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People's power and winning the battle for a future - S.Arutchelvan's paper presented in Australia

By S. Arutchelvan, Sec-Gen of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)

In Thailand, Malaysia’s neighbor - recently the Reds won the elections against the yellow. The Reds were mainly based in rural areas and from working class and farmers background but firmly also supporters of Thaksin – the former Prime Minister and telecommunication tycoon while the yellow were those within the elites, supporters of the royalty and the army and many of them are from the urban areas especially Bangkok itself. The NGOs and civil societies – a numbers of them stayed A-political and some call this group, “wait and see” while some lefties organization stood with the Reds because of their class characteristic as well as because they are seen as the democratic forces. The Reds have since won the elections but real reforms are slow to come. The Army and the royalty still very much in the picture.

At least they got the color right in Thailand. In Malaysia, the democratic movement today is wearing yellow “BERSIH” while the opponents UMNO and especially their youth wing has taken the color Red and call themselves patriots. PSM – the socialist party wants to stand with the yellow crowd but prefer to wear red.

I think that sums up our views as well as the problems faced by the left in developing countries.. We like to the crowd but their politics is another thing. I think this is the generally the problems or challengers we face because the mass movement is no more the traditionally trade unions or community based organizations as it was in the forties and even till the eighties. Today the mass movement is still the working class but working class are not organized, in informal sector and there is a huge upsurge of youths in these programs, unemployed or lowly paid, as well as the huge following of anarchists.

So the first point is, the party must be the centre of the movement and not at the edge, PSM has been doing a lot of soul searching as well as changing strategies from time to time. It is important for the party to be the leading voice of the working class and at the same time not to be isolated because of our idealism. We find Marta Harneker – rebuilding the left as an important document for socialist to ponder about.

The strategies to win power is the 21 century seems to move in 2 directions or 2 options – electoral process – winning the battle from the ballot boxes and the second being the revolutionary process – winning the battle from the streets. These 2 options seems to be the most desired based from developments in Latin America as well as the recent uprisings in the Arab world – Egypt, Tunisia, Bharain, Syria etc

But changing the system – moving from capitalism to socialism is yet another process and an on-going process. The problem is if during this process – transitional period – would the left gain momentum or lose steam. Will the victory of changing and overthrowing corrupt government result in the left political party becoming tired and getting sucked into the recent victory of the new government which would be popular for at least a year. These seem to be the dilemmas we face in the region. We see the overthrow of dictators Marcos – Suharto in Philippines and Indonesia have resulted in serious divisions within the left on how to move on, resulting in further splits etc.

It is because of this that we find that the views of Chavez that a revolution is a process is an important tagline to follow. Where the people needs to be won-over, over a period of time and not hastily. It takes time for people to adopt to the experiments put forward by socialist after years under capitalist rule.

The PSM’s experience

PSM is a rather new party. A post cold war party. Initially a coalition of people/community based organizations and then slowly and carefully, we applied registration as a Socialist Party, knowing very well that the move to call ourselves Socialist in post cold war in a country where communist and left movement has been wiped out – killed, arrested and banned is not going to be an easy task..

But that was the choice we had to take. Taking a line from Che Guevara – “Let’s be realistic and do the impossible”. We had to put socialism back on track, back on the mainstream political agenda The collapse of the left politics in Malaysia had a significant impact on the politics of Malaysia. It was the end of class politics and racial politics replaced this vacuum till today. Race and religion became the dominant character of Malaysian politics. With the fall of the Socialist Front from 1964 onwards, the new parties who filled the vacuum mainly the DAP and the Islamic party PAS declined politics to issues of race and religion. Among the left, confusion arised as well on which was the primary contradiction. At times Economic contradiction became secondary creating confusion in the theory of Base and the super-structure.

So when PSM started with its name clearly and boldly called the Socialist party of Malaysia – the what was left of the old left thought we will be wiped out while the rest thought that we were digging our own grave. PSM strategy then – 12 years ago was to put or rather to bring back the word “socialism” back into the political mainstream and bring class politics back as the dominant contradiction in our society.

The Malaysian state refused to legalize PSM and said PSM based on police records were a threat to National Security and which they cowardly said that they could not reveal due to National interest. It took PSM 11 years to be finally registered as a political party. We were the first party to take the State to court on the question of freedom of Assembly and with the help of continuous struggle and the support International solidarity – PSM finally got registered only in end of 2008.

PSM registration was massive news in the local channels. The Home Minister when questions why he took 11 years to register the PSM said – we registered them because they are socialist and not communist.

Anyway looking back, our strategy was right. We managed to put back socialism back in the mainstream agenda. Our tactics of working against the tide was a correct one because it means the survival of the left or the end of it.

I say this which much confident today, because during the recent arrest of initially PSM 60 cadres and later the detention of 6 PSM leaders under the Emergency Ordinance for being as accused by the ruling party that PSM were the prime movers of BERSIH, waging war against the King and trying to revive the banned communist movement.

The Malaysian State brought back the “communist bogey”. We have many lessons from history. The attack on PSM was something which we have always anticipated especially linking us with the communist-something which has been always used with success . But this is the 21st century, the post cold war era, and the UMNO-BN is facing a new leftist party- The PSM which believes in open politics (not underground). Our consistent and persistent work at the grassroots level helped us during these difficult times. People who knew our politics and more our work did not believe in the accusation.

On the final analysis, a few factors contributed to the release of the EO6 which was dubbed as the fastest release of political detainees under emergency ordinance. Yet, the release might not have been possible if not for a number of incidents and conditions. The Bersih momentum contributed to huge public perception against the ruling party, the miscalculation of the police in underestimating PSM’s strength and its resilience in fighting back during crisis, the BN propaganda war of communism failed to create the expected fear as it has created previously. In fact , it was the first time that the left managed to beat the ruling party as far as the propaganda war was involved. Credit should also go to the many International groups as well as Socialist parties all over the world who did a persistent campaign calling for the release. Local civil society groups also played a prominent role for the release. The PSM leadership tactics in taking an offensive position from the start and going on multi level attack also contributed to the release.

I mention this because, people supported PSM and came out in huge numbers, not because we are socialist but because they think we are good people, they see that our politics are principled and they believe that we are innocent. PSM is the only party to declare its asset yearly and we are also the prime movers of many working class issues such as the minimum wage campaign, decent houses, no to GST, no to privatization of health and free education movement. This work we do has put us as heroes; not the label we carry – socialist. Now the biggest task it to make people realize we are good people because we are socialist. But on the positive side – al least we have a huge pool of people who believe in us. It is better than having the rights politics but no people to preach.

How to we win the battle of the future. How to be relevant in peoples movement and today’s politics. These are central questions to our task

Some of the strategies we have developed are :

  • Building Broad coalition 
  • Building broad coalitions with civil society groups and political parties but ensuring PSM still leads these coalitions so that it can move the struggle and the consciousness based on class politics rather than communal politics. In order to assume the leadership position, PSM itself need to be well organized, disciplined and able to supply a workable machinery to the coalition. Today we have built several broad coalitions. The coalition to safeguard the public hospital which has 80 member organization in it including all the major opposition political parties – PSM is the secretariat for this coalition. We have an anti GST coalition with 33 groups, Anti FTA coalition which is led by PSM’s front organization JERIT; also has around twelve partners. PSM is also the deputy chair of the PROTES coalition against the hike of petrol and basic goods. PSM hold the position of Deputy Chair with the Islamic party assuming the position of the Chair. We recently formed a new coalition on the worst labour legislation in the country in 40 years. This coalition has 8 organization with JERIT playing a leading role. Our Youth wing has started a free education coalition with 5 other student groups. The problem about building coalitions are that we may end up doing all the work or most of the work. But on the positive side, you a have a whole pool of organization we will come to your aid when you are under attack or when are launching a new initiative. Now how to we make these issues based coalitions into larger movements. This is a task we continuously do like using these networks for other mobilizations and the good thing is most of these organizations do come along because they believe that they have a role to play and not made use of. In a broad coalition, it is important to give leadership based on strength. The socialist strategy should not be one merely on infiltrating in larger movements as practiced by many parties. While building the broad coalitions, we also need to challenge our partners on mobilizations and bringing the struggle to a higher ground. Only through this, will the coalition group respect the leadership of the socialist and perhaps join us. On the long run, even if coalitions fail to become bigger, yet we can still continue to network, promote our ideas and built new coalitions if need be.
  • Mobilization and struggle 
  • In Malaysia, a gathering of 3 to 5 people can be declared an illegal assembly. In Singapore it is one person. Because of this, many groups try to find creative ways to express dissent by not going to the streets. Today people don’t seem to be bothered with these laws. The people have moved on. The credit should be given to the persistent idea that going to the street does bring results. Today the Government is talking about allowing more public assemblies and even abolishing the ISA. These gains are due to the fact that the ruling party has no choice. For the PSM and its front organization, going to the street is the best form of class education. It is during these processes, we can identify good leaders among the masses. And these actions have resulted in positive results and this will be used to strengthen the movement. Our experience has shown that it is during confrontation, when the best ideology classes can be held. It is these struggle which will empower and conscioustise the masses. The socialist must be in the forefront in pushing for these direct action because people learn more in a struggle than in a seminar room. But in Malaysia , the most easiest mobilization can be done in the name of religion and race. And these race and religion anchored demonstration do make the numbers but can also divide the working class. This is dangerous. PSM therefore puts forward that any protest must have clear class lines drawn and clear class enemies and the masses can learn from these activities. The socialist must create these conditions so that the masses have an opportunity to learn from these conflicts Today, PSM leadership is always sought by the younger people and we are invited to give ideas on many aspects on how to handle demonstrations, handle police etc. The younger people and new movements want to lead but they are very much afraid that political parties being more organized tend to hijack their ideas and take the credit. It is because of that, the task of the socialist here must be more humble, provide skills and support and make the party accessible to others. People will ultimately come because they see we are consistent and that our agenda may not differ much from theirs.

  • Ideology 
  • When we work with broad coalitions and the new movement. Please do not get mistaken. There is nothing wrong with our ideology. There is nothing wrong in putting socialism as an alternative solutions. We must do it consistently and be proud of it. We must not be shy away from our ideological beliefs. One of the biggest mistake or rather the weakness of the Malaysian left was to liquidate the ideology in the pretext of getting more members. It has resulted in not getting more members, losing exiting members and making the party no different that the other existing political parties The irony is, the left held more seats when it used the socialist tag then when it decided to drop the socialist tag. The Socialist front (1957 -1965) that the left held the most seats in parliament – 8 parliamentary seat and became the biggest opposition. It was at these times that they won most of the municipal council seats until Municipal Council election was banned in 1964. It was it these times that they had the biggest mobilizations. Ironically, the party dropped the “S” because it hoped to win over more people and seats but it failed to win a single election after it dropped the word Socialist. We believe that only through clearly ideological members can PSM lead the broad coalitions, do proper seat negotiation without getting threatened and be always focused on short term and long term goal.
  • Role models 
  • It is important for PSM and socialist to do activities where people can see that we are different from other parties. PSM gets massive public confidence due to this for example. We are the only party in Malaysian politics, where the candidates declare assets before the election and once a year, a ceremony is held where we declare our assets. We release a Report card once a year on what we have done something not done by the others. We encourage people to ask Parliamentary questions via us PSM gatherings are the only one where Grassroots leaders give speeches and not confined to the leaders. Out parliamentarian and State Assemblyman and councilors do not stay in big hotels though there given such goodies.PSM members normally play the role of chief negotiators during demonstration, declining gallants & donating hampers. PSM activist are always at the forefront and the first to be in the line of attack. Many have been arrested but it puts the party profile up and people see the socialist as true fighters. When PSM leaders were arrested recently, we saw many letters in the main stream papers where many people wrote that they know the PSM members because they are hardworking, humble and life simple lives. The sad thing is many people praised the PSM -socialist but attacked the MCP –communist. People came up and said that these people are good people- “they are not communist”
  • Electoral pact  
  • There is always a danger to put all our hopes on electoral reforms and election work but it is an important work which we must invest time in because most people believe in it. But this is easier said that done. We see this as a very dangerous issue as it has been the cause of splits in many parties in SEA. Just ask our Indonesians comrades and every elections, the split into a few. Though everyone agrees that elections are just part of tactics of engagement in bourgeois democracy but in reality, most severe arguments even in the PSM take place because of matters relating to elections. PSM believes that it is important to work with other political parties on a minimum program or make election pact. Failing which, we may just end up getting very marginal votes and this will be not encouraging in the long run. The fear of your ally during elections is always a problem which may haunt you in the future. On the contrary, if you take election work as part of a larger strategy then – what is important is to make temporary ally based on very principled positions and the rights to critic your partners when they make mistakes. But the art of making friends and maintaining friendship is something which socialist must learn because there is always an immediate tendency to declare your partners as unprincipled in order to show we are more principled. Let people judge us from our work and judge our partners and enemies from their work. For example – PSM always declares its assets and it puts most opposition parties – our ally on great shame as the media keep asking them why they are not following PSM’s foodsteps while on the other hand some of their members and leaders, would applaud PSM and demand their party do likewise. PSM does not need to say anything but just do the right thing. 

  • Social Media  
  • I for one have always underestimated the role of the social media and was one of those who was very slow in adopted it. But looking at recent developments in Malaysia , I think the social media a true gift of capitalism to the socialist. In Malaysia , in recent months, there is a new grouping called Capital Reading Collective. I thought that this was a group of yuppies but I was mistaken when we were invited for one of their program. There were around 100 young youths talking seriously about socialism and the kind of new world we want to build. Even during the recent Bersih rally In Malaysia, when the streets were entirely closed down but images in the internet prompted many people to go to the streets. So I have changed my perception on the power of this new media. The left should know how to use this new media effectively – not just to disseminate information but rather to mobilize – the role previously played by the newspapers like Iskra.
  • Open Socialism
  • I think the time has come for us to put forward the socialist alternative openly. If we do not do that, then we do not do justice to the Bolivarian revolution. PSM in November for the first time during our annual Socialism will put forward the theme as Socialism – an alternative for Malaysia Society. Something which we may not do before. Recently also , many questions have surfaced in the country. The internet is a great gift of capitalism to socialism. Many historical lies about Malaysian independence has been put in the net and the Government became so defensive until the came with the notion that Malaysian was never colonialist. To move the struggle forward , it is utmost important that socialist come out openly and declare the socialist alternative. In Malaysia we now openly say we are socialist and lessons can be drawn from Venezuela and the Latin America. We should fight the issue of climate change, poverty, economic crisis not under the name of NGOs but under the name of political parties. We should show confidence in using socialism openly rather than being shy to use it. These were the initial problems we had because we thought the people will isolate us if use socialist argument in the open. Today we come stronger in attacking capitalism as the evil of all problems. It is time to go offensive and not defensive when we argue our facts.


Are we winning the battle for a future ? Winning I am not sure but we are definitely not losing. Recent world events have shown that the might of the people is stronger that the might of very oppressive regime. The question is does socialist have a role to play in these uprisings. It is important for us to play a role and remain relevant. The party must be accessible, principled, ideological and be a team player if we want to move forward.

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