Malaysia: Corrupt rulers ousted in upset vote, but socialist suffer setback

Malaysian Socialist Party central committee member S. Arutchelvan.

Malaysia’s May 9 general elections caused a shock upset, with the Barisan Nasional (BN) losing control of the government for the first time since independence in 1957. This was a historic win for the opposition against the corrupt, authoritarian ruling party.

However, the win came with some notable limits and contradictions — the biggest of which is that the Pakatan Harapan (PH), the main opposition alliance, is headed by former BN ruler Mahathir Muhammad, whose 1981-2003 prime ministership was marked by a clampdown on democratic rights and recourse to racism and discrimination against the non-Malay population. Mahathir has now returned as prime minister.

For the left, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), which criticised the opposition for running Mahathir, failed to make any electoral breakthrough and lost its only federal seat. PSM central committee member S Arutchelvan (known as “Arul”) spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Alex Salmon about the elections.

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What does the PSM make of the May 9 election results?

It was a historic moment for all of us, despite PSM being defeated in all seats that we stood.

PSM launched a nationwide campaign calling for BN to retire back in 2011. Nearly 50 of our members were arrested and six of our key members, including Dr Jayakumar, the PSM MP for Sungai Siput, were detained under emergency ordinance laws for a month. Thus, the PSM certainly welcomes this change in regime after 60 years.

What do you think of the fact that PH has enabled the return of Mahathir as PM?

Since 2016, the PSM has made it clear that we do not accept Mahathir leading the opposition. We do accept the fact, however, that he was key in pulling in the Malay votes for this election. We reiterate that winning the election is only half the battle. Now we will have to see if Mahathir is really for total reform or not.

PH pledged in its pre-election manifesto, 10 Promises in 100 Days, to carry out a variety of progressive measures in its first 100 days of office. This includes scrapping the GST, standardising the minimum wage and tackling corruption. Do you think PH will able to carry its out its manifesto pledges?

I think they will be able to carry out most of it. They have already committed to scrapping the GST immediately after taking office. But they will find it harder to deal with other issues like raising the minimum wage, lowering the cost of living, subsidising housing etc, where they will face resistance from the capitalists. Here is the true battle to see on which side they will fall. The PSM will continue to monitor and push for reforms.

How did the PSM fare in the election? How do you think the desire of Malaysians to get rid of the BN affected the support of PSM, for example the fact that Jayakumar lost his Sungai Siput seat to the opposition coalition?

We fared badly, not due to our ideas or campaigns, but because we were victims of the people’s tsunami desperately seeking to oust the BN government. Many relayed to us that while they support and respect our work, this time they will have to throw their support behind PH.

In the midst of tremendous pressure on Jayakumar, calling for him to accept the offer to stand in the election under the logo of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) — an opposition party in PH that ultimately won the seat — Jayakumar made the right decision to explain to people why the PSM should contest in its own name and the role the party can play to push particular policies.

To propagate socialism and alternative politics, we could not remain in the shadow of the PKR. Thus, even though it was a painful loss, we hope people will be able to see our rationale.

What did the PSM aim to achieve in this election?

We underestimated the silent tsunami of people determined to oust the BN, not realising it would be so great that they would completely rejected all other parties. It was a vote for the PH , not the candidates. No matter how good a candidate we had, people sidelined the PSM.

But our decision to participate in the election was mainly to spread the PSM wider, flying our flags for the first time in new areas. That was a success for us. We knew it would be difficult to win, but really didn’t expect such a heavy blow.

What does the PSM plan to do next, especially as it tries to build an alternative to the major parties?

We already have plans to launch another nationwide campaign to highlight the rights of contract workers. It will be launched after our national congress in July 2018. As for the alternative coalition, the Malaysian Left Coalition of which we are part, it needs a lot of work to be done to prepare it for the next general elections.

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