Malaysia: Independent class politics and socialist programme

Only way to counter racial and reactionary religious policies

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Independent class politics and socialist programme

“Playing too much racial politics will destroy the nation,” proclaimed the leader from Gerakan (Movement) – a partner in the governing coalition of Barisan Nasional (BN – National Front) during its Annual General Meeting a few weeks ago. This is a sign of the growing racial and religious divide that has stoked fears and tensions among Malaysian society in recent times. Ironically, this same party, Gerakan, which claimed to be multi-racial in approach is dominated by Chinese and has been member of coalition of Barisan National for more than 30 years and has been using racial politics to be in power in the state of Penang. The BN, known as Parti Perikatan or Alliance before the 1970s, has been dominated since its inception by the United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) and the other main partners – the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) along with 10 other communal parties.

At the same function, when asked by reporters to comment about the proposal to merge all racial parties into one entity that represents all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, who is also president of UMNO said, “I am not saying that this (merger proposal) is impossible, but perhaps at some time in the future … For now, I have yet to see its advantages, especially on its practical side”.  This same question was asked during the Mahathir era and even during the period of the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman and the answer was similar. This demonstrates that the BN intends to maintain communalism as its ideology as long as it benefits the privileges of the ruling class.

Racially divided nation

Last August, Malaysia celebrated 50 years of independence from British rule, but Malaysian society is still suffering under the use of the colonialists ‘divide and conquer’ methods of dividing the three main races in Malaysia – Malay, Chinese and Indian. Since independence this ‘divide and conquer’ method has been emulated by BN government for its advantage to maintain power as well as to benefit the ruling class and to counter the development of trade unions and working class struggle. On the other hand, the imperialist powers such as Britain and later the USA have used ‘political stability’ under the BN regime to continually exploit the Malaysian economy, although Mahathir did sometimes come into conflict with the major imperialist powers when he took measures in the interests of protecting Malay capitalism.

According to this BN framework, each particular racial party’s leadership is supposed to accede to the demands or safeguard the socio-economic needs and welfare of their respective social bases, especially among the middle class. UMNO has used this framework to enlarge the share of wealth of Malay elites in the name of ‘Malay special rights’ as well as creating more Malay capitalists from these elites. The same goes for the MIC and MCA leadership who have been enriching the ruling stratum and its cronies, rather than attending to the needs and welfare of ordinary working people from the Chinese and Indian communities. To facilitate this, the parties in BN will whip up racial sentiments in order to further maintain the support of people from their own race. For instance, in 2005, during UMNO’s Annual General Meeting, one of its leaders, when giving his speech, was waving a dagger and vowed to defend Malay supremacy and to threaten those who opposed Malay special rights. This act infuriated the Indian and Chinese communities.

In the 1970s, the BN came out with the New Economic Policy (NEP) which was supposed to raise living standards and increase the corporate ownership of Malays to 30%. Since then, the state has carried out many projects and programmes but, according to recent statistics, the wealth gap between the rich and poor Malays has been widening since the beginning of the NEP. The share of wealth under those projects and programmes went most to the Malay elites and capitalists rather than to the ordinary Malay workers and poor people.

At every Annual General Meeting, the MIC would also request a bigger share of the country’s wealth from the state to raise living standards of Indians and to achieve 3% of corporate ownership for them. The MIC politicians are using their positions and links in the government to enrich themselves and their cronies. This was revealed recently when its investment arm, Maica Holdings, which is bureaucratically controlled from the top, could not generate any profits for the thousands of its ordinary shareholders. Similarly, the MCA is being used by the Chinese business class as a medium to protect their rights and to obtain business opportunities. However all factions of the capitalist class, regardless of race and borders, are united in plundering the wealth of the nation. There are Malays, Chinese, Indians and foreigners in this capitalist club with one intention that is to generate more profit using the BN framework as a tool. Recent statistics showed that the 10 richest people in Malaysia own 11% of the wealth of the country – in 2006 this was $35 billion from a GDP of $314 billion. The household income for the top 10% in 2003 was 39.2% of total income while for the lowest 10% it is merely 1.4%.

BN’s ‘political stability’ formula

All this while the BN has boasted that its racial formula is working and claimed that it has contributed to the building of the economy and the nation as a whole. Its achievement is compared with a country like Ghana which gained independence in the same year and has nearly the same population as Malaysia but has not been able to achieve the same growth. Ghana’s failure is related to its inability to maintain the ‘political stability’ that has been achieved by the Malaysian state. Indeed, the Malaysian state has maintained ‘political stability’ all this time by utilising the ‘divide and rule’ method in the BN framework and managed to develop an export-oriented economy by attracting foreign investors and multinationals. Also Malaysia had the advantage of being favoured by imperialism during the cold war and during the war in Vietnam etc. unlike Ghana.

Aiming to achieve Newly Industrialised Country status, under the Mahathir regime in the 1980s the state pursued a massive programme of privatisation of the basic utilities as well as attracted Foreign Direct Investment to rapidly develop manufacturing and the electronics industries. Privatisations had considerably reduced the government public spending and generated revenue to government from corporate tax which has been used to build better infrastructure such as roads, ports, new industrial towns etc. for investors and business communities to exploit the labour and resources in Malaysia. All these development efforts have transformed the outlook and status of Malaysia from a country based on agriculture and mining activities into a developing country based on export-oriented industries.

The per capita GDP in 2006 was RM 43,000 ($12,700), 20 times higher than the figure in 1970. The BN government has been using all these development achievements to prove the correctness of its ‘political stability’ formula. In the meantime, the multinationals and national capitalists have been plundering the wealth and resources of the country to gain more profits, with the state’s backing to maintain the ‘political stability’. In these circumstances, the fundamental needs of workers and ordinary people have been ignored and inequalities have widened. The inequality ratio between the rich and poor in Malaysia is the highest among the Southeast Asian nations.

On the other hand, the BN coalition partners managed to keep the contentious racial and religious issues as vague as possible amongst the elite. On the contrary, there have been numerous occasions in which the racial and religious issues have come out and these have led to the increase of more dissatisfactions and hatred between different races.  There have been two recent such incidents. One was the Kampung Medan racial clash in March, 2001, between Malay and Indian communities in which six people were killed and over hundred others injured. It was triggered by a petty neighbourhood quarrel but became worse and inflated by the unsatisfactory and uneven social and economic development between the races in this neglected township on the western fringe of Kuala Lumpur.

The other was the disruption by an unruly mob, who were mostly Muslim, at an inter-faith forum organised by ‘Article 11 Coalition’ in July, 2006 to discuss the rights of people to practice different religions. This incident triggered from the dissatisfaction among non-Muslim over how the state handled the issue of conversion of Muslim to other religions as well as some privileges accorded to Muslims in Shariah law contrary to the constitutional rights for everyone to practise religion freely. The state is favouring the majority Malay Muslim by using their religions sentiments to maintain their electoral supports.

However, in order to try and deal with racial and religious tensions and dissatisfactions and protect its monopoly of political and economic privileges, the state consistently refers to the May 13, 1969 race riot to justify its reactionary politics. In that racial incident, 196 people lost their lives and hundreds of others were wounded by firearms and by other weapons. Thousands of people lost their homes and hundreds of buildings and vehicles were damaged and destroyed by fire.

May 13, 1969

From the 1960s onwards, there was a political struggle in UMNO between the aristocratic layer led by Tunku (the first Prime Minister) who supported the economic interests of the non-Malay and foreign capitalists and those like Mahathir who demanded more opportunities to be provided by the state in order to engender the growth of Malay capitalists. In order to soothe both factions, UMNO utilised government investment in the rural sector to lift the standard of living of the Malays there while also providing incentives for private enterprise to invest in industrial developments in the cities.

However, the Malay population, traditionally located in rural areas, were poorer and less educated than the predominantly urban Chinese who, on the whole, tended to be economically better-off. In order to counter this, UMNO encouraged Malays who could not find employment opportunities in rural villages to move to the urban sector by providing government positions and industrial jobs. Despite some gains in this venture, it was not adequate to produce more employment opportunities for urban workers and dissatisfaction in both communities grew. At the same time, the credibility of the government’s management of rural schemes was tainted by corruption and manipulation involving UMNO politicians.

Since the decline in real household income was also speeding up in that period, the discontents among the Malay workers and farmers were growing. On the other hand, the non-Malay workers and middle class were even more disgruntled by the state’s discriminatory bumiputra policies in employment, education, scholarship and licence grants. (The term bumiputra means ‘son of the soil’ and is used to refer to Malays and the indigenous groups.)

In those circumstances, the Alliance party’s policy was seen by the Chinese as excessively favouring Malays; among the Malays, the Alliance party’s policies were regarded as not producing rapid and satisfactory results. The frustration over the Alliance Party amongst the masses was used by opposition parties to arouse racial and religious sentiments. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) which campaigns among the urban non-Malay population, accused the MCA of having sold-out non-Malay rights to UMNO. The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PMIP), later was known as PAS, whose aim was to establish an Islamic state for the benefit of Malays, accused UMNO of having sold-out the Malays to the Chinese and betrayed Islam.

The Parti Buruh (Labour Party) had shown significant electoral gains in the 1959 and 1964 general elections, but later decided to not take part in subsequent elections. They justified the boycott on the grounds that the Alliance would not tolerate the existence of a non-communal opposition party with leftist tendency and that to participate in these elections would be to condone communal politics. Their mistaken decision was influenced by ‘ultra-leftism’ as well as frustration over state’s repression over them. Nevertheless at this juncture of significant class struggle and conflicts in ruling class, their decision resulted with the working class with no alternatives rather than to give their supports to the communalist oppositions. This showed that the weaknesses or the absence of the workers’ movement is a key in struggles being diverted onto communal or racial lines.


The decision of the Labour Party and Lefts not to participate in elections, was used by other communal opposition political parties such as DAP, PMIP, Gerakan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to fill the vacuum. They set out to garner support by using communalist sentiments and took advantage of the mass disaffection towards the Alliance. Using this advantage, the opposition denied the Alliance a two-thirds majority in the election for the first time. Nevertheless, at a later stage, these opposition parties either became part of the BN coalition or further indulged in communal politics in opposition to the BN. (In the 1970s, Gerakan and the PPP joined the coalition; the PMIP joined the coalition for some time but left at the end of the 1970s).

A recently published book, ‘May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969’ by Dr. Kua Kia Soong, reveals that the dissatisfaction among different races over the state’s racially discriminatory policies which had led to more social and economic inequalities, had created the conditions for the eruption of race riots between Malays and Chinese. The ruling class had exploited the social and economic inequalities between races by employing the state’s apparatus to whip up racial tension in order to stem the diminishing support of the masses for the government. Later the state utilised this incident as an excuse to proclaim a state of emergency to undermine the growing support for opposition parties shown in the general election prior to the incident, and as a means to safeguard the economic interests of capitalists and the privileges of the aristocratic elite.

The racial and religious discontent and suspicions that there were in the 1960s still remain in Malaysian society at the present time. This ‘time bomb’ could explode at any moment, once the social and economic circumstances of the country become intolerable and cause dissatisfaction among the different races, as shown in the 1969 May 13 incident. Could Malaysian society under the BN, with its ‘political stability’ formula, avoid another May 13?

Since the 1970s the BN has maintained the economy at a reasonable level of growth and this has enabled them to improve some social and public provisions as well as provide employment to the Malay majority through its ‘divide and rule’ (bumiputra) methods. However, the Malaysian export-oriented economy is very much affected by changes in the global economy determined by the economic situation in countries like the US, Japan, China and Europe. The Asian economic crisis of 1997 showed the vulnerability and uncertainties of the Malaysian economy within the global market. This is what was behind Mahathir’s ‘defiant’ measures at the time to control capital movements and trade.

At present the global economy is more interconnected and exposed than ever, and this presents an uneasy position to a country like Malaysia. The recent credit and housing crunch in the US caused the Malaysian share market to lose billions of Ringgit in one day. Incidents such this demonstrate that the next world economic crisis will have a great impact on economies such as Malaysia.

Great shocks to the economy will force the state to cut the social and public funding and raise inflation. On the other hand, many multinational companies will pull out their investment or declare bankruptcy and this will create more unemployment.  In such a situation, racial and religious issues which have been inflating tensions and dissatisfaction between races could blow up and develop into disastrous incidents like that of May 13 or even worse than that.

Right wing opposition parties and communalism

Since the Alliance (or later BN) government has been in power, there has been emergence of many opposition parties to oppose its political hegemony. One of the earliest ones was the Parti Negara (Nation Party) in the 1950s which considered itself multi-ethnic but later turned into a Malay-based party to counter UMNO policies. Similar attempts were made by the DAP, Gerakan and the PPP in the 1960s which had considered themselves multi-ethnic at their foundation but later evolved into Chinese or Indian-based parties. One of the latest ones in this list is Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party) initiated by Anwar Ibrahim during the development of the ‘reformasi’ movement at the end of the 1990s. Initially it was attractive to youth, students and people that wanted to see changes in government although Anwar himself was very pro the neo-liberal policies of the International Monetary Fund.  Recent developments have shown that PKR is more keened in persuading the elite and professional people to join their party rather than the ordinary working people. 

Their reactionary politics could be seen in the recent Ijok by-election. Ijok is a constituency in which the Malays are a majority of the population but with a significant number of Indians. The PKR which has presents itself as a multiracial party decided to run the former CEO of a notorious plantation company as their candidate. He is Malay and the decision came after some debate in the party on whether to put a Malay or an Indian forward to contest against the Indian candidate of the BN. He was chosen merely because of his previous ‘creditable’ corporate management leadership and achievements in order to garner Malay votes. However among plantation workers, mostly Indian, he was considered to be unjust and brutal. In one case he collaborated with the state government and police to demolish the houses of poor plantation workers who had been demanding decent alternative housing and compensation for relocation.

In the case of PAS, which is a party based on Muslims who are predominantly Malays, it is trying to portray itself as more moderate than its initial Islamic fundamentalist outlook in order to present itself as an alternative to UMNO. However, the majority of Chinese and Indians who are non-Muslim are still uncomfortable and suspicious of their Islamic politics and their goal to establish an Islamic state.

There has also been the emergence of parties that attempted to counter the undemocratic and dictatorial trends of the leaders in the ruling parties. Two such examples were Semangat 46 (46 Inspiration) and the Indian Progressive Party (IPF) which were splinter parties from UMNO and MIC, respectively.  Semangat 46 which had almost equal support to UMNO in the beginning could not compete with the financial capabilities and party machineries of UMNO and later had to submerge itself into the UMNO fold. The IPF which revolted against the ‘iron fist’ of the MIC president, in the beginning garnered significant support from poor Indian plantation workers but later failed to maintain itself in the opposition camp. Throughout its existence, the IPF had applied to the prime minister to be another Indian party in the BN coalition but was prevented by the MIC. Recently the leaders of the MIC and IPF, who have been regarded as ‘dog and cat’, were sitting on the same platform talking about Indian unity and promoting brotherhood. Meanwhile significant sections of the Indian community, from poor and workers’ backgrounds, are being further marginalised by the government’s racial policies.

At one time, opposition coalitions such as Gagasan Rakyat (People’s Coalition) and Barisan Alternative (Alternative Front) – launched at the end of the 1980s and 1990s respectively – were regarded by many working people who were looking for an alternative as being capable of challenging BN political supremacy and forming a better government that could benefit the people. But they failed to replace the BN. They got more engaged in fighting over each other’s policies and eventually lost their credibility.  These coalitions were unsuccessful, mainly because they emulated the same political and racial formula as the BN, and people could not see much difference in the long run.

Class politics

The Alliance or BN all this time has been safeguarding the capitalist system which protects the minority who control the wealth of the country and are making profits through exploiting the labour of the majority, the working class. In that process the fundamental needs and welfare of the majority, working class are jeopardised. Malcolm X, who was an intransigent opponent of the US government’s racial and imperialist policies, once said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. This phrase is exactly appropriate in relation to the approach of BN politicians who are using racism as a tool to defend and preserve the capitalist system in this country. 

On the other hand, the opposition parties are not challenging the capitalist system but believe it is badly managed by the BN and that it could be altered and adjusted to be more democratic, just and reasonable to the Malaysian multi-racial society. In other words, they want to present themselves as an alternative to merely do alterations and modifications to the system so that it looks more humane. PAS, DAP and PKR are respectively propagating the programmes and ideas of an Islamic state, of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ and of ‘civil society’ as the treatment for the BN badly managed Malaysian capitalist system and in order to make it healthy.  But the experiences in neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines show that this will not solve the problems.

The political alternatives or solutions presented by these opposition parties has a similarity to what was offered in other countries by populist leaders and their parties before coming to power –  in Indonesia in 1998, by Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI); in Philippines in 1986, by Corazon Aquino (United Nationalist Democratic Organization -UNIDO) and in 2000 by Joseph Estrada (Party of the Filipino Masses – PMP); in 2002 in Thailand, by Thaksin Sinawatra (Thai Rak Thai -Thais Love Thais party). In order to gain popular support, they propagated the need to fight for democratic rights even though, at the same time, they were seeking the support and consent of some national and international capitalists.

When these leaders came into power, the policies towards the workers and poor people were not much different from, and sometimes more corrupt and unjust than what the people they were opposing had done during their tenures of office. Consequently new movements became necessary to remove them and workers and poor farmers became disillusioned with their own strength and struggles. This is because, as capitalist politicians, these once popular leaders played the role of defending and strengthening free market systems which benefit the capitalist class. In that process the fundamental needs of the poor, of workers and of peasants were left uncared for.  

All the arguments above show that both the opposition and the BN are clearly pro-free market parties. They represent and promote the needs of elites and capitalists and have utilised racial or religious policies that divide the masses. In the absence of any generalised struggle led by the working class and involving the workers and poor farmers, the capitalists have met no opposition to their use of reactionary and opportunist politics to safeguard their wealth and to prevail over the working class. The working class and the oppressed that creates the wealth have to unite their forces in a struggle for their rights and needs denied by pro-capitalist parties.

There have, in the past, in Malaysia been several attempts by socialists to establish working-class policies and to combat capitalism with its inability to build a just and equal society in which there is no discrimination on grounds of race or religion.

Socialist ideas were presented as the alternative in Malaysia’s multi-racial society and to counter imperialist and capitalist ideology, and were very significant until 1970. There were two dominant Left forces in this period, embodied by the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) which emerged in the1930s and the Socialist Front (Labour Party and People’s Party) in 1950s and 1960s. The experiences, defeats and weaknesses of these forces, along with the undemocratic nature of Stalinism or Maoism internationally, during that period have been used by the right wing parties to attack the genuine ideas and programmes of socialism and regarded socialism is out of date and not practical in Malaysia.

Has socialism failed in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society?

In the early 20th century, there was a significant economic division between races with Chinese workers in mining, Indian workers in rubber and palm oil plantations and the majority Malays were peasants in rural villages. The British were able to pillage the enormous wealth and resources in Malaya using racial polarization. In the 1930s, mining and plantation workers who had been hugely affected by the massive economic turmoil of that period, were looking to the MCP for ideas and guidance on how to conduct a struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

There were massive industrial strikes and demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of workers in this period led by the MCP in response to the employer’s failure to lift workers’ living standards and welfare. Later in the 1940s, the MCP had quite a significant influence in almost every major trade union comprising mainly Chinese and Indian workers.

Meanwhile, the Malay poor peasants in rural areas were being exploited by Malay aristocrats and landlords. The PKMM (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya-Malaya Malay Nationalist Party) which was a radical nationalist party launched by middle class Malays in 1945, was influenced by left ideas and the MCP, and had been at the forefront of organising the Malays against both British imperialism and the Malay aristocrats. In that period, they even had a youth section (API-Angkatan Pemuda Insaf), a women’s section (Angkatan Wanita Sedar – AWAS) and a peasant union (Barisan Tani Se-Malaya – BATAS). At one stage, the poor peasantry organised by BATAS and with a certain influence of the MCP, put forward demands such as land rights for the poor. In that process, the MCP also managed to attract some Malays of the PKMM into its ranks.

The possibility to unite the workers, peasants and others regardless of race and religion for a common struggle was shown 60 years ago, on 20th October 1947, when Hartal (general strike) was declared by coalition of left organisations and political parties as well as trade unions to oppose the unjust nature of colonial constitution proposed to Malaya. This one day strike was participated by workers, peasants, fisherman, civil servants, petty trades and others, regardless race and religions and they managed to paralyse the nation and economy in which 99% of the business and administration activities were shut down. However the unclear leadership of this coalition and the confusions in the programs and demands retarded the continuation of such possibilities.

All these developments showed that socialist ideas had been seen as an alternative to the capitalist or feudal system by workers and peasants regardless of race and religion to emancipate them from capitalist and landlord oppression.

Nevertheless the role of the party was crucial. What was needed was a mass party with a clear revolutionary leadership able to lead, guide and empower these disgruntled workers and peasants to establish this socialist system. For that it should be armed with clear perspectives, programme and tactics. The development of distortions of the ideas of socialism, in Russia under Stalin and in China under Mao in those periods, also had much influence on the development of a party like the MCP politically and organisationally.

Role of party

The movements participated in by workers, peasants and the oppressed can and will develop, and general ideas of socialism can become popular and revolutions can take place; but concrete policies and steps are needed to both achieve and consolidate victory even in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval. Providing these concrete ideas is the key role of a party. This was vindicated by the role of Bolsheviks in the 1917 Russian Revolution under the favourable national and international objectives conditions, 90 years ago, that managed to establish a democratic government for the first time in human history. 

However, the experience of Russian Revolution showed ‘socialism in one country’ is not possible and this was acknowledged by Russians revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Trotsky from the beginning. Trotsky in his theory of ‘permanent revolution’ stressed that in underdeveloped country with pre-capitalist tasks not yet completed or in neo-colonial country, the proletarian has to lead the poor and the peasant masses to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution ( land reform, national questions etc) and then goes over to the socialist tasks of the revolution, both nationally and internationally. The Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky attempted this, but the civil war against capitalist elements in Russia and the inability of socialist in country like Germany to lead for successful revolution in their country which would had supported Russia economically derailed that process. This background in Russia in 1920s gave the room for opportunist elements with Stalin in the lead to grow.

Meanwhile, in China, Stalin in 1920s had collaborated with ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuomintang party, and at the same time maintained the relationship with Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However when the CCP and its working class strength grew tremendously and entered into struggles which prevalent in the 1925-27 revolution, Chiang with his forces massacred thousands of communist and workers to subdue the revolution. This background forced the CCP to move into rural area in which the peasantry was the majority. Mao established the Red Army with the support of peasants and subsequently came into power in 1949 which was initially welcomed by the workers, peasants and the poor. His government from the start had emulated the top-down structure that was practiced in administrating the Red Army. Subsequently, these approaches undermined workers’ democracy and the regime became bureaucratic.

Stalinism and Maoism are not socialism, as right wing politicians and historians like to claim. They have the feature of the state being governed by a bureaucratic layer who wants to safeguard its privileges and power by managing the planned economy and blocking genuine workers’ democracy. These regimes had brutalised and maimed millions of workers, peasants and others in order to maintain the control of the bureaucrats.  Although at great human cost, the planned economies had enormously benefited the people in these countries.

Without workers’ and peasants’ democracy, however, the planned economy was unsustainable.  This was behind what happened with the collapse of state ownership and planning in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the shift back towards capitalism in China. The incapacity of the regimes in these countries to develop the economy and move towards full-blown socialism was rooted in Stalinism and Maoism and the inability of these bureaucracies to develop the planned, state-owned economy by allowing real workers’ democracy.

Malaysia Communist Party

The MCP was established in the 1930s. It adopted the top down party structure and organisational approach practiced by the Stalinist regimes. Lai Tek who was the secretary general of the MCP in that period, ended up using the nature of the party and his position in it to protect his privilege as well as acting as agent for both the British and the Japanese. In one notorious case in 1943 in Batu Caves, 29 senior members of the MCP and their bodyguards were killed by the Japanese military police on information given to them by Lai Tek. Later, because of the undemocratic nature of the party organisations, the MCP made big mistakes in its perspectives, tactics and programmes which caused them to lose the opportunity to take power when the Japanese were defeated in 1945. The influence of Maoism led them to take the path of guerrilla struggle in 1948 which isolated them from the mass movement of the working class that was concentrated in the urban areas.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Socialist Front – a coalition of Parti Buruh (Labour), supported mostly by urban populations and dominated by Chinese, and Parti Rakyat (People’s Party) based on the Malay peasantry – had presented itself as an alternative to communal politics. They even won majorities in some local councils in Peninsular Malaysia and looked like emerging as a strong, non-communal alternative.

However, there were serious differences in the approach to communal issues between the two parties in the Front. The Parti Rakyat which was influenced by Sukarno, a populist leader in Indonesia, had been flexible towards some communal issues such as the position of the Malay Sultans in independent Malaya and the special privileges of the Malays. The Parti Buruh, which had social democratic roots, put forward the point of view of non-Malay communities. Because of that, right from the beginning the two parties showed little trust in each other and the link-up was basically a marriage of convenience. Their focus was more on the electoral campaign in which Parti Rakyat worked among the Malays and attracted their support and the Parti Buruh wooed the Chinese.

This situation was expressed in their annual report of 1958 as follows: “The Labour Party consisting mostly of Chinese members did not understand the Malayan situation as a whole but tended to look at problems as Chinese, non-Malay, problems…The Labour Party leaders had failed to stress the need of the non-Muslim proletariat to understand the Muslim peasantry…This was a dangerous trend as the Labour Party though non-communal in concept, was in danger of becoming more and more communal both in its membership and its understanding of the Malayan problems…The Rakyat attempted to enlarge itself on a non-communal basis. It began to take in Chinese non-Muslim members and in one or two cases there was a misunderstanding between the Labour Party and Rakyat because of this…certain leaders of our party who began to question whether our non-communal stand could stand up against the strong emotional appeal of communalism in the forthcoming struggle and some were therefore inclined towards a certain degree of communalism for the purpose of the electoral campaign”.    

These showed the influence of social democratic tendencies in the Socialist Front which concentrated merely on reformism and electoral gain but not revolutionary politics. Although in the same report they recognised the dangers of communalism, to counter this, the ideas proposed were to “change the belief that the Labour party is a Chinese Party by bringing onto its Executive a Malay whose task would be to re-educate the thinking of some our members” and “the laying down of a strong nationalist line in our policy”.  The former was merely a cosmetic change and the latter was in contradiction with the earliest party programmes that stated “for the establishment of a democratic socialist state of Malaya”.

The differences between the Labour Party and Parti Rakyat became intense and the Socialist Front collapsed in 1965. Later it decided not to participate in the elections and the unclear positions and perspectives, along with the repression of the left by the state, further undermined their credibility.

Revolutionary workers’ party and independent working class position

Both of these experiences show that the wrong policies and mistakes of the Left forces were used by the ruling class to crush them, but this does not mean that capitalism has triumphed over socialism.

After 50 years of independence, the lives of workers and ordinary people, who have been the backbone of Malaysia’s development, have become harder and more insecure. Recently, there were workers’ demonstrations and protests organised by JERIT (Oppressed People’s Network) and MTUC (Malaysian Trade Union Council) to demand minimum wage and to oppose the government attempts to readjust the labour laws in favour of employers. Meanwhile, the middle class in urban areas which have grown in numbers and have being seen as enjoying the fruits of the industrial developments since the 1980s, are now being burdened with higher living cost. Early this year, there were few protests against fuel and road toll hikes organised by opposition parties which gathered thousands of middle class.

Despite working with meagre wages, workers have also been burdened with the privatisation and corporatisation of basic utilities such as telecommunications, electricity, water, higher education, transport systems, healthcare and others under the neo-liberal policies. In addition, the quality of services such as water management is dwindling and people have to spend more of their meagre incomes to install water filters to receive better water quality. These things have created higher living costs especially in the urban areas. Nowadays, many people have to do more than one job to survive and to support their family. And there are also increasing cases of ordinary working people trapped into debts with ‘along’ (loan sharks) who imposed higher interest and will not hesitate to use all kind of intimidation and threats to get his money back.

Meanwhile, high-level corruption such as in the judiciary and police and even in the Anti-Corruption Agency, plus the mismanagement of funds in government departments and public services are common these days. Recently a videotape recording showed a prominent local attorney discussing the appointment of top judges to the federal court with the senior justice of Malaysia. This has very seriously undermined the independence of the judiciary. At the same time, ordinary people are burdened with corruption and red tape when they try to speed up certain government services. Meanwhile professionals such as doctors and lawyers are becoming motivated by greed rather than providing a quality service to the public.

Recently, the Advocates and Solicitors’ Disciplinary Board revealed that 92 lawyers were struck off the rolls and 1,295 were fined over the last five years for serious professional misconduct. The chairman of the Board described this is an “alarming trend…Thirty years ago, there was hardly any case of lawyers being struck off the rolls…but today, the numbers are increasing. The worrying trend is that some of these lawyers are young and have been in the profession for less than five years…Now an increasing number of lawyers are treating the profession as a business and are interested only in making money”.

Meanwhile, the lives of people especially in urban area become insecure with the huge increase of crime rate. Nowadays, house-breaking, rape, abductions, murders, and other crimes have become common and part of Malaysian life. At the same time the chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems and blood pressure are increasing and recent survey indicated that almost 50% of Malaysian population at least will suffer with one of these chronic diseases.

Added to this, the democratic rights of students, opposition parties, media, trade unions and others are being controlled by the state with its laws and government apparatus. For instance in October 1987, government used the racial tensions as a reason to divert the internal conflict in UMNO to arrest the members of oppositions parties, NGOs and consumer associations, as well as university lecturers, church workers, social workers and environmentalists under Internal Security Act (ISA). These are some of the symptoms of the rapacious nature of capitalist system.

No solution under capitalism

Since communalism is part of the agenda of capitalism, there will be no solution within a capitalist framework because capitalism is utilising race, religion, etc as a tool that could facilitate to their motive of profit and power for the minority but not to fulfil the fundamental needs of majority, the workers and the poor. Now there is an attempt from reactionary elements in the state to form a Malaysian Muslim Workers’ Union to counter the Malaysian Trade Union Council (MTUC) which has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious worker membership. This attempt illustrates the unscrupulous endeavour from reactionary elements to further divide the working class along racial and religious lines.

Therefore, it is indispensable for socialists and trade unionists not only to concentrate on economic and social issues when organising workers but also to propagate independent class politics among workers to strengthen workers’ unity and the struggle against capitalism. In the meantime, students, professionals (lawyers, doctors etc) and other middle class people struggling against the inability of capitalism to supply their needs must be linked to workers’ struggles in order to build a mass movement with workers in the lead. Under capitalism democratic rights are not guaranteed and will be overridden when the profit system is in danger. Therefore, the struggle for democratic rights should be linked with the struggle for socialism.

Socialists and coalitions

In Malaysia with the absence of a mass workers’ party, it is essential for socialists to participate in certain coalitions or mass spontaneous actions, especially when it could attract certain layers of workers, middle class people, youth and students. But it is also crucial to present to these layers the independent class position whenever socialists participate in such coalitions. An independent class position for a socialist party means maintaining its own important activity of mobilising workers in struggle and putting forward its own class demands even while in coalition with other organisations on limited specific issues or demands. Socialists believe it is sometimes necessary to march separately – under separate banners, using socialist slogans and propaganda including newspapers – and striking together against a common enemy.

Also, socialists should be able to criticise publicly the reactionary approaches of organisations and political parties in the alliance. It is important to differentiate the demands, analysis, tactics, and programme of the socialists, presenting a class and principled approach to counter the right wing reactionaries’ policies towards the masses. Moreover, these independent approaches and activities could facilitate socialists to attract the workers and youths who at present see the right wing opposition elements as an alternative to the ruling parties. They would also help attract the dissatisfied layers within the ruling parties to socialist policies when they come across socialist ideas in the struggles.  These layers at present do not want to break with the ruling parties simply to be in right wing opposition parties who also have reactionary policies.

Socialism or barbarism is the choice that is in front of us. Capitalism with its profit orientation under a market economy is incapable of building an equal and just society. It entails only exploitation, oppression, environmental degradation, hunger, poverty, war and other horrors, even though at present there are vast resources and technological advancement to avoid these horrors. Only through taking the major industries, banks, retail parks and land into public ownership can democratic planning of the use of human and natural resources be fully developed – locally, nationally and internationally. Socialism is the only system that can use the immense resources and technologies to fulfil the fundamental needs and to provide equality and justice in every aspect of life with the running of a planned economy through democratically elected committees to carry out workers’ control and management of society.

The only way to solve racial and religious conflict is to unite the working class and the oppressed masses to fight for this socialist transformation of society.  To achieve this, a revolutionary party is crucial for developing the programme, strategy and tactics necessary for victory. It should be equipped with clear national and international perspectives as well as an independent class approach in order for socialists to fight against communalism and religious bigotry as well as for the ending of capitalism internationally.

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