Socialism is here to stay in Malaysia

In August, the Appeal Court dismissed the Socialist Party of Malaysia's (PSM) application to be registered as a political party, with costs. All major newspapers in the country carried the news. The second highest court used technical arguments to dismiss the PSM's case, although the PSM's argument was on the issue of violation to fundamental liberties enshrined in the country's federal constitution and on the issue of natural justice. Four main national organisation did watching briefs of the case — the Malaysian Bar Council, the Malaysian Human Rights Organisation, Voice of the Malaysian People and aliran.

This was the first time in Malaysian history that a political party took the state to court on a question of constitutional rights. There was a big build-up to the case. Thirty-six local organisations — including all major opposition parties, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress and all major human rights groups in Malaysia — called for the PSM to be registered. There was also huge international solidarity from all over the world. Organisations from more than twenty countries called for the party to be registered. Even the Malaysian Human Rights Commission called the refusal a violation of human rights.

Yet on August 16, the PSM was once again denied to right to exist. The party will now need to appeal to the Federal Court — the final legal option. Many old comrades were not surprised by the decision, because they felt that the state still feared socialism and the PSM is seen as a party which is gaining support from the working class.

Leaving the courtroom, we were swamped by the media. PSM's national chairperson, Comrade Nasir, said, "We will not be shaken by this decision. As socialists, we know that we are fighting the system, and we will fight on". Outside the courtroom, a huge crowd of members and supporters greeted us. Once again, Nasir said, "The more you suppress us, the more we will fight back". This was greeted by thunderous applause from the people, mostly workers and urban poor. The party leadership took the defeat easily and moved on.

Most of the people present at the court were carrying party flags and wearing party t-shirts as well as carrying banners. One lawyer approached me and asked with confusion, "I thought you people were already registered? You seem to have everything, from badges to t-shirts". Ironically, that is the situation of PSM: not recognised by the state and legally non-existent, but the whole nation knows that there is a socialist party in existence.

The struggle to develop socialism in Malaysia has been an uphill task, but the PSM as a party and socialism as an ideology are surely growing and gaining momentum. The PSM acts as if the party were registered: we have very visible branches, we hold congresses, we release press statements, we have our party newspapers, and we lead national campaigns. The party moves so confidently that some people think it is a registered party. What is even more surprising was the Appeal's Court judge's statement that the PSM has been given registration in the state of Selangor and can therefore contest elections. Even the judge can get his facts wrong.

The PSM has now been in existence for nine years and moving forward each year. The party is the only one in Malaysia carrying forward the red flag and socialist ideology in name and spirit.

Many people are surprised, but many older comrades are worried that the party will sooner or later be suppressed by the state. There was a lot of caution from older comrades, mostly former members of the Labour Party and other left parties.

The PSM is playing a completely a different game. The party is very open in its program. It openly uses the words socialism and class struggle. The party's grassroots work over the decade has made the party a trusted ally of the grassroots and envied by many mainstream political parties.

A brief history of the left

In 1990, it was evident that the left in Malaysia had been completely wiped out. There was no longer any party carrying the banner of socialism. The only party having a socialist tag was the youth wing of the social democratic Democratic Action Party (dap), currently the main opposition party. The dap youth wing is called dap Socialist Youth, but the party has no socialist program, and its leaders have openly declared that they are not ideologically based on socialism.

The Malaysian Communist Party (mcp), established in 1930 and opened by Ho Chi Minh, led a guerrilla struggle until 1989, when it signed a peace accord with the Malaysian and Thai governments, ending its five decades of armed struggle. It was the same year of the collapse of the Soviet union and the eastern bloc. Today the mcp members live in three villages in southern Thailand. They have recently sued the Malaysian government for not allowing them to return to Malaysia. The PSM has openly called on the government to allow mcp leaders to return in spite of opposition by some quarters.

The Malaysian People's Socialist Front, which was the main opposition party just after independence, had to be abandoned in 1967 after its failure to unite the two major parties then — the People's Party and the Labour Party — on language policy. Besides that, these parties were suppressed, with thousands of their leaders and cadres arrested under emergency laws and the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The Malaysian Labour Party disbanded following ideological differences between factions calling for a revolutionary route against those comfortable with the parliamentary route. Its leadership and its members were completely suppressed by the state using the draconian isa.

With the demise of the Labour Party, the Malaysian People's Party reorganised and called itself the Malaysian People's Socialist Party. It was established in 1955 and had a clearly socialist program in its constitution. But in 1989-1990, the party dropped the word socialist from its name and constitution. The party has since merged with the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which is led by Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, Wan Azizah. The pkr is a party with no clear ideological position and is seen as a populist centrist party. Its members too come from various background including former umno (United Malays National Organisation — the current ruling party) members.

The course of the Malaysian left was a downhill movement from socialism in 1955, to scientific socialism in 1969, to Islamic socialism from 1978, to no socialism in 1989 and finally acting like an NGO from the 1990s.

This downhill trend came to an end when the PSM emerged after 1994. In that year, the grassroots movement that later established the PSM held huge protests among the workers and the urban poor. In 1998, it sought to register a political party called Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), the Socialist Party of Malaysia.

The PSM and Malaysian politics

In 1998, when the PSM applied for registration, it was almost eight years after the collapse in Eastern Europe. There was no longer a socialist party in the country, and the existing parties shied away from socialism. The PSM built from the ruins and for three years the party debated whether to use the word "socialist" in its name. It was felt that calling the party socialist was a suicide attempt because the name was smeared by the state as meaning "communist". This is a very bad name in Malaysia and also branded "anti-religion". PSM members had to make a crucial decision. Do we call ourselves socialist and take on the huge tide before us or call the party something else and try to put forward a socialist program?

The party finally decided to put socialism in its name, and today it has renewed the debate and the battle between capitalism and socialism. The party has strong backing among the poor and has been the most efficient party in voicing the plight of the working class and organising numerous protests.

Today the PSM, socialism and the red flag are back on the streets. The state seems uneasy and in the government affidavit rejecting the PSM's application to be registered states that, based on reports by the police, "the party is a threat to National Security".

Current tasks of the party

The Abdullah Ahmad Badawi government, which took over from Mahathir at the end of 2003, has further liberalised the economy thus making relevance of PSM more imminent. Although Mahathir introduced massive privatisation and neo-liberal policies in line with Thatcherism and Reaganism, yet he had some sort of an anti-imperialist or at least anti-us stand in international politics. Mahathir protected the local capitalists, but under Badawi the country is moving more vigorously toward neo-liberal policies. Malaysia has already signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Japan and is moving towards signing another with the us. The government also plans to privatise public hospitals and introduce a goods and services tax gst. Most people are truly disappointed with Badawi's stand and his leaning towards the us.

While class exploitation and the economy seem to be the major issue confronting the Malaysian people, the ruling party and the main opposition parties have capitalised on race and religion to garner support from the people. The Malaysian people have been systematically divided by race and religion — tools used by the British colonialists to divide the people and currently being used by the ruling National Front [headed by umno, the United Malays National Organisation] to divide and rule the people. Therefore issues such as economic exploitation and neo-liberalism seem overshadowed by issues such as an Islamic state, language etc.

The PSM's main task is to unite the different races into a working-class movement to win the war against capitalism. It is an uphill task, but definitely the task the party wants to undertake.

Currently, the PSM is leading two main coalitions. One is the protest against gst and the other is on the issue of privatisation of hospitals. The PSM formed a small coalition to oppose the gst, which the government decided to postpone indefinitely. For the anti-privatisation of health campaign, the PSM leads a broadly based coalition of eighty-three organisations, including all the opposition parties. The coalition has managed to slow down the plans to privatise hospitals, but the battle is still on.

As well, the PSM is seen as the main party, besides the Islamic party pas, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently the PSM is also the sole main group calling for the FTA with the us to be stopped, while other organisations are willing to take a position of "Let's hear what is good before we fully disagree with FTA".

The PSM could be seen as the fourth biggest opposition party in the country, after the PAS, DAP and PKR, but based on street actions, mobilisation of the masses, the party would come out as top.

The party has stood in two general elections using other opposition party symbols. There is a big internal voice calling for the PSM to stand in the next election only if it has its own logo, which we can only obtain if we are a registered party.

2004 election

In the last election, in 2004, the opposition got a severe beating from the ruling party. There has been no change of government in Malaysia since the election system started in 1955. In 1969, when the opposition denied the ruling party its two-thirds majority for the first time, an emergency was declared and the result of the election did not materialise.

In the 2004 election, the PSM contested four seats — two parliamentary seats and two state seats in the Subang and Sungai Siput constituencies. It stood under the ticket of the PKR after the DAP refused to allow the PSM to stand under its logo.

The pkr, which stood in more than 100 seats, offered to let the PSM stand under its logo but wanted the PKR leadership to announce the names of the candidates. The PSM did not agree and went on to make the announcement. It was the first party to announce its candidates and to declare their assets. No other opposition or ruling party candidates declared their assets.

On nomination day, the PSM was with an opposition coalition that included the pas and the Islamic party as well as the PKR. A few weeks before the election, the Islamic PAS attacked a pkr leader, Syed Husin Ali for being a socialist, although Syed Husin himself had previously denied this.

It is interesting to note that in all seats where there was a three-cornered fight between the ruling National Front, the pkr and the dap, the result was National Front first, dap second and pkr third. But in Sungai Siput, where the PSM stood on the pkr ticket, the PKR came second while the dap candidate lost his deposit. That is a clear reflection of how strong the party can be on the ground.

In Subang on nomination day, the Islamic party refused to walk with PSM supporters if PSM members wanted to carry the red flag and wear the party's t-shirt. They even had blue t-shirts for us and our supporters to wear. The PSM rejected this and decided that it would walk alone to the nomination centre. Therefore there were two rallies by the opposition, one led by the pas and pkr while the PSM led the other. So efficient was the PSM's mobilisation and election machinery that suddenly all the supporters from the other rally joined us, and the PSM was accepted although we proclaimed that we are socialist and that we have a manifesto separate from the other opposition parties. The supporters from the pas and PKR realised the PSM's strength, and most of them started wearing our badges.

None of the PSM candidates lost their deposits. In fact, they all did very well. Most of our candidates got around forty per cent of the total vote.

Socialism is here to stay

The party has applied to the Federal Court to register the party. But no court can strip the PSM of its right to exist. The PSM remains today as the only hope for the working class and is the main opposition to the neo-liberal attacks on the Malaysian people. We will continue to struggle and fight for socialism, which we see as the only alternative to save the working class in Malaysia.

The PSM has an open policy of working with any left groups in the world. We truly believe that the struggle is a class struggle and we believe in internationalism.

The left has not been wiped out in Malaysia, and it will continue to exist and bring about political change.

[The writer is secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.]