obama's visit to Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities did not wish to be seen by the eyes of the world as anti-democratic so soon after Obama's visit.