"Socialism 2008 — Malaysia", a conference hosted by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) in Kajang, Selangor, over November 7-9, brought together more than 500 activists from around Malaysia, as well as from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Australia, Britain, Sweden and Taiwan.
The conference comes after an important breakthrough for the PSM in the March general elections, winning both a federal and state MP — giving Malaysia socialist parliamentarians for the first time in decades.
Just hours before the conference began at the New Era College, students at the college held a demonstration to demand that the college principal, a progressive academic who attended the conference, have his contract renewed next year.
The conference opened on the evening of November 7 with a rally to mark the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. As part of a range of cultural performances, a group of children from Kampung Berembang performed a moving pantomime about their families' struggles against the bulldozing of their homes near Kuala Lumpur.
Speakers at the opening rally, on the theme of "Socialism in the 21st Century", raised the deep crises of capitalism and the urgent need to build socialism from below.
PSM deputy chairperson Saraswathy spoke about the need to get rid of capitalism to save all life on Earth from the devastation of global warming.
Nasir Hashim, PSM chairperson and recently elected state MP, stressed that capitalism's current financial crisis underlines the need to always be prepared to seize every opportunity to present socialist alternatives.
The conference covered a wide range of pressing issues in Asia and globally. The first session, titled "Crisis in Capitalism: Financial, Food and Fuel Crisis", chaired by Rajamoorthy from the Third World Network, featured economist Lim Mah Hui and Mickael Von Knorring from the Swedish Left Party.
This was followed by a session on climate change, chaired by Malaysia Friends of the Earth activist Nizam Mahshar.
The speakers, Terry Townsend from the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) in Australia and editor of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, and Jonathan Neale from the Socialist Workers Party and the Campaign Against Climate Change in Britain, argued that only genuine democracy — which must be socialist — can stop climate change.
The session on "Revolution and Counter Revolution in Latin America", chaired by human rights lawyer Amer Hamzah, was addressed by Jorge Martin from Hands Off Venezuela and Lisa Macdonald from the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network and the DSP, and resulted in a lively discussion on the Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn from Turn Left in Thailand and Francisco Nemenzo from Laban ng Masa in the Philippines spoke in a session titled "South East Asia — People's Power and Betrayals".
This session began a discussion, which threaded throughout the remainder of the conference, of experiences in left coalition building.
In the session dedicated to this theme, newly elected MP for Sungai Siput and PSM central committee member, Jeyakumar Devaraj, outlined three principles of engagement in coalition andelectoral politics: ideological clarity, democracy within the party and avoidance of cultism.
"Coalition politics does offer the left opportunities to spread its analysis and win over more supporters and members. But it is a doubled-edged sword that can result in the subversion of our aims and destruction of our party", Kumar argued.
In the session on "PSM — 10 Years and Beyond", PSM secretary-general Arutchelvan explained the four critical issues facing the PSM today: how best to build the party through electoral and/or mass movement work; doing welfare/reform work versus revolutionary work; helping to strengthen the opposition in Malaysia's two-party system and/or building a third force; and strengthening the multi-ethnic character of the PSM membership.
Arutchelvan stressed the need for socialist parties to read and understand ideology, do a lot of hard work with the people to gain their support, and never betray the party membership or the people.
The session on "Islam and Socialism", chaired by Mashalina Hamzah from Sisters in Islam, was addressed by Labour Party Pakistan secretary Farooq Tariq and Mat Sabu, vice-president of the Malaysia's Islamic Party (PAS). These talks and audience contributions helped deepen the ongoing discussion at the conference about coalition building and alliances.
The gathering ended with a spirited singing of the "Internationale" in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English.
During the conference a Malay translation of Lenin by Ian Birchall was launched, the first in "a rebel's guide" series of translations planned by the PSM to help popularise socialism in the country.
Solidarity greetings were also presented from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who had planned to attend to discuss the winning of a republic and creation of a new Maoist-led government in Nepal, but who had to pull out at the last minute.
Arutchelvan told Green Left Weekly that the PSM was happy with the conference outcomes. "The issues we discussed were very relevant, affecting a lot of countries in this region, especially the financial crisis and coalition building", he said.
"Being able to organise a successful international conference also gives the PSM, which is a quite new party, more confidence. We could see at this conference that the PSM has grown from its experiences."
He added: "It is very important for us to have an international outlook and build broad collaboration in the south-east Asian region. International solidarity is very important.
"But the most important thing for all of us is to build the class struggle in our own countries. The next conference, in 2009, will be conducted in Malay and will focus on national questions, to build the struggle in Malaysia."