Malaysia: 'Politics has become more dangerous'

July 9, 2011
Free Dr Kumar poster
Free Dr Kumar poster. Socialist Alliance.

Dr Jeyakumar Deveraj, a federal member of parliament in Malaysia, was one of 30 activists of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) detained without trial on June 25.

The activists were arrested as they were travelling the country campaigning against the repressive and corrupt Barisan Nasional government headed by PM Najib Razak.

The arrests were an attempt to blame the socialists for planned pro-democracy rally on July 9. It was a bid to intimidate people from supporting the broad mass rally for free and fair elections that was called by civil society groups united in the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih, which means "clean").

On July 9, organisers sad 50,000 people protested in Kuala Lumpur. Police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters, and arrested about 1400 people.

At first, the PSM members were accused of the ridiculous charge of "waging war against the king" on the basis that some of them were alleged to have t-shirts with the images of "communist leaders" on them.

PSM leader S. Arutchelvan wore a Che Guevara t-shirt (widely and legally sold in markets) to his press release condemning the June 25 detentions to underline how ridiculous these charges were.

When the seven-day detention of the PSM 30 was nearly up, six of these activists, including Jeyakumar, were re-arrested and detained under an emergency ordinance.

The government was forced to reveal its real target. The detentions were justified by police claims that the PSM members had in possession and were distributing leaflets for the July 9 Bersih 2.0 rally (the first Bersih rally, in 2007, drew thousands and was violently dispersed by police).

The authorities have declared the rally illegal.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) government claimed that the Bersih 2.0 rally had to be banned because there could be clashes between pro-democracy protesters and members of the right-wing, Malay chauvinist, Perkasa movement.

"Politics in Malaysia has become more dangerous," Jeyakumar told Green Left Weekly in an interview conducted a couple of weeks before his detention. 

* * *

What are the main features of politics in Malaysia today?

In earlier times, UMNO (the United Malay National Organisation, the party that dominates the ruling BN government coalition) could claim that it was developing the economy, uplifting the Malay poor,etc.

But now it backfires on them.

Now, when UMNO politicians are on thin ice because a lot of the benefits that have been accruing to the Malays [Malaysia's dominant ethnic group] has been cornered by a small group of Malay elites who have lavish lifestyles.

A lot of shares are given to them as well as business opportunities. So they can't claim to be acting for the Malay poor, who could ask them: "What's happened to the money you have taken?"

So all that is left to the ruling party now is race and religion.

A new racialist movement built around "Malay rights", Perkasa, has been getting more prominent of late. It threatens violence against other groups and yet seems to be allowed to organise freely while opposition movements continue to be denied even the right of assembly. What is behind this development?

Basically, the ruling party has always depended on racialist politics. Now it is trying to outsource the racialist posturing to the Perkasa group, a group that is nominally outside the ruling party.

So the PM can claim to be for "One Malaysia" and seem to be for everyone, but at the same time the appeal to racial chauvinism is raised by groups like Perkasa.

Perkasa originated from the Malay “contractor class” that fears that the special contracts and favours it gets from the government may be cut down if there is a change in government.

But the Malaysian economy is still growing at a faster rate than most other economies in the world, so where is the pressure coming from?

The economy is growing but it depends on remaining a low-wage economy. There are 2 million super-exploited foreign workers in our labour force of only 10 million, so this depresses the wages and working conditions of most workers.

The Malays were 80% rural peasants at the time of independence [1957] but they are 70% urban today. So they are also part of this low-wage labour. This is a massive class transformation.

There is no minimum wage. Factories workers in my electorate get about 500 ringgits ($155) a month (without overtime). Our party estimates it requires at least 2000 ringgits (about $620) a month to be out of poverty.

On the other hand, the Malay elite has taken over the economy in a major way through domination of the government.

The national budget is about one-third of GDP and this does not take into account all the government-linked companies (GLCs) that own the large plantation companies, the banks, the hospital chains, etc.
There are some 15-20 such large GLCs that account for another 20-25% of GDP. In this way, about 55-60% of the economy is controlled by the Malay UMNO ruling elite.

So there is a stratum of super-rich Malays in power, while at the bottom there are very poor, working-class Malays who are pressured by the privatisation of education and health care, by rising house prices, stagnant wages and competition from migrant workers.

So class contradictions within the Malays is sharpening.

What is the PSM's policy towards the poor Malays?

There is a longstanding fear in the Malay community of being swamped by the other ethnic groups. It is the thing that still holds many poor Malays to the ruling party.

They are afraid that many of the scholarships and other opportunities that they enjoy today will be taken away from them if there is a change in government.

We are for affirmative action. We think the state should provide help to poor groups. You can't say leave it to the "free market".

Our message to the Malay poor is: whatever you are getting now, we will maintain. In fact, we will make sure that you will get these benefits properly.

What we want to cut is the large amounts of money wasted making the Malay elite even richer.

Affirmative action should not be defined by race, but by class so the poor Chinese, the poor Indians, the poor Orang Asli [indigenous people] should get help too. The poor Malays will get what they now get in affirmative action and more.

Video: Malaysian picket in support of the PSM Six.

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