Dr Jeyakumar Deveraj, detained socialist MP: ‘Malaysian politics has become more dangerous’

Socialist MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj. Photo by Peter Boyle.

By Peter Boyle

July 9, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Dr Jeyakumar Deveraj, a federal member of parliament in Malaysia, is one of 30 activists of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) detained without trial on June 25 as they travelled the country campaigning against the repressive and corrupt Barisan Nasional government headed by Najib Razak.

The detention of these socialists was designed to intimidate people from supporting a broad mass rally for free and fair elections that called for July 9 by civil society groups united in the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih, which means “clean”).

PSM secretary-general S. Arutchelvan wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Arrestable offence? Photo by Peter Boyle.

At first the PSM members were accused of the ridiculous charge of “waging war against the king” on the basis that some of them were alleged to have T-shirts with the images of “communist leaders” on them. PSM secretary-general S. Arutchelvan wore a Che Guevara T-shirt (widely and legally sold in markets) to his press release condemning the June 25 detentions to underline how ridiculous these charges were.

When the seven-day detention of the PSM 30 was nearly up, six of theactivists, including MP Jeyakumar, were re-arrested and detained the "Emergency Ordinance". The government was forced to reveal its real target. The detentions were justified by police claims that the PSM members had in possession and were distributing leaflets for the Bersih 2.0 rally (the first Bersih rally, in 2007, drew thousands and was violently dispersed by police) on July 9, which they declared illegal.

The Najib government claimed that the Bersih 2.0 rally had to be banned because there could be clashes between pro-democracy protesters and members of the right-wing, Malay-chauvinist Perkasa movement.

“Politics in Malaysia has become more dangerous”, Jeyakumar explained to Links/Green Left Weekly in an interview conducted a couple of weeks before his political detention.

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What are the main features of politics in Malaysia today?

In earlier times, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the party that dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional government coalition, could claim that it was developing the economy, uplifting the Malay poor, etc. But that now backfires on them.

Now the UMNO politicians are on thin ice because a lot of the benefits accruing to the Malays have been cornered by a small group of Malay elites who have lavish lifestyles. A lot of shares are given to them as well as business opportunities. So they can’t claim to be acting for the Malay poor, who ask: “What’s happened to the money you have taken?”

So all that is left to the ruling party now is race and religion.

A new racialist movement built around “Malay rights”, Perkasa, has been getting more prominent of late, threatening violence against other groups and yet seems to be allowed to organise freely, while opposition movements continue to be denied even the right of assembly. What is behind this development?

Basically the ruling party has always depended on racialist politics. Now it is trying to outsource the racialist posturing to the Perkasa group, a group that is nominally outside the ruling party. So the prime minister can claim to be for “One Malaysia” and seem to be for everyone, but at the same time the appeal to racial chauvinism is raised by groups like Perkasa.

Perkasa originated from the Malay contractor class that fears that the special contracts and favours it gets from the government may be cut down if there is a change in government.

But the Malaysian economy is still growing at a faster rate than most other economies in the world, so where is the pressure coming from?

The economy is growing but it depends on remaining a low-wage economy. There are 2 million super-exploited foreign workers in our labour force of only 10 million so this depresses the wages and working conditions of most workers.

The Malays were 80% rural peasants at the time of independence but they are 70% urban today. So they are also part of this low-wage labour. This is a massive class transformation.

There is no minimum wage. Factories workers in my electorate get about M$500 a month (without overtime). Our party estimates that it requires at least M$2000 a month to be out of poverty.

On the other hand, the Malay elite have taken over the economy in a major way through domination of the government.

The national budget is about one-third of GDP and this does not take into account all the government-linked companies (GLCs) that own the large plantation companies, the banks, the hospital chains, etc. There are some 15-20 such large GLCs that account for another 20-25% of GDP. In this way, about 55-60% of the economy is controlled by the Malay UMNO ruling elite.

So there is a stratum of super-rich Malays in power while at the bottom there are very poor, working-class Malays who are pressured by the privatisation of education and health care, by rising house prices, stagnant wages and competition from migrant workers. So class contradictions within the Malays are sharpening.

What is the PSM’s policy towards the poor Malays?

There is a longstanding fear in the Malay community of being swamped by the other ethinic groups. It is the thing that still holds many poor Malays to the ruling party today. They are afraid that many of the scholarships and other opportunities that they enjoy today will be taken away from them if there is a change in government.

We are for affirmative action. We think the state should provide help to poor groups. You can’t say leave it to the “free market”.

Our message to the Malay poor is: whatever you are getting now, we will maintain. In fact, we will make sure that you will get these benefits properly. What we want to cut is the large amounts of money that is wasted making the Malay elite even richer.

Affirmative action should not be defined by race but by class, so the poor Chinese, the poor Indians, the poor Orang Asli [Indigenous people] should get help too. The poor Malays will get what they now get in affirmative action and more.

Messages from behind bars

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, MP for Sg Siput

I would like to thank everyone who is supporting us by their letters, prayers and urgent appeals, etc.

The  six of us currently being detained under the Emergency Ordinance have not broken any laws and our crime is that we are socialists, and we are attempting to put the issues affecting the poorer 60% of Malaysians on the national agenda. For example, issues of hospital privatisation, and decent and minimum wages.

Our detention is totally unwarranted as we have been working within the democratic framework.

The Udahlah tu … Bersaralah Campaign through the distribution of pamphlets calls on the people to think and vote properly in the next national general election. Our actions and activities are conducted totally within the democratic space allowed to us by the federal constitution.

It is however sad to see that the “higher-ups” in the police force are unable to differentiate nation from the party of power.

To the people – stand up for democratic rights and let us not allow this kind of intimidation hold us back!

Sarasvathy a/p Muthu, deputy chairperson, PSM

I want my family, my lawyers and the public to keep fighting for all those detained and to keep pushing for visits to see me.

Letchumanan a/l Aseer Patham, secretary, PSM (Sg Siput branch)

I did nothing wrong. I do not understand why I have been arrested and now here in detention under the EO. I badly miss my family and children.

There is so much I can do outside. I support the struggle.

My heart is strong and I will continue to fight for justice.

Choo Chon Kai, central committee member, PSM

I want BERSIH to proceed. The whole detention is unlawful – there is no reason to keep me in lock-up. The police must either release me, or charge me in court.

Sukumaran a/l Munisamy, chairperson, PSM (Sg Siput branch)

I am not in the wrong. The charges against me are unfounded.

I urge the public to fight on.

Sarat Babu a/l Raman, chairperson, Socialist Youth, PSM

Please remain strong for that makes me stronger.

The chicken curry that they are giving to me is too oily.

[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He recently visited Malaysia.]