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Malaysia at the crossroads

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malaysia at the crossroadsIn reviewing a new book by Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj’s new book, Francis Loh questions whether the impetus for change should come from a worker-based socialist movement or a broad-based popular democratic alliance.

It is a pleasure to participate in this book launch of Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj’s new book entitled Malaysia at the Crossroads; A Socialist Perspective (Ipoh: Parsosma Enterprise, 2009). Dr Jeyakumar, of course, is the Sungei Siput Member of  Parliament who defeated MIC president Datuk Seri Samy Vellu in the 8 March 2008 general election. He is also a founding member and central committee member of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).

Everyone concerned about Malaysia’s future should get a copy of this book. Read, reflect and discuss its contents. Indeed, as the author says in his Introduction, the aim of his book is to provoke debate among all Malaysians who are concerned about the country.

Situating the book

As the title of the book says, we are at the Crossroads. It is therefore time for Malaysians to think through our situation. In this regard, Kumar is not the first to call upon Malaysians to reflect about the critical juncture we find ourselves in. Below are a few titles emphasising the same point.

  • Syed Husin Ali Merdeka, Rakyat dan Keadilan – Kumpulan Artikel  Mengkritik Dasar-dasar UMNO-BN dan Mengemukakan Asas-asas Politik Menuju Malaysia Baru (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2004).
  • Rustam Sani Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist (Petaling Jaya; SIRD, 2008).
  • Zaid Ibrahim In Good Faith (Kuala Lumpur: Zaid Ibrahim Publications, 2007)
  • Working for Democracy: Footprints from Civil Society in Malaysia (Petaling Jaya; Women’s Development Collective, 2007)
  • Liew Chin Tong, Speaking for the Reformasi Generation (Kuala Lumpur: REFSA, 2009).
  •  Francis Loh Kok Wah Old Vs New Politics: Malaysian Society and Politics in Transition (Petaling Jaya: SIRD and Penang: Aliran, 2009); and earlier Politik Baru di Malaysia? (Penang: USM, 2005).

Apart from these books, publications like Aliran Monthly, several websites and some blogs have also been highlighting the point that we are at a Crossroads and debating where we ought to be headed.

Several films have also highlighted the significance of our times and sometimes connected them to earlier Crossroads. For example, in Fahmi Reza’s Sepuluh Tahun sebelum Merdeka (KOMAS: 2007), he shows how the left of all races came together to struggle for Independence and formulated the Perlembagan Rakyat (People’s Constitution) which, predictably, the British and the conservative Umno-MCA-MIC nationalists shunted aside.

In early August, I attended Marion D’Cruz’s Gostan-Forward, a retrospective of her involvement in the development of Malaysia’s art scene as well as her musings about how her art interfaced with Malaysia’s political journey, including about where we are today. In Penang, Anak-Anak Kota and Ombak-Ombak have also used the arts to remind ordinary Malaysians about our history of multiculturalism, and to highlight the need for more of this multiculturalism in this period of Crossroads.

So Kumar’s book is not the first to tell us we are at a Crossroads.

Nor is Kumar’s book the first to present a socialist perspective of this Crossroads. Many of the authors I mentioned above viz Syed Husin Ali, Rustam Sani, and if I may say so, Loh Kok Wah, too, have generally assumed a socialist or at least pro-rakyat and multiethnic perspective in their analyses of the current Crossroads.

What is different about Kumar’s book is that it not only analyses Malaysian problems   from a socialist perspective but explicitly offers a socialist political solution as well. He asks, ‘how will socialists do things differently?’

Critical analysis

There are several sections of the book that offer excellent analysis. I would like to highlight a few.

Section C Privatisation contains critical analysis of neo-liberal economic globalisation and the dismantling of the welfare-state via the privatisation of critical services: health care, public transport, water, housing and education. Kumar highlights the case of the health services in particular. His comments on the proposal for health care reforms (prepared by the government’s foreign consultant) are spot on and reveal that the poor will find it increasingly difficult to access cheap and comprehensive health treatment. Throughout this section, Kumar reminds us about the rights of the poor and needy, including the migrant workers, who have been marginalised and have not been recognised for their contributions towards Malaysia’s development.

The essays in this section also offer suggestions on what ordinary Malaysians can do to reverse the privatisation process. I like in particular how the members of the Perak Water Coalition lodged police reports in 40 different police stations against the Perak Menteri Besar in 2006, because he had refused to talk with the people even though the privatisation of Perak water would cause untold hardships for the rakyat (p.82).

I also like the chapter on Hindraf (Section A). It’s a brave and principled argument against those who resort to shortcuts by invoking race and religion when mobilising the labouring class. Kumar’s defeat of Samy Vellu in March 2009 indicates that one can still win electorally while taking a critical stance against chauvinists, whether BN or otherwise. However, I’m sure that Kumar’s victory had much to do with his persistent political work and service record in Sungai Siput for more than two decades, win or lose the election. Very few of us have that discipline, tenacity and sense of sacrifice that Kumar possesses. We must try to emulate this ‘Malaysian Idol’!
Section D Building Socialism. Two chapters in this section that discuss the role of the left and its stance vis-a-vis coalition politics make for compelling reading. The first offers a history of the growth of PSM: how it started its journey by working with urban pioneers and plantation workers; how this was expanded into Jerit (Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas), which also includes programmes to work with the youth, urban workers, and farmers. One further learns the reasons for PSM’s decision to enter the electoral fray without sacrificing the overall project of building a socialist movement with the working class at the centre of that movement. Apart from this, PSM has played an important coordinating role in several NGO networks such as the anti-privatisaton of health services coalition or Gerakan Menentang Penswastaan Perkhidmatan Perubatan, the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA and the anti-US-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement coalition.

With regards to coalition politics, PSM argues that it is preferable to work with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) rather than with the Barisan Nasional, which has been undemocratic and is riddled with money politics. That said, its stand is that engaging with the PR must be based on principles like getting rid of undemocratic laws and support for the rights of the poor and marginalised.

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Hence, there are many reasons for recommending this book. Not only are we offered critical analyses of Malaysia’s current social woes and are informed about PSM’s impressive achievements in its short history, we also get proposals on how we ought to engage with coalition politics at this Crossroads.

Above all, Kumar’s book is also a call to all progressives in Malaysia to work towards (re)building a new socialist movement in Malaysia. In what follows I want to problematise or think through more critically the analysis and suggestions about this task contained in Kumar’s book. I shall focus on two issues: the fragmentation of the working class in Malaysia at a time of globalisation; and the need to build a popular democratic alliance at this critical juncture, a point also made by Lim Kean Chye in his Foreword to Kumar’s book.

Fear and problems of TU leadership

Kumar’s analysis seems to suggest that with neo-liberal globalisation at our doorstep, so to speak, the lot of the working class as a whole has worsened, especially during the current financial crisis. As a result of this worsening economic situation, Kumar argues that ‘the objective conditions’ to build and consolidate a socialist movement led by the oppressed working-class movement are there. It is essentially because of ‘weak subjective conditions’ that the project towards consolidating a socialist movement has not been achieved thus far.

With all due respect to Kumar, the situation is more complex. For the working class in Malaysia today, I argue, is very fragmented, not least because of differentiation or segmentation of industrialisation.

I wish to highlight the point made by Syed Shahir, the current president of the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress (MTUC) that only 780,000 or 7 per cent of the entire work force of more than 10 million are unionised as of 2006.  Several reasons explain this low rate of participation in unions.

First, repression of the working class ever since the Emergency and Independence. Apart from the coercive Trades Union Act, the Industrial Relations Act, the Employment Act, other repressive laws like the ISA exist which circumscribe the autonomy and effectiveness of the trade unions. Much writing is available on these matters. Suffice it to stress that it is on account of such coercive laws and repression of unionists that a majority of workers are fearful of getting involved in unions and unionism these days.

Second, the problem of leadership of the trade unions. It is also documented that union leaders, especially during the past two decades, have been riddled with factionalism, financial scandals, and patronage and let’s not forget, patriarchal attitudes too. These two considerations – repression on the one hand, poor leadership of the TUs on the other – have often been mentioned to explain Malaysia’s low rate of unionism.

Differentiation of manufacturing – from MNCs to SMEs

Less obvious structural explanations also lie behind this sorry state of affairs.For the manufacturing sector has experienced not just an expansion but also a differentiation. It is significant that the vast majority of the manufacturing establishments are SMEs (small and medium scale enterprises). Accordingly, the labour force has been fragmented – which makes it difficult to organise workers. Let me elaborate

Traditionally, the majority of workers were found in the agricultural sector (particularly in the rubber and oil palm plantations) and in the government services.  Not surprisingly, the NUPW has been the largest trade union. At its peak in the 1960s, it boasted a membership of 160,000 members.

Apart from the NUPW, the other strong unions comprised those engaged in the government services providing public utilities and amenities like the National Electricity Board Employees Union, National Union of Telecoms Workers, the Malayan Nurses Union, Amalgamated National Union of Local Authorities’ Employees, Public Works Department Unions, the Railway Workers Union, Customs Workers Union, and the various teachers’ unions, previously divided but nowadays brought under the common umbrella of the National Union of the Teaching Profession.

Yet another group of unions drew from workers who were employed in the private sector usually in a similar industry or occupation like the National Union of Bank Employees, National Union of Commercial Workers, National Union of Petroleum and Chemical Industry Workers, National Union of Mine Workers, Metal Industry Employees Union, Electrical Industry Workers Union and National Union of Journalists.

As is well known, the economy has moved away from agriculture towards manufacturing and services.  Accordingly, the proportion of those employed in manufacturing and services has increased from about 50 per cent in 1970 to almost 70 percent of the total employed in 2005.

In 2002, 72 of the 235 MTUC affiliates were involved in manufacturing, 51 in transport and communications, 34 in government services, and 29 in other forms of services.  At first sight it might appear that the majority of workers are nowadays involved in the unions that relate to manufacturing (and in the new services). Looking closer, one discovers that many of these unions are very small in terms of membership.

Consequently, the NUPW remains the largest union in Malaysia. Likewise, the other ‘traditional’ unions mentioned above remain among the largest and most active.

No doubt, a major reason for the lag in unionism in the manufacturing sector is due to the government’s refusal to register industry-wide unions (as in the case of the electronic workers), and the government’s support for the formation of ‘enterprise’ or in-house unions instead.

That said, this lag is also due to the increased differentiation of the manufacturing sector itself. In 2000, of the estimated 2.12 million workers employed in 27,419 manufacturing establishments, almost half of these employees worked in establishments which employed less than 10 workers each.  Put another way, about half of these establishments in the manufacturing sector were essentially small-scale enterprises.

With such differentiation of the manufacturing sector, it is difficult to forge close ties and promote common interests among workers working in different establishments, let alone across establishments involved in different industries.

Sometimes, the kinds of employers and management faced by workers also varied from industry to industry. Certain industries were dominated by modern MNCs and employed large numbers of workers as in the electronics industry; others were family-run SMEs employing less than 10 workers each.  The latter also tended to be paternalistic in their treatment of their workers. Invariably, there would be myriad differences in terms of the problems faced.  Consequently, when unions are formed, they tend to focus on narrow interests that are specific to the industry or firm, and have small memberships.

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Moreover, due to a high level of mobility in the private sector, workers who do not have opportunities for upward mobility can resort to moving laterally to another company in the same industry or even in a different industry.  Often such workers think that it is not necessary for  them to participate in unions whatsoever. It is also likely that many manufacturing and service workers – perhaps due to ignorance of the benefits of unionism, or due to the lack of attractiveness of the trade union movement or because of fear of repression – have chosen not to join or form unions either.

Hence, although the number of workers especially in the manufacturing sector has increased many-fold, the number of unionised workers, especially in manufacturing, has not grown in proportion.

Fragmentation of the workers

Another major reason explains the lag in unionism and the weakness of the working class movement: structural changes to the composition of the labour force itself. I refer to the rising numbers of Malays, women, and migrant workers in the work force.  We can call this the fragmentation of labour
First, more and more Malays have joined the industrial work force  Initially, most Malay workers were reluctant or hesitant in joining the trade unions, which were largely led by non-Malays, especially Indians. Instead, they tended to turn towards the dominant Malay political party, Umno, to resolve their problems. Although more Malays are now involved in the leadership of the unions, a large proportion of Malay workers have remained outside the unions.  

Second, beginning from the 1970s, as the export-led labour-intensive electronics industry was being developed, more and more unskilled women, a majority of whom were Malays, were recruited into the work force – a process that has been dubbed the ‘feminisation of labour’.

According to Dr Cecilia Ng, who has studied extensively the plight of women in the manufacturing sector, the labour force participation rate of women in Malaysia increased from 37 per cent in 1970 to 47.1 per cent in 1995; it then dropped to 44.2 percent in 1999, following the financial crisis. At that point, about 85 per cent of women workers were in the manufacturing and services sector located in the urban areas. Women are particularly important in the electronics industry where they make up about 90 per cent of assembly line workers. They also account for more than 70 per cent of the employed in the textile and garments industry. The jobs in both industries are generally low-skilled and labour intensive.

Indeed, much gender disparity in wages can be seen: women generally earn less than men for the same type of job in some sectors in the private sector.  Since unions were previously not allowed to be established in the free-trade zones, where the electronic assembly plants are located, a major proportion of the labour force, in this case overwhelmingly women,  was left un-unionised. Even when in-house unions were later established, most enterprises continued to prevent their workers from establishing trade unions.

In spite of this change,  it has also been reported in several accounts, for instance in the recounting of the RCA-Harris workers’ attempt to unionise, that women workers have been discouraged from participating in unions and encouraged to seek redress via the establishment of enterprise-based Islamic affairs committees instead.

Lastly, women workers have also cited sexism among the union leaders as an explanation for their non-involvement. In fact, although women comprise 40 per cent of total union membership nowadays, less than 1 per cent is represented at the leadership level according to Ng and other researchers like Dr Rohana Ariffin (previously of Universiti Sains Malaysia). At any rate, most of these women union leaders are non-Malays even when a majority of the women workers in the unions are Malays.


Migrant workers

Due to rapid economic growth beginning from the late 1980s, Malaysia began to experience a labour shortage problem. The corollary to this was an influx of migrant workers.  In 1987, the government sanctioned the use of migrant labour when it undertook the first exercise to legalise Indonesian labour in the plantation sector. This process was extended to other sectors in subsequent years.

The total number of migrant workers rose throughout the 1990s until the 1997-98 regional financial crisis, whereupon the government took drastic action to reduce their numbers. However, with economic recovery, the influx of migrant workers resumed. In 2004, the number of registered workers totalled 1.4 million or 12.5 per cent of the labour force. Of these 66 per cent were from Indonesia, 9.2 per cent from Nepal, 8.0 per cent from Bangladesh, 4.5 per cent from India, 4.2 per cent from Myanmar, and the remainder from Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Cambodia. That same year, an estimated 1.2 million workers remained unregistered; as such, they were deemed ‘illegal’ i.e. without entry and employment permits.

Invariably, these migrant workers, both legal as well as undocumented, remain out of the reach of the unions; nor are they protected under the Employment Act 1955. This means that they are not eligible for the Employees Provident Fund, overtime work at higher rates, annual, sick and maternity leave, termination and other benefits Whichever the case, most of these workers were employed in the plantation, manufacturing and construction sectors while many of the women were employed as domestic workers.
Under the circumstances, at least in terms of the rate of participation of workers in the unions, the labour movement has weakened. Accordingly, the percentage of workers who are covered by collective agreements, or in the case of most foreign workers, even the Employment Act, has dropped.  Not surprisingly, fewer cases of industrial actions – strike or lock-out or picketing – have occurred.

The issues raised here about the Malaysian working class must be seriously considered by Kumar and the PSM. Given the coercive laws and fear of repression, the problems of trade union leadership, differentiation of manufacturing and fragmentation of the working class, where does one start? In this regard, I cannot agree with Kumar that the ‘objective conditions’ for building a socialist movement anchored in the mobilisation of the working class are already there. And that it is merely the ‘subjective conditions’ that must be addressed. The fact that only 7 per cent of the work force in Malaysia is unionised speaks volumes about the differentiation of manufacturing and fragmentation of the working class, and only secondarily about the ‘subjective conditions’ in this era of neo-liberal globalisation.

Towards a popular democratic alliance

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That said, the emphasis in the various chapters in Kumar’s book on (re)building the working-class movement is still a very important reminder to Malaysians about the plight of the working class. Perhaps it also ought to be directed towards those in the NGOs who tend to over-emphasise middle-class issues and causes at the expense of the plight of the working class, the rural poor, and the marginalised.

But there is also scope for bringing the middle class NGO types and the working class together via the forging of a popular democratic alliance organised around specific causes – like the privatisation of the health services, the public utilities, public transportation, a minimum wage policy, housing for all, free and fair elections, and of course the repeal of the draconian Internal Security Act and other coercive laws. Commonly struggling for the restoration of local government elections to make the local authorities more accountable and responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens, especially the workers, can also go some way in facilitating the forging of this alliance.

This broad alliance should also be linking up to the burgeoning women’s movement and to youths who have been unfairly given much bad press as ‘Mat Rempits’ and boh sia. In this regard, one must be more wary of popular culture and the use of popular culture to facilitate the consolidation of this popular democratic alliance. Indeed, we cannot simply rely on seminars, publications and direct action as before. The new media – websites and blogs, tweeters and facebook, as well as films and songs, and even arts festivals, must be used to effectively reach out to the youths so as to realise this popular alliance.

Needless to say, links must also be established with the environmental movement, often only involving the middle-class types. In fact, the theme of sustainable economic development can be promoted to incorporate the interests of the lower class too.

Some concern has been expressed that such forms of con-scientisation and mobilisation are not effective and/or sustainable over the long term. As well, there are those who say that many ordinary Malaysians might only rally around a particular issue – say the plight of the Kg Buah Pala residents, or in calling for Justice for Teoh Beng Huat, or fighting ethno-religious bigotry, or even focusing solely on the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA – and might not have the stamina to last the distance in this struggle to forge a wide-ranging democratic alliance, let alone rebuild a socialist movement.

This ought not be a problem. Fighting particular causes is not incompatible with promoting a popular democratic alliance. Indeed, in this day and age no one particular group, let alone a particular individual, can lay claim to a full-proof blueprint for the future, socialist or otherwise. In fact, the socialist project which was being pursued in the former socialist countries in past decades, became riddled with corruption, bureau-cratisation, domination by the ruling party or even a particular leader, and inefficiencies. It now needs to be revamped and offered for debate, as is being done in Venezuela and elsewhere, including among certain circles in China and in Vietnam

This lacuna highlights the necessity to create and consolidate an autonomous public sphere for people to express their ideas and beliefs freely via speech, or writing, or film or music, and to debate.

It follows that the struggle for a better tomorrow is not simply about bringing about economic development for all, but about democratic freedoms too. More than that, a better tomorrow must also be anchored in respect and celebration of our cultural and religious differences as well. Accordingly, we must bring into this populist democratic alliance, groups which are also struggling for gender equality, protection of the environment, space for an alternative media, religious freedom, cultural creativity, youth concerns, preserving the culture and identity of indigenous minorities, human rights, rule of law and accountability, ridding Malaysia of corruption and abuse of police and MACC powers, among other issues.

Put another way, I am arguing that we must not be overly economistic in our analysis and in our activities. No blue print whether ideology-based or religion-based has all the answers to Malaysia’s woes in 2009.

Many of us who are concerned about Malaysia’s future do not belong to any particular political party person and there is no shame in that. In the wake of massive corruption and cronyism surfacing alongside the involvement of developmental states in the economy, many of us are do not have faith in big governments either  Indeed, the role of the state in politics as well as in the economy should be rolled back. Can we envision instead a future that is free from the domination of business corporations as well as big government. Why can’t the dominant role in any society be restored to ordinary citizens acting as individuals and as a part of local communities that are capable of managing their affairs without the oversight of a powerful outside authority? Indeed, prior to the emergence of the modern state, early Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other religious communities often maintained – and in some instances, still do – their own affairs without allowing themselves to be dominated by an external power..

We believe that individuals, when allowed to realise their full potential, are creative, possess much volunteerism, and can be self-sacrificing. In such a setting, some may emerge as leaders temporarily to help to organise law and order, However, it does not follow that these leaders ought to be given pecuniary benefits and special powers, or be allowed to sit at the top permanently. This is not a vision of a socialised system of production and distribution. It is definitely not one that allows a dominant force to control our educational system, or to organise our cultural expressions and religious affairs. This is why we need to build a popular democratic alliance beginning from this moment of our Crossroads.

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