Riding the crest of a powerful Bersih (“clean”) democracy movement in the streets, Malaysia’s Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) opposition alliance won 53% of the popular vote in the 2013 general election. Gerrymandered electorates, however, ensured they took only 40% of the seats.
Yet as a new general election approaches, likely early next year, the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) government looks set to easily hold onto power.
Despite an ongoing global scandal about the alleged corruption of Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign fund, in which Prime Minister Najib Razak is personally implicated, the BN government faces a divided and weakened opposition.
First, the BN has jailed previous opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for a second time under reactionary laws against sodomy. Then it encouraged the Islamic Party (PAS) to split from the opposition by holding out a promise of federal support for Islamic fundamentalist laws at the state level.
The weakened political opposition then reformed as Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope). However, it soon fell in with Bersih leaders in welcoming former BN prime minister Mohamed Mahathir as a new leading figure.
Ironically, Mahathir was instrumental in establishing the corrupt and anti-democratic system of government that Najib now heads.
The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) has refused to join the Pakatan Harapan because of its embrace of Mahathir.
“Some Pakatan people excuse this unprincipled alliance with the argument that ‘it takes a snake to kill a snake’,” PSM secretary-general Sivarajan Arumugum told Green Left Weekly. “But we think that the opposition has sacrificed its principles.
“The opposition would be better off working to help the ordinary people rather than doing deals with factions of the ruling elite.
“The PSM is working with the people in fighting evictions of poor villagers, fighting to raise the minimum wage that is not enough to survive on, helping the indigenous people fight off illegal logging of forests, and more.
“There is so much work to be done and we would welcome Pakatan people to help us in these struggles.”
Sadly, that help is not forthcoming. Worse, state governments under control of Pakatan parties are often on the opposite side of such struggles.
I accompanied Sivarajan to a meeting of villagers facing eviction in Kampung Jawa in the opposition-run state of Selangor. It was 10pm and about 40 villagers had assembled to discuss their situation with a pro-bono lawyer.
We heard how their pleas for help from the state government had fallen on deaf ears. Instead, they had been urged to accept a pitiful token “compensation” offered by the company that wanted to develop the site their village was on.
But the villagers were urged to fight on by a woman leader from another village in the state that had won a similar struggle.
Kak Wan’s off-the-cuff, but straight-from-the-heart speech stirred the villagers. “Don’t listen to people who say don’t make trouble,” she said. “It is not about trouble-making, it is about standing up for our rights.
“The two main lessons from our struggle are: 1) we have to be brave, and 2) don’t underestimate the women. When the men in our village wanted to give up the women stood strong.”
Kak Wan’s village won its demands for alternative housing, but only after more than a decade of struggle.
The next day, we went to another Pakatan-run state, Penang, which had recently experienced severe flooding after a bad storm. Extreme weather events are becoming more common with climate changes.
At a meeting on climate change organised by Aliran, a social justice and environment NGO, public concern over the impact of poorly regulated development, particularly on previously forested hill slopes, was strong. But the state government seemed reluctant to heed the warnings of environmentalists. Critical voices among Pakatan MPs on the issue were isolated.
Back in the capital Kuala Lumpur, I spoke to S. Arutchelvan (better known as Arul), who is heading the PSM’s election campaign. The PSM had been in the news because some Pakatan leaders had threatened to jeopardise the PSM’s chance to retain its sole seat in the federal parliament (held by the respected Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj) by creating a three-cornered contest in his narrowly-held seat of Sungai Siput.
Jeyakumar has held the seat for two terms after defeating a powerful BN minister Sammy Vellu in the 2008 elections. It was a surprise win famously hailed in the press as a “mosquito defeating an elephant”.
In parliament, Jeyakumar has earned respect as a soft-spoken, but principled voice for the poor and oppressed. He presents a people's alternative on all issues.
For example, in the wake of the recent ASEAN and APEC summits in the region, mired in neoliberal schemes, he spoke in the parliamentary estimates committee for an end to the regional race to the bottom in corporate taxation.
“While the PSM plans to field candidates in 20 seats, most for state assemblies, in no case will we create a situation that could lose a seat to the BN by splitting the opposition vote, Arul told GLW. “We challenge the Pakatan to make the same commitment.
“The only winner from a three-cornered contest in Sungai Siput would be the BN.”