Meeting Malaysia's socialists: Part 2

February 4, 2016
All the public housing estates have been struggled for for years.
All the public housing estates have been struggled for for years. Photo: Sarah Hathway

This is the second part of an article on an exposure tour of Malaysia hosted by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), in which five Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members participated over January 15 to 26.

Part 1 was published in #1082 and can be found here. Part 3 will published in the next issue.

* * *

After our briefing on the history and current issues facing Malaysia we travelled to Ipoh, in the state of Perak. As we approached the city the development — or rather the over-development — of the area became apparent.

There were rows and rows of cut and copy houses in brand new housing estates and new mega shopping malls — in one area a whole new township had sprung up. However as we travelled around the state in the following days, we saw a number of abandoned shops as well as urban and rural poor living in less-than-ideal housing.

In fact, one abandoned shopping complex that took up a whole block was causing problems for local residents. The building had been built directly across the street from residential houses but had never been used. It has since become a giant nest for birds and the noise and droppings are causing health problems for the local residents.

It seems Malaysia is heading for a crisis of overdevelopment. More and more housing estates are being built, consisting of houses that an average worker could never afford.

Renting is not really an option in Malaysia — everyone buys and housing is becoming increasing unaffordable. But still more estates are being built, as well as huge shopping complexes that are full of food and products that the average worker cannot afford.

Meanwhile, Malaysia is rapidly losing its rainforests and biodiversity. The United Nations says Malaysia's deforestation rate has increased faster than any other tropical country in the world.

This is due to urbanisation, agricultural fires and large scale forest conversion to oil palm plantations. It seemed that everywhere we went there were oil palms. Logging is also a major issue, despite the fact that on paper Malaysia has one of the best rainforest protection policies in Asia.

Electoral work and campaigning for workers' rights

The PSM's successful electoral work in the state of Perak has increased their capacity to mobilise people around other issues. Since 2008, the PSM has had a member in the lower house of state parliament. Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj represents the Sungai Siput seat in the state of Perak.

There are a number of PSM branches in Perak, where members work with local urban and rural poor, urban pioneers and farmers to improve people's living conditions. They also raise awareness of national struggles, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the introduction of a 6% GST.

Some branches are also starting to work with non-unionised workers, including helping to form a network of non-unionised truck drivers to campaign around issues of pay and conditions.

Currently less than 3% of the workforce in Malaysia is unionised and it is an extremely bureaucratic process to legally apply to take strike action. For this reason it has been easier to organise and strike in non-unionised work places, as they do not need permission.

The PSM have also started to campaign for the rights of migrant workers. They have published a leaflet in three languages for distribution to the general public on how and why migrant workers are exploited by their employers.

Housing and land struggles

One thing that quickly became apparent is that all the housing estates we visited have been part of an ongoing struggle for years. Impressively, the PSM has stuck by them and will continue to do so for as long as it takes.

One example is a housing estate that used to be municipal quarters for Indians brought there to work by British colonialists. In 1997, the quarters were demolished and rebuilt. Retired workers on the estate cannot afford to move away and buy another home.

Originally 500 families lived on the estate. In 1997, the number dropped to 200 families and today there are 40 families left. The government has stopped maintaining the estate, to make conditions unbearable so that people leave and the remaining houses can be demolished.

An action committee of residents was formed and was promised by the government that all those living on government land would be given ownership of their homes — a promise that was not kept. Instead they have been deemed to be illegal squatters.

In 2010, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission obtained a commitment from the government to build terrace houses for sale to the residents at a subsidised price. Again, this was not followed through and no houses have been built.

Their water has been cut off and later reinstated due to protests. There have been problems with mosquitoes and snakes, and with asbestos. To top it off, there has been no rubbish collection for 10 years, meaning residents just dump their rubbish on the land or burn or bury it themselves.

After such a long fight, the struggle is at a weak point but the residents are determined to keep fighting for better housing. The plan is to maintain the houses and estate as best as they can and wait it out.

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