For decades, there was no socialist party of significance in Malaysia. But in 2009, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) made some impressive gains. The party more than doubled in size and had members elected to state and national parliament for the first time.
PSM activist Sivaranjani Manickam attended the Socialist Alliance national conference, held in Sydney in early January. She told Green Left Weekly that the recent growth in support for the party helped force the Malaysian government to finally grant it legal recognition after a 10-year battle.
"In 2008 and 2009 there was a big change in the awareness of the people", Manickam said. "Unfortunately, we were not a registered party then."
Manickam said in the PSM's campaigning, it also demanded the government repeal repressive legislation to allow the PSM to be officially registered.
The campaign was ultimately successful: "Now we are a registered party."
Because the PSM was not registered at the last elections, the party's candidates were forced to run under the banner of another opposition party. But the PSM parliamentarians always identified publicly as socialists, said Manickam.
With elected members, the party "consistently receives much more media for [its] issues". The extra profile has led to a rush of new members. The number of PSM branches grew from seven to 14 in 2009.
The PSM takes a very different approach from the other political parties. Parliamentary office is not seen as an end in itself, but as useful to the extent it strengthens the people's movement.
"Our leaders do not just speak in parliament", Manickam said. "They campaign on the ground.
"They say the only way to fully raise our issues is in the street."
The PSM's recent growth is especially remarkable given the high level of repression the Malaysian government has meted out to socialists and other radicals in past years. Malaysian authorities have used the notorious Internal Security Act since the 1950s to detain activists without trial.
Countering racism is another big challenge. Manickam explained the former British colonial rulers' policy was to inflame racial tensions between majority Malay population and the minority Indian and Chinese communities.
Since independence, succeeding Malaysian governments have used a similar "divide and conquer" strategy.
The government's policies breed resentment and distrust between the three ethnic groups. In response, the PSM "fights to raise the class issues", said Manickam.
"We say the Chinese workers should stand up for the Malay workers, the Malay workers should stand up for Indians, and the Indian workers for Chinese. We have to work to break the [racial] mentality, but that's not an easy thing to do."
When it was founded in 1998, most PSM members were of Indian descent. But recently the party has begun to recruit more Chinese and Malay members.
Manickam is also an activist with a broad-based Malaysian human rights group called the Oppressed People's Network (JERIT).
Founded in 2002, JERIT is unlike many of the other NGOs active in Malaysia. Most NGOs focus on lobbying the government for progressive change, but JERIT aims to mobilise people at the grassroots to fight for their own interests.
The group's structure reflects its broad focus. It includes sections for factory workers rights, service sector workers, indigenous rights, young people and the urban poor.
JERIT rose to national prominence in late 2008, after a creative bicycle protest for workers' rights made headlines across the country. Mancikam said a new campaign by JERIT aimed to raise the plight of those living in low-cost housing.
She said a major issue for poor families in such housing units was the excessive fees charged for building maintenance. The private owners of the housing estates rarely spend the revenue on maintenance or upgrades.
In some places, those who don't pay the maintenance fee have their water supply cut off
"The core issue is that people cannot afford to pay", Manickam said.
JERIT is encouraging people to form their own action committees to organise against the unpopular fee. "Our main demand is either the government abolish the fee, or local governments take over the burden [of paying]."
Manickam said the campaign is in its early stages. However, more than 10 action committees have already been formed.
JERIT plans to extend the campaign across the country, before launching a coordinated boycott of the fee.
Since the 2008 elections, in which opposition parties made important gains and won control of some states, these parties have often failed to implement promised reforms.
For Manickam, this underscored the importance of the PSM in Malaysian politics. "The PSM was formed as a socialist party to bring about the political changes", she said.
Although there is a long way to go, the PSM "is growing in influence, especially among the working class".