Malaysian opposition stands up to racialism and intimidation

By Peter Boyle

October 25, 2008 -- Some parties in Malaysia’s ruling National Front (BN) government are trying to intimidate opposition parties and social activists, Socialist Party Malaysia (PSM) secretary general S.Arutchelvan told Green Left Weekly, a few days after the PSM’s sole federal MP, Dr D. Jeyakumar, had his car torched by thugs on October 17.

The previous day, a 26-year-old human rights activist, Cheng Lee Whee, was arrested under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) after she made a report accusing the police of abuse of power in an eviction of a poor squatter colony in the state of Johor. She was charged with “spreading false information”.

Cheng had complained that about the violent eviction of 27 squatters and their supporters who were attempting to stop the demolition of a predominantly Malay village Kampung Baru Plentong Tengah on October 16.

Choo Shinn Chei, a PSM activist, also had her laptop confiscated by police in this incident.

This follows mounting arrests and detentions of other activists — and even bloggers — under the ISA. This has provoked thousands to demonstrate in recent months for repeal of this colonial-era detention-without-trial law.

All this comes against the background of dramatic gains by opposition parties this year. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the People’s Front (PR) opposition alliance, has recently been elected back to parliament in a by-election.

Despite facing a new government inspired frame-up for “sodomy”, Anwar is threatening to unseat the BN government through government MPs defecting to the PR. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the BN, has long exploited racial politics to maintain a strong hold on the Malay section of the population since the party was set up in power by the departing British colonialists after World War II.

However, opposition parties in recent years have begun to win over substantial support from Malays.

“UMNO wants to stop opposition parties from reaching Malay communities”, explained Arutchelvan. “For example, yesterday [October 22], there was a demo outside our Selangor state assembly member Nasir Hashim’s office by about 50-80 UMNO members. It was very racialist and sectarian.

“They reminded Nasir that as he is a Muslim he should not go against Muslims, simply because Nasir had asked a question in

the state assembly about whether zakat money [Muslim alms for the poor] could be extended to poor non-Malays.”

In the Johor incident, the authorities were particularly upset that Chinese activists had gone to support a poor Malay kampung community facing eviction, Arutchelvan said.

On the other hand, the torching of a PSM MP’s car was a continuation of the rivalry between the PSM and UMNO’s partner, the Malaysian Indian Congress, for support among poor Indian communities in the Sungai Siput electorate in Perak state.

Arutchelvan said that there had been many attacks against PSM members in the electorate. However, following the torching, the police have charged a number of people with criminal intimidation for the first time.

However, Arutchelvan added, some BN parties, such as the Malaysian People’s Movement Party (Gerakan) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), are trying to distance themselves from the increasingly racialist and intimidatory political tactics by UMNO.

Meanwhile, the PSM continues to promote class politics against Malaysia’s elite parties’ tradition of communal and religious politics. After winning its first federal MP and state assembly member in the March general elections, the PSM support base continues to grow.

It finally won the right to apply for electoral registration in September this year, after waging a 10-year-long legal and popular struggle.

More than 1500 celebrated this victory at a fundraising dinner on September 13 and another 800 people attended a rally to celebrate the victory in Kuala Lumpur on October 19.

Guest speakers at the rally included leaders of other Malaysian opposition parties including the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Justice Party (PKR) and Party Islam (PAS). One of the guest speakers was DAP MP Teresa Kok, whose home was recently firebombed after she received racialist threats.

On October 23, police arrested 12 people (including a six-year-old girl) trying to submit a letter to the PM to seek the release of recent ISA detainees. Arutchelvan warned that the UMNO-led government facing an internal party crisis as well as the global financial crisis is prepared to use force and oppression to remain in power.

[More information about the PSM, visit This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #772, October 25, 2008.]