V. Selvam, a leader of the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) and general council member of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, visited Melbourne in early February at the invitation of the Socialist Party. Green Left Weekly's Chris Slee spoke to him about current struggles in Malaysia and the work of the PSM.
The PSM was formed in the mid-1990s and in 1998 it applied for registration as a political party. The application was rejected and the PSM has continued to fight for legal recognition as a party. "We have taken the minister to court. We are still waiting for the hearing of the appeal", Selvam explained.
This restricts the PSM's activity, as "only registered political parties can contest elections", Selvam said. "The law does not permit us to work at all, actually. But despite that, we have been working and will continue to work. Freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution but in practice it does not exist."
The PSM works among "workers, the trade unions, young people, students, urban pioneers [squatters], plantation workers, and the peasantry", Selvam explained. He said the biggest problem confronting the urban pioneers is housing. "They are forcibly evicted and their houses are demolished. Where they are offered alternative housing, the payments are a bit steep compared to their income."
"The urban pioneers have been campaigning to stop forced evictions. There is a campaign to provide them with decent housing. Some of them have campaigned to keep their land and houses."
Selvam also described the marginalisation of plantation workers. "The plantations were created in the British colonial period, over a hundred years ago. The workers have lived and worked on the plantations for three generations or more. Their pay is very low, even though they have a union.
"The plantations sit on prime land, which is being sold for redevelopment. Plantation workers are being thrown out of their jobs and their houses. At times, the workers are paid a redundancy package for the loss of their jobs, but not for the loss of their houses. The struggle is for alternative housing and also for a decent, fair compensation package and redundancy package." These struggles have led to some victories for the workers.
Malaysian trade unions are "pretty weak", according to Selvam. "The Trade Unions Act does not allow sufficient room for unions to function. Trade unions have to be registered first with the Registrar of Trade Unions, and then they have to demand recognition from employers." Employers often refer the case back to the registrar, where it is stalled.
"The workers have been frustrated by recognition claims pending for years. When recognition eventually comes, it comes too late. By this time the union has lost steam, and many workers have left the workplace. The union does not have sufficient strength to continue with negotiations in an effective way. The percentage of workers in trade unions today is less than 10%.
"We have been campaigning for the laws to be repealed by the government to allow for automatic recognition. The government has been dragging its feet."
The PSM has also been campaigning with NGOs around continued environmental destruction. Selvam identified logging in East Malaysia and river pollution as two key problems.
Selvam also described the PSM's work with "small-scale farmers who are being displaced due to the rapid development. A lot of times farm land is encroached due to development purposes, and farmers are not compensated with alternative land to continue their farming activity."
Students face great repression in Malaysia, according to Selvam. The Universities and University Colleges Act "does not allow for much student activity. Recently there have been a lot of complaints that student elections were not free. Students were not allowed to campaign. Students were not allowed to vote for the parties they wanted."
Student are campaigning to repeal the act, "but we are not seeing much progress in this area. Students remain a suppressed lot. When students protest they are thrown out of university."
Although the PSM is not registered as a party, it fielded four candidates in the last elections — two in federal constituencies and two in state constituencies. "Since the party is not registered, we were not able to put up candidates under our own party platform. Although in the campaign we pushed our own program, principles and ideas, we had to either contest as independents or on the party tickets of other parties. In this case we contested borrowing the party tickets of other opposition parties." The PSM gained around 30% of the vote.
According to Selvam, despite repression of the left, the PSM has also been successful in building mass actions. "We have been quite effective in mobilising and organising the various sectors of society."
From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.