Malaysian socialist on huge May Day rally, struggle for people's rights

May 18, 2014
A protester holds a banner reading, 'The people oppose the GST' at the May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur on May 1.

This year's May Day rally in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur was the biggest in the country since independence in 1957.

Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle spoke to S. Arutchelvan (Arul), the secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and a spokesperson for the May 1 Committee.

Arul will be an international guest speaker at the “People's Power in the Asian Century” seminar to be held in conjunction with the 10th national conference of the Socialist Alliance, in Sydney June 7-9. You can register for it here.

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The recent May Day protest in KL looked huge, was this the biggest ever May day?

I think it was the biggest May Day rally since independence. I would put the figure at above 30,000. The biggest-ever May Day rally before in our country was probably held in Singapore (then part of the British-ruled Malay colony) in 1947, which was about 50,000-strong.

After that, May Day actions were largely smaller and usually indoors because of police repression. Even those indoor rallies stopped after 1987 when the government arrested and detained without trial a large number of progressive social activists.

The PSM restarted May Day street rallies in 1994, braving police attacks. We did this for 20 years and eventually a few trade unions dared to join us.

What was the reason for the big turn out this year?

This year, the May Day rally was called to abolish the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) — which is planned to be implemented next year — to be abolished. We branded this year as the year to protest the GST, rather than the official “Visit Malaysia Year”.

We also declared May 1 as the date for a mass rally. Since the election defeat in May last year of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) — which currently excludes the PSM — mass street action in Malaysia has declined and lost momentum.

The biggest recent rally before May Day was the youth-organised rally on New Year's Eve, which drew around 8000 people.

The opposition parties in PR also announced their support for the May 1 anti-GST rally; hence the huge and combined forces that took part.

What political forces built May Day this year?

There were mainly two main forces in this year's May Day: the opposition PR parties and the non-PR groupings. The non-PR groups included the civil society movement and the rest of what could be called the “Third Force”, which includes the PSM and Malaysian People's Party, community-based groups and issue-oriented coalitions like BERSIH (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections) and Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly).

The Third Force was very well-organised. It did the longest march to Independence Square and was the most creative in terms of slogans.

Previous May Day rallies came up against police attempts to suppress the actions. What accounts for the change in official response?

Since the big BERSIH rallies, the government has been on the defensive in response to public rallies. Old laws like the Police Act, which requires permits to assemble, have begun to be ignored by the people.

Hence the government tried to reform the law to make authorised public assembly impossible under a new Public Assembly Act. But a judgement in the Appeal Court, just a week before the May Day rally, said that you cannot charge people for “illegal assembly” because it goes against the freedom of assembly enshrined in the constitution.

So there were legal battles won.

Besides, the government realises if it tries to stop people assembling, it will only backfire. They invited us to discuss the issue about two weeks before the May Day rally, which is quite unusual.

Does the big response to this May Day say something about the rise of class issues over issues of race and religion that have long dominated Malaysian politics?

I think groups like PSM and Oppressed People's Network consistently try to build movements based on class issues rather than race and religion. This year, the hardship experience by people in Malaysia is very real and this was reflected during our recent nationwide roadshow.

So the gathering has the strong support of the people. The government tried to undermine the assembly, as usual, but it failed.

The government spent huge amounts of money on advertisements saying the GST is a good tax, used by 160 other countries. But they remained on the defensive as we pointed the GST is a tax regime that shifts the tax burden from the rich to the poor.

Most younger Malaysians are also quite fed up with these race and religion issues. They have realised these are just tools to divide the people.

This year the Utusan Melayu, a pro-government newspaper, used a new twist. It reported that the May Day gathering was supporting gay and lesbian rights and tried to use it to discourage socially conservative workers from attending.

What are the consequences of the recent push around Hudud (the extension of parts of Islamic law to the broader population) by the Party of Islam (PAS) which is part of the Pakatan Rayat?

Hudud is an issue that the PR has to deal with. It has the potential to destroy the opposition coalition.

PAS feels that it needs Hudud to win Muslim votes and this push is coming from the more fundamentalist elements in that party. But most non-Muslims in Malaysia voted for PAS candidates in the last election precisely because it promoted a welfare state and not an Islamic state.

On the other hand, this Hudud push is also making more progressive Malay youth join the socialist and anarchist movements. They feel that change is not possible with the current traditional political parties.

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