Socialist Party of Malaysia MP Jeyakumar Devaraj addresses a rally against the free trade agreement between Malaysia and the United States.
By Jeyakumar Devaraj
February 11, 2010 -- Aliran Monthly -- Malaysia has only known one
ruling coalition in the past 52 years since independence. But the
result of the March 2008 election has led to rising hope among many
Malaysians that an enormous change might be around the corner – a
two-party system under which the people are free to choose between two
coalitions, which are both capable of governing the country.
The purpose of this paper is to locate the institution of a two-coalition system against a wider historical perspective.
concept that every person has an equal right to select the government
irrespective of his or her social status, wealth, education, religious
affiliation or beliefs is a revolutionary idea. And it is relatively
Ever since the time historical records have been kept
right about 7000 years ago and right up until the 19th century, human
society has been organised on the principle that certain groups of
people were born with superior characteristics and therefore had the
(“God-given”) right to rule.
The majority of the people, the
commoners, were considered to be inferior and less “refined” and
therefore not fit to rule. This was the basis of the feudal system that
was in existence since 5000 BC in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the
Yang Tze civilisation and Egypt. It remained true during Roman times
and in kingdoms all over the world – India right up until the time it was colonialised, China, the kingdoms of Malacca and Majapahit, the
Maya and Inca empires in Latin America, the kingdoms of Africa, the
Islamic empires from the time of the Prophet right up to the end of the
This concept began facing a challenge in the 16th century. A faction of the elite in England rose up against King
Charles I because it was unhappy that it was not being consulted
about the rate of taxation. This led to the English Civil War in
1641-1651 and ended with the beheading of the king. Charles’ son did
manage to re-establish the monarchy in 1660 (and execute several of
those who were instrumental in the removal of his father). But a system
whereby the propertied elites would be consulted by the British monarch
was formalised; this later evolved into the House of Lords.
concept – that people have the right to have a say in their governance – slowly developed into "universal suffrage" or the right of all
citizens to vote. In Britain, the most advanced country of that era,
the Reform Act of 1832 extended voting rights to adult males who rented
propertied land of a certain value, so granting one in seven males in
the UK voting rights. The Representation of the People Act of 1918
lifted property restrictions for voting for men, who could vote at 21 years old;
however, women’s votes were given with these property restrictions and
were limited to those over 30. Women in Britain only won equal voting
rights through the Representation of the People Act of 1928.
the United States, the 15th amendment of the US constitution in 1870
gave the right to vote to all citizens irrespective of colour or
history of previous servitude. But black men faced considerable
obstacles in exercising this right as many US states enacted laws
requiring proof of a certain level of literacy and the payment of taxes
to qualify as a voter. There was also the real threat of physical
violence against black men who were audacious enough to come forward
and vote. It took the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 to assure the
voting rights of blacks in several southern states. Women in the US
only won the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th amendment to the constitution.
So, the institution of universal suffrage, is a
very recent phenomenon, historically speaking – it has only been
practised in the past 150 years of the past 7000 years of humankind’s
written history! In Malaya, ordinary people were first given the right
to vote in the municipal elections of 1952.
Despite being a
relatively recent phenomenon, the democratic revolution cannot be
undone. People all over the world have come to accept the egalitarian
concept that all humans are “equal before god” and have the right to
choose their government and have a say in the way they are governed.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous lines, “We hold these truths to be self
evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, has come to be accepted by a
large majority of the world’s population!
The source of the democratic `revolution'
Marx argued that campaigns for universal suffrage were an integral
part of the struggle of a new elite for political hegemony. Marx noted
that the political movements for the right to vote (and for a
curtailment of the arbitrary power of kngs and the aristocracy)
started in the most economically advanced countries of the time –
England, France and the United States.
Marx’s view was that a new elite
group – the mercantile (traders) and later the industrial capitalists
– was emerging from feudal society. This new elite had increasing
economic power but were constrained by the existing feudal structures.
To succeed in their struggle against the arbitrariness of feudal
aristocrats and the monarch and for a greater say in society, this new
elite enlisted the support of the “commoners” and campaigned against
vested feudal interests. They did this by arguing for a more equal
society and championing concepts such as no taxation without
representation, the equality of all men, rule of law, judgment by a
jury made up of their peers and emancipation of slaves.
monarch cannot rule by decree. All men and women are created equal
before God and have an equal right to determine how they are governed.
This was the essence of the bourgeois democratic revolution, and it has
changed human society in a very fundamental way!
Can the two-party system meet the real needs of ordinary people?
of the world unite. You have nothing to lose apart from your chains!”,
exhorted Marx in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Many progressive
worker leaders agreed with him that the rule of the rich elite had to
be overcome through a revolution of the working peoples.
with the advent of universal suffrage, many leaders of the working
class began to question the need for revolution to advance their cause.
After all, they argued, since ordinary people make up the huge majority
of the population, the real needs of the ordinary people would be
addressed by electing in a government that is sensitive to the problems
of the ordinary people. There is now no need at all to organise for a
revolution as Karl Marx had advocated (Communist Manifesto) for the
poor constitute the majority of voters. Change can come in stages
through the ballot box – socialism by evolution.
But there were
others in the socialist movement who disagreed with this view. Lenin
for one argued strongly and eloquently as follows:
- State = Bureaucracy + armed body of men
- The state is not neutral. It is there to protect a certain class
interest. It is an instrument for the promotion of a particular class
and the suppression of other classes.
- The existing states in
the world all legitimise and protect the property interests of the
elite – the capitalists and the landlords.
- It is not enough for a workers’ party to merely take over the reins of power. One needs to revamp the state apparatus itself.
- The laws defining property relationships need to be rewritten;
* The privileges of the elected representatives had to be curtailed for
they tend to get coopted by the elite (only workers' wages!);
* Make elected representatives more accountable – “immediate recall”;
* Transparency of the administration. Taking over of administrative
functions by local councils of workers and the ordinary people.
argued that the bourgeois state apparatus must be “smashed” and a new state apparatus needs to be set up to implement changes in the interest
of the workers – the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. [I am putting his ideas very crudely – look at State and Revolution for a proper exposition of these views!]
The verdict of history - which group was right?
The socialist movement (the Second International) split into two camps. The
Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Russian tzar and expropriating the
capitalists and the landlords in their country. This led initially to
severe economic privations – industrial production as well as food
production dropped disastrously, and there was famine. But after the
initial period, the centrally planned Soviet economy grew at a much
faster rate than that of the Western economies, propelling the Soviet
Union’s emergence as one of the two super-powers in the world in the
But democracy suffered. The “proletarian dictatorship”
of the Soviet Union deteriorated to the dictatorship of a bureaucratic
elite who assumed totalitarian control of that society and completely
stifled political participation of the ordinary people. This is the
main reason why capitalist restoration was accomplished so easily in
these societies following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
other major group – the social democrats – took the parliamentary
route. The world witnessed tremendous improvements in the working and
living conditions of workers, especially in Europe as the social democratic parties managed to implement significant reforms and
institute a “welfare state”.
But since the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1989, there has been a significant move in the opposite
direction (the neoliberal attack on benefits accorded to the ordinary
people). Benefits given to workers are being pulled back all over the
world including in Europe. Distribution of national income is again
becoming skewed towards the richest of the elites.
group was correct? I think it is not clear cut. The Bolshevik
experiment in the USSR demonstrated clearly that one can grow the
economy and industrialise a nation without the capitalist class – i.e.
capitalists are dispensable, and all the drivel about the need for
entrepreneurial skills to spur economic and technological growth is
simply not true. But it cannot be denied that the KGB was vicious, and
the Gulag did happen. The USSR was a totalitarian police state where
ordinary people were completely disenfranchised. Trotskyists would
argue that the Bolshevik experiment was derailed in the 1920s itself
by a bureaucratic faction organised around Stalin – that it would have
been possible to widen and deepen the democratic revolution while
building a modern economy.
The social democrats who took the parliamentary route began facing problems in the 1960s. They did not
expropriate the capitalists but just regulated them. This resulted in
an out-migration of capital to nations that had fewer restrictions on
capital – especially when the West began winning the Cold War! A
process of de-industrialisation took place in Britain and other
advanced industrial countries. Industrial jobs dropped as factories
relocated, and government income dropped as companies relocated to tax
havens. This forced the government of the welfare states to take
measures to reduce the pressure on corporations; the tax regime was
altered in their favour. A value added tax (VAT or goods and services tax) was instituted
to shift the tax burden to the ordinary people, and parts of the
welfare state were dismantled through privatisation and co-payment
requirements. This process of dismantling the welfare state is ongoing
So the jury is still out on this question. Lenin and
Marx could have been right when they insisted that the means of
producing wealth should be taken from the hands of individuals and
corporations and put under the control of ordinary people. That was for
them (Marx and Lenin) an essential prerequisite for the building of an
equitable and humane society. Production must be for human need and not
for corporate profits!
Benefits of a two-party system
two-party system is an improvement on universal suffrage. Universal
suffrage entitles everyone to the vote. But that doesn’t automatically
mean that the people can change the government. We do not need to go
far to look for examples – take our case in Malaysia: UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation) believes that it has a
(God-given) right to rule in perpetuity, and several key institutions
within the government share this view: the police, the attorney general, the judiciary... among others. The manner
in which the state institutions acted to bring down the opposition Pakatan Rakyat
(People's Alliance) government in Perak state is a clear indicator of how deeply entrenched the
belief that UMNO is the only legitimate party to rule Malaysia.
example is just south of the causeway – Singapore. There is universal suffrage
but no electoral choices of significance.
Change of power between two
parties or two coalitions at federal level signifies a certain
political maturity and a non-aligned stance on the part of the
government bureaucracy. The move to a two-coalition system will
bring several benefits to our society especially in curbing government
excesses and corruption. Because:
- Your enemy may come into power the next time and expose all your misdeeds.
- Also “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Limiting the time a party stays in office helps curb excesses.
Limitations/pitfalls of the two-coalition system
But there are limitations to the two-party system. It does not solve all the problems. The limitations are as follows:
- Is there a real choice? Look at Labour and Conservative in the UK; Republicans
and Democrats in the US. The main parties gravitate to the political
centre and there isn’t much to choose from.
in national elections requires huge funds. Only parties and
presidential candidates that have the backing of the corporate sector
can hope to compete successfully.
So the people only have a choice between "Coca-Cola" and "Pepsi".
this is true for us in Malaysia as well. While the Pakatan Rakyat
represents an improvement over the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition in its stance
regarding ethnic politicking, corruption, cronyism and the need to
abolish draconian laws such as the Internal Secuirty Act, there isn’t much difference
between the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat on crucial macroeconomic policy issues such
as the free trade agreement with the US, intellectual property rights, the need to
attract foriegn investment to Malaysia, liberalisation of the economy, health tourism,
privatisation and support for a GST.
This is the main reason why the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM)
has held back from formally joining the PR coalition.
supports Pakatan Rakyat because we believe that moving to a two-coalition
system is a step forward for Malaysian society. But getting into the Pakatan Rakyat
as a junior member would signal an endorsement of the macroeconomic
policies listed above, which we are dead against.
the necessity of creating "third force" candidatures to bring real
alternatives into the political agenda of the nation.
parties appeal to ethnic, jingoist or religious sentiments in order to
win votes and in the process exacerbate these sentiments and lead to
conflict among the people. Examples include:
a. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Bandaranaike came to power by exploiting Sinhala chauvinism.
b. The BJP in India has Hindu-chauvinist tendencies.
c. The ultra-right, ant-immigrant parties in Europe similarly feed on the
fear of economic competition caused by immigrant communities.
two-party system can lead to gutter politics and exacerbate ethnic
tensions as rival groups within the elite play on divisive sentiments
in their efforts to win power in parliament. There are examples of this
in several of the nations emerging from the dissolution of the USSR and
This underlines the importance of building a
people’s coalition that enhances the solidarity of all the ordinary
people – the Marhaen – and this necessitates a class-based approach to
the issue of nation building.
In the rare event of a significant
change in power, there is always the danger of an extra-parliamentary
coup by the propertied classes, as occurred in Chile in 1973. (The
legally elected government of Salvador Allende of the Chilean Socialist
Party was overthrown by a US-sponsored coup in which tens of thousands
of left-wing activists, unionists and writers were murdered.) The
example of Venezuela holds many lessons that we need to analyse and
learn from, such as:
- Use of referendums to debate on national issues, educate people and deepen the praxis of democracy.
- Parallel mobilisation of the ordinary people to counter the high risks of a right-wing counterattack as happened in Chile.
- Creation of new, more pro-people institutions to circumvent the old bureaucracy that is wedded to pro-corporate interests.
is here to stay! It is a significant step forward for humanity, and it
should be preserved and deepened. It has become part of popular culture
the world over, and ordinary people throughout the world will reject
attempts to curtail their newly won democratic rights.
two-party system is a step towards the further maturity of the
democratic status of a country. It signifies a certain maturity of the
civil service. But it will not automatically solve the problems facing
There is a crucial need to mobilise ordinary people on a class basis to:
• uphold and deepen democracy
• safeguard against ethnic and religious chauvinism
• protect the democratic process from right wing counter-coups.
is an equally crucial need for a party that is able to present a clear
analysis of the current problems facing our country – for example the
neoliberal assault on the living conditions of the majority because of
the demands of corporate-led globalisation, so that the Malaysian
people can mobilise to work towards a more equitable society.
[Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, an Aliran member, is the MP for Sungai Siputand and a member of the Socialist Party of Malaysia. This article first appeared in Aliran Monthly.]