Days of Hope Dashed: What Hopes for Malaysian Workers? [SUARAM Press Statement]


    The idea is to create an entirely new form of politics centered on direct popular power. When working class people are organized, they can start to believe in their capacity to change the world.

    May Day Message by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 1 May 2016

    On 1 May 2008, I wrote about the ‘days of hope’ following the 12th general election in Malaysia. The Pakatan Rakyat coalition comprising PKR, DAP and PAS had effected the ‘political tsunami’ by winning 89 of the 222 parliamentary seats, its biggest electoral victory yet. The marginalized and racially discriminated communities in this country had finally revolted, fired up by the Hindraf demonstrations. It was a long time coming. The masses in the Indian community have long suffered dispossession, evictions and low wages. They have witnessed the neglect of Tamil schools and disrespect for their places of worship. Indians have borne the brunt of police violence, with an average of 1.3 police shootings per week and Indians making up 60 per cent of these shootings. Until the 2008 elections, they had dutifully voted for the MIC.

    The Chinese electorate, especially in the cities, had traditionally voted Opposition but had become inscrutable in the preceding ten years or so when they had plumped for the BN instead. Why they had voted BN since 1995 had a lot to do with their perception that an Opposition alternative government was unlikely.

    The Malay electorate, coaxed as the “princes of the soil” with special privileges in various aspects, had consistently voted for UMNO ever since the first general elections. But this time around, a substantial proportion of Malay voters (5% swing against BN) decided they were not prepared to accept the status quo.

    Most important of all, the two-front system that we had called for in the 1990 general elections finally came about, producing the desired result of an alternative, namely Pakatan Rakyat (PR), to the Barisan Nasional. After the political tsunami of 2008, DAP did not have any problems being in the same coalition with PAS and PKR given their overwhelming support from the Malaysian electorate in the 12th Malaysian general election. In fact, during GE13 in 2013, there is a video in which the DAP Secretary General accepted PAS’ own commitment to the Islamic State while abiding by the common platform of PR.

    Barely eight years later, those days of hope have been dashed by the recent split between DAP and PAS in 2015 and now, the bickering between DAP and PKR and their failure to present the BN with a one-to-one challenge in six seats at the Sarawak state elections. The name calling by DAP leaders we thought was only reserved for the PAS leaders has now been used against PKR leaders as well.

    Death of leadership & alternative policies in PR
    Without a doubt, the PR coalition was held together at the start by the PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim even though their alternative policies to the BN were never entirely clear. Their neo-liberal tendencies led to BN-type policies in the development of the states they controlled, ie. Selangor and Penang, policies which have produced little change in the living conditions of the lower income groups. Private developers have had a field day in these PR-held states since 2008 with the promise of more multi-billion projects in reclamation, undersea tunnels, highways and luxury development.

    Policies aside, Anwar’s leadership in holding the PR coalition together started to suffer a setback possibly because he was deflected by his sodomy trial and/or self-centred opportunistic tendencies among the component parties in PR. This was clearly seen during the asinine ‘Kajang Move’ in 2014 when there was a “resignation of convenience” by the incumbent PKR Adun there. This seemed to be aimed at solving the internal politicking between the PKR Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim and the PKR strong man Azmin Ali who was opposing him.

    The cost of this short-sighted ‘Kajang Move’ was to force a by-election and leave constituents without representation for weeks. Worse still, it exposed an irresponsible attitude of PR in taking the Malaysian electorate for granted by forcing a by-election just to facilitate the entry of Anwar Ibrahim into the Selangor state government. It was a most cynical violation of the public trust.

    More costly for the PR coalition, the Kajang Move had been carried out without adequate consultation with the other PR partners and fissures soon began to appear between them. Most significantly, the three decades of engagement with PAS, the largest Malay-based party in the coalition, was about to come asunder.

    The dearth of leadership in PR was clear when we saw the former Menteri Besar being openly maligned as inept and corrupt by lesser DAP politicians as the justification for his ousting as Menteri Besar. It was also clear the PAS President was not consulted over this irresponsible political move. The Kajang Move showed not only contempt for the voters in Kajang but also insensitivity toward the PAS leaders who were part of the PR coalition.

    Bad mouthing the PAS President
    After months of name calling by DAP leaders against the PAS President Hadi Awang which can only be described as ‘kurang ajar’, Pakatan Rakyat was officially disbanded on 16 June 2015 after the DAP declared it could no longer work with PAS. It was a sad day for all Malaysians who had hopes for a viable alternative to the Barisan Nasional. The long-term effect of such uncouth bad mouthing of the PAS leader by DAP leaders in the eyes of PAS followers remains to be seen. The DAP will have to measure the relative weight of their token Malays in the party against the loathing towards DAP among not only UMNO supporters but now also PAS supporters.

    Is this behavior the result of insensitivity, the lack of wisdom or naked opportunism that has blinded the DAP leaders to common sense needed to engage with PAS leaders and members if they are genuinely interested in “winning over Malays to the DAP”?

    The DAP is now willing and able to work with the man who has been responsible for privatizing practically all of Malaysian industry and destroying whatever semblance of democracy we had in his 22 years in office…all because of the stated need to “save Malaysia”.

    Naked opportunism the main culprit
    It is certainly a sad day for Malaysians who have hoped for an alternative to the BN and who have carefully nurtured a working relationship with PAS since the Eighties, to see this Alternative Coalition wrecked by total lack of sensitivity to coalition principles, human relationships and dearth of leadership.

    This is a significant political turnaround by the DAP. Their current readiness to work with the erstwhile oppressor and autocrat of Malaysia requires a more responsible political economic analysis by the DAP leadership to justify this volte face. They also owe the Malaysian people an analysis of class oppression in Malaysia today and how this ties in with their new agenda to “save Malaysia”.

    The DAP leadership is now banking on their token Malay entrists and the former PAS “New Hopers” to get by. No doubt the DAP will be complacent to rule Penang but succeeding to drive PAS out of PR is undoing more than thirty years’ work engaging with PAS to build the Alternative Coalition. The positive aspect of the last thirty years included PAS’ participation at so many May Day, anti-war and Bersih rallies. This has been an important contribution to inter-ethnic integration in Malaysia and the attempt to build an alternative to the BN.

    What is to be done?
    The squabbles within Pakatan Harapan over the apportionment of seats have to do with naked opportunism and the lack of higher principles in their respective party ideologies. The politics of opportunism can also be seen with the party elite monopolizing federal seats and state seats in the same term and with no fixed term set for the party leader. Nevertheless, with leadership and an adopted procedure as can be seen in the BN, even that naked opportunism can be managed with due diligence.

    For now, we are back to square one as far as engagement with PAS is concerned. It remains to be seen how DAP’s alliance with PKR will hold. It is time for progressive Malaysians to take stock of the political situation and to consider what is to be done in the struggle to make Malaysia truly democratic, free and just for all Malaysians, and especially for our working peoples.

    Building the socialist alternative
    While there was hope of an alternative coalition to challenge the Barisan Nasional that has been in power for nearly sixty years, Malaysians were prepared to be patient until BN was deposed. It is now clear that some of these opposition parties are ideologically similar to BN in their commitment to neo-liberal capitalism evident in their own state policies.

    With our hopes dashed, it is time to build a Third Force that is people-centred, free and equal and led by those who are committed to a common platform set on an alternative road to development. It is time to reclaim the national assets that have been sold to private magnates and to ensure there is fair redistribution of income to the people. There is a need for state intervention and nationalization of basic resources such as oil and gas; utilities such as water, energy; health, education and social services. We need progressive taxation to check unfettered capital transfers by speculators and finance moghuls and to balance rampant income inequality. Such a socialist alternative differentiates itself from the Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan.

    Save Malaysia from Neo-liberal capitalism
    Malaysia needs to be saved from neo-liberal capitalism that was unleashed by Mahathir when he came to power in 1981. Mahathir is indeed the “father of neo-liberalism in Malaysia” after selling off our national assets through his privatization policies in the 22 years he was in power. Our national resources have been hived off to crony capitalists under the guise of affirmative action. Mahathir thus succeeded in creating private Malay capitalists out of the erstwhile state capitalists who had entrenched their power after May 13, 1969.

    The record of privatization in Malaysia since the Eighties have not demonstrated that increase in efficiency, productivity, or competition, the elimination of sources of state deficit as privatization has been purported to produce. The failures of MAS, Proton, KTM and other corporations testify to this fact. In most cases, privatization has merely substituted a private monopoly for a public one without producing any of the benefits that are supposed to come from competition.

    Neoliberal policies represent the political requirements of global capital, harmonizing the national with the global economy, freeing capital from social forms in which it is under or open to state control and thereby turning those forms into corporate private property as Mahathir succeeded in doing. It will be more and more difficult to maintain a public sector to alleviate the living conditions of workers and the poor when all these public services have been privatised.

    Save Malaysia from racism and racial discrimination
    Malaysia needs to be saved from racism and racial discrimination. For years now and especially since the New Economic Policy, “race” (“bumiputeraism”) has been used to divide the Malaysian masses so that they cannot unite against their common oppressors and exploiters. Racial discrimination further worsens the plight of workers in the non-Bumiputera communities. Neither the BN or PH have categorically pledged to abolish the New Economic Policy that has been the racist/ populist strategy to try to win over the Bumiputeras and to enrich the well-placed Bumiputeras.

    Powerful capitalist interests control our resources and markets and thrive on the cheap labour of Malaysian workers and migrant labour even in the states run by Pakatan Rakyat. The price has been paid by workers and the poor whose living standards continue to be pushed downwards.

    ‘If voting changed anything, they’d have made it illegal’
    This resistance to neo-liberal capitalism can only be led by a Third Force that tries to empower oppressed people in the process of democratic participation. Popular democratic participation is not just in economic but also political institutions. Real democracy will never be attained merely through periodic general elections and relying on parliament alone. As Emma Goldman put it, “If voting changed anything, they’d have made it illegal!”

    Peoples’ power comes about through direct action, based on the self-organisation of workers and other communities in their struggle against capital, with directly elected workplace and community councils taking responsibility for their own affairs and linked to decisions for society at large. The idea is to create an entirely new form of politics centered on direct popular power. When working class people are organized, they can start to believe in their capacity to change the world.

    This is the task before us. Can you see any alternative?

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