Malaysia: Two-party system – and a ‘third force’?

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.

The 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 new.

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 19th century.

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.

This 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.

In 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'

Karl 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.

The 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?

“Workers 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.

But 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.

Lenin 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 1960s.

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.

The 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.

So which 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 today.

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

The 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.

Another 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.
  • Participation 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".

Incidentally, 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.

The PSM 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.

This raises the necessity of creating "third force" candidatures to bring real alternatives into the political agenda of the nation.

Sometimes 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.

The 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 Yugoslavia.

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.


Democracy 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.

The 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 the nation.

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.

There 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.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 02/15/2010 - 18:51


Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj (Sungai Siput)

10 Feb 10 : 8.00AM

By Deborah Loh

SUNGAI Siput Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj's response to the MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project, which asks all 222 MPs six questions.

Name: Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj
Sungai Siput

Party: Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM, opposition)
Years as MP:
Since 2008
Government position:

Party position:
Founding member and central committee member

Membership in parliamentary committees or caucus:
Labour Caucus assistant secretary


1 Would you support the abolition/review of the Internal Security Act (ISA), in particular the provision that allows for detention without trial? Why or why not?

Most definitely. Since its introduction in Malaysia as the Emergency Ordinance in 1948, it has been used against individuals and groups who have fought for a fairer distribution of national wealth and a more independent position vis-à-vis the imperial centre of global capitalism. These issues still have not been resolved even 53 years after Merdeka. 

The struggle for a better, more equitable society will be hampered by the continued existence of the draconian ISA. We should all work to abolish it.

2 Do you think Malaysia should be a secular or an Islamic state? Why?

This is a very emotionally charged issue, and part of the reason is that different parties understand the terms "secular" and "Islamic" differently. Many within the Islamic movement equate the term "secular" with the aggressive anti-religion stance taken by [Turkey's Mustafa] Kemal Ataturk and his supporters.

I am for a secular state, and by that I mean:

a state whose laws and statutes are not derived from religious texts. But this does not mean these laws cannot be inspired by the values and principles that are found in these religious texts;

a state where there is no legal requirement that political posts or senior administrative posts (with the exception of the Religious Department) can only be held by individuals from a particular religion, or that such leaders have to be endorsed or "cleared" by a council of religious leaders.

My reason for saying so is that in a state where the laws are based on the religious texts of any religion, only individuals who are from that religion can make or interpret these laws. This effectively disenfranchises those who are not from that religion. It is an anti-democratic concept. Even those from that religion can be deprived of their rights to participate in governance because they are judged to be not "religious" enough to partake in the making or debating of laws.

However, a "secular" state should not put up barriers to the practice of religion by the population. Every individual should have the freedom to practice his or her religion.

At the same time, there appears to be different understandings of the term "Islamic", even among those who call themselves "Islamic". There are "Islamic" groups that insist that girls should not go to school, and that men who shave should be punished.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also "Islamic" individuals who argue passionately that universal values such as fair play, justice, and welfare for the disadvantaged are the core values of the Islam that they believe in. I personally would like to see a society with more of the Islamic values as espoused by the latter group of Muslims.

Further, I believe that all the major religions have an anti-capitalist core — they are unanimous in their teachings that:

the weak, the sick and the disadvantaged must be protected and helped;

leaders should live simply and not lavishly, and be humble; and

greed should be curtailed so that the majority's needs are not compromised.

[In our] globalised world, misguided neo-liberal measures such as [the] privatisation of services like healthcare, education, housing, and public transport are still being implemented in our societies. I would consider the great religions as potential allies in the task of re-humanising and reclaiming our societies, which have been ravaged by the immorality of an economic system based on maximising profits for big corporations.

3How do you define your role as an elected MP? Does Parliament provide you with the necessary infrastructure and support to fulfill your role?

[My role] in Parliament [is] to voice the needs of the people in my constituency. In my constituency, [my duties are:]

to visit various groups to understand their issues;

to assist people [with] problems to find solutions;

to give feedback to my voters on relevant issues being discussed in Parliament (this will also help create a culture of accountability on the part of the MP);

to create a core [group] of volunteers who will help in the fight for justice; and

to create programs that can bridge the racial divide that has been brought about by 52 years of Barisan Nasional rule.

[As to whether Parliament provides necessary infrastructure], no. By right, Parliament should:

give funds to employ a researcher for each parliamentarian;

give funds for each MP to employ two field workers to keep in touch with the constituency;

create a slot comprising 10% of the time of each sitting for opposition MPs to table motions and private members' bills; and,

be more transparent as to the order of bills that will be debated in Parliament. Sometimes we are only informed on the day itself that a bill has been brought forward to a particular day.

4 Would you support a Freedom of Information Act? Why or why not?

Sure. It would:

help reduce corruption and misuse of power;

help citizens monitor government performance and provide effective check and balance; and

help improve governance.

5 If there was one thing you could do to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, what would it be?

As the lone member from my party, all I would be able to do is to bring up issues relevant to [the] people, and then give effective feedback to my constituents through booklets and video clips.

6 Do you believe in separation of powers between the government, Parliament and judiciary? Why or why not?

Of course! [It would] reduce corruption and misuse of power, [promote] better rule of law, [and] improve governance.

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Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 02/15/2010 - 19:00


By Humayun Kabir

Feb 11, 10


Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) wants the government to provide free higher education in Malaysia, as the cost of private education is a heavy financial burden for the majority of Malaysian students.

Party Deputy Secretary-General Rani Rasiah said that education is something that the government is duty bound to provide, just like healthcare and basic amenities.

“It should be the overriding priority of government to invest in and make available quality education for free. This is in the best interests of the nation.

“The role of providing such education can never be replaced by the private sector whose overriding motive is profit.”

She added that students who had taken out loans from the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (NHEFC) were caught in a debt trap that financially drained them. This could explain its RM1 billion in outstanding loans.

She quoted an example of how a physiotherapist would have to take a loan of RM60,000 to complete his studies. This would take at least 15 years to settle. And should he decide to have a family or had to support aged parents, it would even be harder.

Hefty debt

On the other end of the scale, a doctor from a private medical university would begins his working life with a hefty debt of RM500,000.

The Higher Education Ministry is trying to review the procedures of the NHEFC to ensure that only needy students benefitted.

However according to Rani, the move is not to help the poor students, but to arrest the government bill for private education - which is expected to shoot up to RM5 billion by 2013.

She said that what is needed now is not a review of the NHEFC loan terms, but rather a total revamp of the higher education system which has in great part, been contracted out to the private sector.

In the last sitting of parliament, she claimed that two local private colleges were turning out substandard graduates whom hospitals are reluctant to employ.

“The reality of private education is that standards have been sacrificed in the fierce competition for the NHEFC loans, the new cash cow for the well-connected companies operating colleges and universities, ” she said.


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Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 02/15/2010 - 19:05


Banks Have Failed The Poor. PSM Calls On Prime Minister To Create Easy Loans For The Poor

February 10, 2010 -- This morning around 70 people led by PSM National Chairperson Dr. Nasir Hashim and Deputy Chairperson M.Saraswathy submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister urging the Government to set up easy loan system to help the lower and middle income group.

Carrying a banner and chanting slogan such as urging Najib to replace to role of Along and ceti. Along and ceti are illegal loan sharks but for the poor, they are the only hope as the banks have failed them. Many lower income and lower middle class families have lost their property such as houses because they cannot repay the loan. Though the Central Bank bank have called for loan restructuring but it has failed to resolve the problems as Banks continue to put ridiculous conditions to the borrowers.

The Police at one point tried to dismantle the banner but was prevented by the boisterous protesters. Those who came continued to shout slogans and give speeches. Later a meeting was arranged by the PM’s office to receive the memorandum.

Ravin Ponniah, the Special Officer to the Prime Minister then held a dialogue at his office where he was briefed on what the Government should do and was reminded of Najib’s “Peoples first” concept. The Officer took notes and agreed to work on the issue which he saw as critical.

Talking to the press later, PSM Secretary General S.Arutchelvan said that this is the third level of action as prior to this, PSM had held talks with the Human Resource Minister as well as had a dialogue with the Central Bank. Today we have come to the Prime Minister’s office because it is very urgent for the Government to set up easy loans for the poor with very minimal interest. PSM propose an interest rate of 4% or below annually. Currently Ceti and along ask 10% monthly interest. There have also been cases of suicide as people cannot handle these loan sharks.

While the Government and the police cannot handle the along(loan sharks), yet the bigger problem is the failure of the banks to provide easy loans for the poor.

Click here to read the memorandum in Malay.