The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), formed only in 1996, shocked Malaysia's political establishment by winning two seats in the March 8 general elections. Nasir Hashim was elected to the Selangor state legislative assembly and Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj was elected to the national parliament.
Jeyakumar told Green Left Weekly that the main aim of the PSM's electoral campaigning is to "rehabilitate socialism" in Malaysia. "Malaysia has a very rich socialist history, but since the mid-1970s, the left has been very weak, the result of severe repression and the international situation.
"When the PSM came into existence, socialism was a bad word for many people. So the first thing the party wanted to do was show that socialism is still relevant and has solutions to people's problems."
"By standing socialist candidates, we could get national media attention for our ideas and activities — opportunities to capture people's imaginations", Jeyakumar explained.
For example, "Our candidates have always openly declared their assets. The other opposition parties talk about the need to do this, but don't do it. By being the only party that has done this, we've captured ordinary people's attention."
In the 1999 elections, in which Jeyakumar stood for the PSM against a government minister, there was massive fraud. "The minister bussed in people to vote for him and we documented that with photographs", he recounted.
The PSM took the case to court. "Our evidence was very strong but they managed to throw it out on a technicality. But it caught national headlines; here was a small party taking on a minister in court.
"Something like this highlights the fact that our small party has got the fighting spirit, discipline and cadre to take a stand against injustice. Local people said, 'For the first time someone is standing up! Who are these guys?'
"A lot of the vote for the PSM was a vote against the corrupt establishment parties, but our work on the ground also played a very important role — the fact that for 10 years we'd been involved with the communities", Jeyakumar said.
"Many of our leaders have been arrested time and again, for standing up against petrol hikes, the Internal Security Act, evictions. I have been arrested about seven times on various issues.
"We are seen as the people who will fight, not for themselves but for other people. Even though a small party, we are seen as principled and consistent."
Commenting on what he called the "dialectics of success" — the contradictions facing a socialist party that has won seats in a capitalist parliament — Jeyakumar said: "It is a minefield. There's a lot of potential, but you can end up pretty messed up.
"Winning positions in parliament has boosted the spirits of our members and supporters, we are getting far more media coverage and our access to ordinary people has become easier. But we have to remain vigilant that our 'success' does not undermine our long-term goal of putting forward a socialist option."
For example, he explained, the Selangor state government has made $500,000 available to every MP to distribute to needy constituents. "It's good to have money, but managing $500,000 every year takes up so much time that you don't have much left to point out that the system is capitalist, that there's oppression and so.
"It tends to shift your work into a very welfarist, Santa Claus mode, but you cannot just say, 'I am a socialist, I don't want your $500,000'. People know that the government has given you this money."
All federal MPs are also supposed to receive $500,000 for distribution to the needy, but to date no opposition MP has been given a cent. In response, the PSM called a meeting of all its contacts in the local communities and developed a list of projects that should be funded by the government.
The projects included a Muslim community orphans service, an old people's home run by a Chinese group, a service for people with disabilities and a Tamil family school. "We put these in a formal application to the government; they came from the people", Jeyakumar said.
"But two months later the answer came back: 'Your application cannot be considered.' So now we have produced a leaflet in the three languages explaining what we asked for, the consultation process we used and the government's response. The leaflet asks the community what they think we should do about it.
"So this has been made a political process, not a welfare process. And if we get the money after fighting for it, it has a different meaning for people.
"We are trying to form a 'people's consultative council'. We call local leaders together, we sit with the people and discuss with them.
"We reject the deference given everywhere to MPs. We tell them that we don't have the answers; we can help coordinate some things because we have resources, but they need to tell us the answers.
"This is all unchartered territory for us; what we have done so far is based on our experiences. But none of the opposition parties have done anything like it and this makes us stand out. People see us doing things this way and some decide to join the party."
The PSM is also very conscious of rejecting the personal material advantages that come with elected office. "Now, as an MP, I can buy a house and a new car. There's a lot of money available.
"By taking the position that we will not buy a new car unless our old car breaks down, we have made local people question things. It is a chance to show that socialists do not become MPs to get more money for themselves.
"We have to be very, very careful that we do not get sucked into and tied to the system. A lot of left parties, once they have got into the system, have split.
"If an elected representative gets too used to the high income, the power and the prestige, then at the next election they will be keen to stand again, and keen that the party doesn't take any stands that might jeopardise their chances of re-election.
"Elected members can become a force for conservatism in the party, and that can destroy the party. So it is important that Nasir and myself, as the first PSM members to be elected to parliament, help ensure that the party has very strict rules to keep MPs principled and accountable to the party."