Juliet Jacobs, BFM: Good afternoon, this is Live and Learn on the Bigger Picture and I’m Juliet Jacobs from BFM 89.9. Parti Sosialis Malaysia or PSM was registered by its founding members on 30 April 1998 though it was only formally registered 10 years later.
But from 1998 they have been on the forefront in fighting for the rights of the working class, including issues like housing for all, rights for workers and decent living wages and even on topics like climate change and renewable energy, quality and affordable healthcare and so much more. Though faring not so well at GE14 [the 2018 general election], the party continues to advocate for and help marginalised communities in Malaysia.
So, in a belated nod to International Workers’ Day, joining me today is Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, the chairperson of Parti Sosialis Malaysia and former two-term MP for Sungai Siput, to discuss more about what the party does to help the working class community and also to discuss their plans for the future. Welcome Dr Kumar, how are you today?
Dr Jeyakumar: I’m fine Juliet.
Juliet: Thank you so much for joining us. So, let’s just get straight to it. In addition to being, as I mentioned the former two-terms Sungai Siput MP, you are of course the chairperson of PSM, can you talk to me a little about the formative years of your politics before we start discussing PSM’s.
Kumar: OK… actually I come from a middle class, liberal Christian family. My mother was quite a committed Christian but in a liberal way. Liberalism is now seen as a bad word among some in Malaysia but my mother’s liberalism was that, though a devout Christian herself, she believed that other religions are also paths to God as well. She had a deep respect for believers of other faiths. There was no arrogance of ‘my religion is better than yours’ in her.
And she brought us up with that kind of a culture. She instilled in her children a sense of service, a sense of stewardship – that if you are given intelligence or knowledge or wealth, a large portion of it should be used to help your fellow men, especially those who are in need. That was instilled deeply into our value system – that you have a moral duty to be caring.
So, I think my becoming a socialist and being in the socialist party stems from there, the idea of being of service to others.
Juliet: And speaking of service to others, you are actually a medical doctor by profession, right? What led you to politics? Did you see that as possibly a role that can improve lives?
Kumar: Surely. Even as a medical doctor, you work within a system. What healthcare system do you have, how much funding does it have, to what extent does the profit motive influence it – these things are all political.
As a doctor you have technical skills, but the system that you work within is determined by the political discourse in the country: how resources are allocated, what kind of policies and systems are set up. Politics is the overriding thing; it determines the structures within which we work.
Juliet: Definitely. Since we’re talking about the socialist party today, there’s actually a lot of confusion about what socialism is. If you look at the 2020 US election, the conservative leaders were making this out to be a sort of democracy killing bogeyman, that it is an evil thing. Can you explain both what socialism is and what it isn’t.
Kumar: OK. If you look at our society today, we are the most productive society that humankind has ever had. We can produce so many goods and services.
Yet there’s so much want, there is so much unemployment in many parts of the world and almost 50% of people in the world don’t have their basic needs met.
At the same time our environment is in crisis, there is a climate crisis, there is global warming… we are really heading for disaster there.
And in addition, there’s so much of corporate control over politics. In many countries, the democratic process has been usurped by money, by the richest people.
So basically, socialism is about redressing, rebalancing all these things. And we believe we’ve got to do that by reducing the power, the influence of the richest 1%, by empowering the bottom 99% to take part in the running of society.
That basically is what socialism is, how we manage the current economy, the current productivity of the world in a way that benefits the majority. And we think for that we’ve got to dethrone the profit motive; it can’t be the dominant thing. We’ve got to put people before profits.
We are talking in terms of a better distribution of the wealth that we are creating, making society more democratic, people having a say in their local government, they having a say in the place that they work, they having a say in actually choosing the government and ensuring that the government is not beholden to corporate interests, recognising climate change. These are the main things that socialists of the 21st Century need to look at.
And what we’re not – we are not for a totalitarian state, we are quite the opposite, we want a democratic state, we want people, the bottom 99%, to have their say. And we are not anti-market. The market has been there even before capitalism. And markets serve a purpose.
But we cannot have the profit motive dominating everything as it is now. Socialism is basically saying you need to put people before profits and how do you do that in a humane way, in a way that democratises society, in a way that is sustainable to our environment; so that’s what socialism of the 21st Century is.
Juliet: It was of course Worker’s Day, May Day [recently], it was also Karl Marx’s birthday [on 5 May] coincidentally. The 30 April is the unofficial birthday of PSM [the Socialist Party of Malaysia]. So the party was actually registered by its founding members on 30 April 1998. Can you take me back to the start… how did the party come about, why did the founders see a need to form a political party.
Kumar: OK. About five to six years before 1998, a few NGOs were working with estate workers and with the urban pioneers, or the so-called ‘squatters’. We came together to carry out some national campaigns.
For estate workers, we wanted monthly wages, better schools in estates, housing schemes for estate workers. For the peneroka bandar – the urban pioneers – we wanted their land issues to be resolved. So, we had a national campaign where we presented the demands of these groups to various political parties and government leaders. This was in the run-up to the 1995 general election.
Along the way we felt that actually there isn’t that much of sympathy or understanding in the existing political parties, whether government or opposition, regarding these kinds of peoples’ issues.
And then the idea came that we need to send our own people to the legislature, to the dewan undangan negeri (state legislative assemblies) and to Parliament to bring up these issues because we felt that these issues were not being properly canvassed in these halls. We felt that it is not enough just mobilising from the ground, we also have got to get inside these legislative halls. Then we can also try to formulate policies. That is how the idea came.
Juliet: You tried to get registered in 1998 but it took 10 years before it actually happened. What happened? Why were you not allowed to register for those 10 years?
Dr Jeyakumar : We applied in 1998, at that time[Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad] was the Prime Minister and [Abdullah] Badawi was the Home Minister, and they turned us down with all kinds of funny excuses: they said the Special Branch felt that we were a security threat, and stuff like that.
So finally, we had to take them to court. The Home Minister Badawi and the government. Along the way Badawi became the Prime Minister, but the case went on; we went to the Appeal Court.
And then after the 2008 [general] election, the home minister then offered registration if we withdrew the court case. That’s what we did. We withdrew the case and we got registered. Basically, it was the antipathy of the government about anything socialist.
Juliet: Much like we see across the world. …you shared why it took 10 years to be registered, but even though you weren’t formerly registered you continued to do a lot of work during that time. The party even won two seats during that time on a PKR ticket. Can you share what you guys as a party were working on in those 10 years?
Kumar: OK. In those 10 years from 1998 to 2008, we just continued to do what we were doing before. We were NGOs before, working with marginalised communities – mainly with estate workers, fighting for housing for estate workers, fighting for a monthly wage.
We were also working with ‘peneroka bandar’ communities, ‘squatters’ asking for housing rights.
We also started working with farmers… vegetable farmers tilling government land and getting evicted.
So that kind of work was already there in our NGO base and we just continued.
Meanwhile, we kept building party branches and we expanded to things like healthcare.
In 2004, there was an attempt to start private pharmacies in government hospitals, and we managed to get a coalition of about 80 NGOs to protest that. We formed a Coalition against Healthcare Privatisation. We opposed attempts to start private clinics in government hospitals because we felt that would distract government doctors. We campaigned for more funding for government hospitals. This marked a new phase in our work – working on larger societal issues, not just confined to marginalised communities.
Housing too became a major issue. We began looking at proper housing for people.
We got involved in the opposition to free trade agreements. At that time, the government was interested in an FTA [free trade agreement] with the US. We were part of a group that protested that because we felt that it is not beneficial to Malaysia; it would lead to stronger patent laws, higher cost of medicines and a loss in the capacity of our government to help poorer sectors.
We began advocating for free education up till varsity levels, and environmental issues.
So, the party kind of grew in that way – grew from defending marginalised communities to larger issues.
Juliet: Were you seeing/gaining more support from more people at that time?
Kumar: Yes, but it was and is slow. Because the current thinking in Malaysia is so much influenced by the race-based politicking taking place since the 1950s. If you go on a race-based appeal, you get that particular racial group responding very strongly to you.
When you go on the basis like ours, talking more on socioeconomic lines, it doesn’t get a lot of buy-in because Malaysians have been poisoned by 60 years of ethnic politicking. As a result people think in ethnic terms.
The PSM is going against the tide by saying that we have to look out for the rights and interests of everyone including people who are not from our race as well. And that goes against the grain in the Malaysia that we have become, because of the incessant ethnic politicking.
Juliet: We’re still seeing it today, unfortunately. But after you guys were formerly registered, 2011, that was when really serious things happened: the state clamped down very hard on PSM, more than 30 leading PSM activists were detained and they also used the Emergency Ordinance to put six senior PSM leaders, yourself included, behind bars. You were an MP at that time too. Can you just remind us about what happened at that time then?
Kumar: That was just before Bersih, I think it was Bersih 2 [rally], and it was a very cynical attempt to use the communist bogey to tarnish the name of the Bersih organising committee and then stop Bersih.
We were the very convenient fall-guy. They wanted to use us, the Parti Sosialis, to discredit the Bersih organising committe by accusing the Parti Sosialis as a communist plant in Malaysia.
But it backfired on the government, because the party fought back. Most often, when parties get attacked like this, those who are not arrested lie low and try and escape the net. But in this case the party came out fighting and challenged the government, questioning them – you go to China, you go to Cuba, and have press conferences with their leaders. So, what’s wrong if we talk about them?
At the same time, people did not really buy the lie that we were violent communists. Even the Special Branch knew very well that for the 17 years we had been around before that, from 1994 to 2011… they knew what we were doing: mobilising marginalised communities; we were fighting for their rights; we were preventing and stopping evictions, trying to highlight their issues but never did we use violence. You know, there was never a case of violence; we got arrested for non-violent protests at forced evictions.
I think the government knew fully well; the Special Branch knew fully well what we were – that we were a party committed to helping the poor. We were a left party, but we were working within the ambits of the law. They knew fully well. So this arrest was a very cynical attempt to make use of us, the communist bogey, and try to derail Bersih 2. That is what they tried to do, but they failed.
Juliet: And how was that time for you? I think that was the first time an MP has been detained under an EO [Emergency Ordinance] for like 60 years, and you spent a lot of time in… it was more than 25 days – am I correct? – or about that?
Kumar: Yeah, I was there under the Emergency Ordinance for 25 days and earlier for another seven days. But MPs have been in under the ISA [Internal Security Act] before, you know – Operation Lalang, and in the 1960s Boestamam and others.
Juliet: [They were not detained] under EO; sorry, that’s what I meant.
Kumar: That’s right. The detention was very unpleasant, I would say.
Juliet: Of course.
Kumar: You don’t know what’s going on, and you’re not able to communicate. You can’t even talk to the other people who are in with you; you are in solitary confinement.
And always there is a worry they’re going to clamp down on the whole party, the whole democratic movement… It was very stressful; you’re not sure when it’s going to end. Were we going to end up in multiples of two years of detention? Yes…it wasn’t pleasant at all.
And also, I was angry, being held like that. Because we knew fully well the police were clear that we are not a security threat, we are not a violent group, we never had been. They should have known, you know. But then they are doing this just for politics. I was really quite angry.
Juliet: Of course. Understandably so. But you got through that and now more than two decades since its formation, PSM has actually lasted longer than all the earlier socialist parties and, correct me if I’m wrong, but grassroots work has always been at the cornerstone of your work, of PSM’s work. What would you say are some of the causes that PSM champions?
Kumar: OK, the thing about lasting longer than all other socialist parties is not really true you know; the Parti Rakyat is still around.
Juliet: OK, sorry…
Kumar: They’ve been here for… wow, 65 years really. They are still around.
But yes, grassroot work has always been the cornerstone for PSM and it still is because it is a way for us to touch base, to find out what people are facing. When we work with them, we really understand what’s happening in the bottom 20% or 40% of the population.
But we are also involved in so many other things you know, over the years we have matured. Now climate change is a major thing that we are interested in. We are involved in that, and we think it is a really important issue: there is a climate emergency going on. We wanted to make this our biggest campaign for last year.
But then Covid came along so Covid became the main campaign. We were arguing that we must make sure that no one is denied their basic needs during Covid. You know… housing, food, healthcare. That became our focus for the past year, because the Covid pandemic and the downturn hit different sectors differently.
People who are salaried – for example, government employees – their income is not affected. And people who are working in factories, the formal sector, the government did a lot of things to support wages in the formal sector. But the informal sector workers were really badly affected. You know, the daily paid, the people working in small stalls in the coffee shops – they are the ones who are really affected. We have argued for better support for them.
Housing is another major issue we are focusing on at present because I think that affects so many people. And housing has become so commodified in this country. Think about it, in the 1960s or the 70s a person coming from the rural area to work in the town would just go to a vacant plot of land, like former mining land, and build his own house with the help of friends or family. He would not have to take a loan from the bank. That is not possible now; now you have to get a loan to buy a house from a developer. And you get into a debt for the next 20 years.
And for families whose income is RM2,000 or RM3,000 a month, a payment of RM800 a month is a huge drain on them. And it affects their capacity to provide proper meals and proper education for the next generation.
The commodification of housing has marginalised the poorer people in our society even further because their meagre income now has to be split to pay for housing as well; otherwise, they lose their houses, right? Overpriced housing is a major issue in Malaysia; it really aggravates inequalities in our society.
Juliet: When you were elected to succeed Dr Nasir Hashim – this was in 2019 – you pledged you would go full steam ahead in highlighting climate change, and you’ve been alluding to that a lot. Why is that such an important aspect of PSM’s work now.
Kumar: Well, I think, you know, climate change is a reality, and it’s going to affect food production, it’s going to affect the ocean level, it’s going to cause more extreme weather events.
When these things happen, it will affect the poorest the most. Richer people can relocate to a better place but the poorest have to stay where they are. When the prices of food go up, again, the poorest will be affected. Global warming poses an existential problem for mankind, and we all should be serious about it.
In 2019, we held a roundtable discussion and then came out with a detailed proposal on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Malaysia. It was a proposal for a greener economy, and we were planning to push that campaign for the whole of 2020. But because this Covid thing came along, that had to be postponed.
This year we are focusing on getting the government to declare a climate emergency and to commit to achieve carbon dioxide neutrality by 2025 or 2030 the latest – which means cutting down on coal-generated electricity and on private transport based on petrol.
In these sorts of campaigns, we don’t work as PSM alone. We link up with other NGOs, and try and form a larger network… because that augments both our expertise as well as our reach. So, we’re working on these larger issues in coalition with other groups, NGOs, academicians and sometimes communities.
Juliet: And I’m curious, you know, if you’ve seen people, particularly young people’s interest in socialism and I guess an alternative view on society. Are you seeing that at all?
Kumar: Yes, we’re seeing that. A lot of young people are joining us and it is not very surprising, you know. I think we have become a very unkind society to young people – for young people now face a lot of obstacles.
First of all, education has become a commodity and many of them end up with huge debts. About 50% of our young now go to some kind of college for a diploma or degree, and they come out with debts – RM50,000 or much higher depending on their course.
Then, when they graduate, they find that there are not enough good jobs – 50% of them have a tertiary education but only 20% of the jobs available at any given time require a diploma or a degree. There are many more unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. So many graduates are forced to take up jobs which don’t really meet their qualifications and at a lower pay.
Meantime, those who manage to get jobs that require a diploma or a degree, find that it is an employers’ market because there are so many unemployed graduates looking for jobs. They cannot demand a higher pay or better terms, so their wages are quite suppressed.
High debts, suppressed wages but the cost of accommodation has gone up. Even if you don’t buy a house, you want to rent a room in KL, with the commodification of housing and the speculation in land, a room can cost RM500 a month or more.
Housing used to be a need. Now it has become an investment. Richer people buy two, three or more apartments and houses as their investments for the future. And in so doing, they promote the building of even more high-end properties and that drives up the value of land, so this again affects the young people.
Some young people are beginning to question what is going on: the country has become richer, our GDP is going up, our per capita is going up – our per capita in real terms is now 11 times higher than it was in 1970 – but, as a young person, I’m having more trouble than before.
This is intrinsically linked to the fact that so much of the wealth in this society is going to the top 0.01%. The billionaire class is taking so much of the wealth that society creates.
The people at the bottom are now squeezed. The young people are now living in a society that has made them precarious. Even if they get jobs, they are often contractual jobs, not jobs with any permanence.
It is actually criminal, you know. I mean, we are now the richest and most productive society that humankind has seen, yet we cannot share this wealth with our young people. We can’t share this wealth with the bottom 50% of our population, and we are pushing them into a very precarious, uncertain lives.
So, the only way out for the young actually is to join a socialist party … and question how the wealth that we are creating is it being used. Should it not be used in a better way?
I think there’s no other way really, for young people. I mean if they have insight into what’s happening, they have to join us. They have to join the socialists; maybe not our party but they’ve got to join a people’s movement that questions the inordinate power that wealth has given the billionaires. And the young people need to work towards restructuring society in a way that is fair to more people.
Juliet: Definitely. And how do you see PSM itself playing a role in helping the youth in building alliances between the left, progressive and also democratic forces. We’re going to need everybody in this kind of fight, right?
Kumar: Yes, the PSM sees itself as a catalyst, as an enabler and not necessarily the leader you know… We want to promote discussion, awareness and we’ll be happy to see other pro-people groups coming up – either NGOs or other political parties – so that it [the movement] becomes more national, a more wide-based progressive movement that puts people’s interests before profits, that says, look, there’s too much of corporate control over the political process.
Even now in Malaysia, though we are not as bad as the US, all the political parties get money from the big corporations. And we think that’s wrong: it undermines democracy.
We should push for public funding of the political process. Because once you publicly fund parties, then the political parties don’t need to turn to the big businesses for money, and they can be more independent of big businesses. This is one of things that the left has got to do.
We see our role not as the boss of the left, you know, but as a friend, as an enabler, as a catalyst, and we will be happy to see more groups coming in. And maybe, at some point along the line, we can form a progressive coalition with a strong electoral appeal – because ultimately, we need to have power in the legislature to bring about the right policies, bring about the right laws to protect people and to protect the environment.
Juliet: You’ve been speaking on power and the legislature. What is your current relationship with the current government, with Perikatan Nasional? How would you describe that?
Kumar: Not much of a relationship, really. I mean, it is about the same as with the BN [Barisan Nasional] before. We need to contact the PN, we need to lobby them, we need to talk with them about issues, as they are the government in power right now. But we’re not ‘pally pally’ with them because we’re not on the same page.
With the PH [Pakatan Harapan], it was a bit different: a lot of the PH people were activists, were with us in the various campaigns we have had. So we have more of a personal relationship with several of the people in Amanah, PKR, and the DAP.
With the PN, it is back to BN days, we don’t really know these people. But we need to deal with them. Because they are in a position of power and we have to bring our issues up to them. It is … an official kind of relationship.
Juliet: OK. I have to ask you this. How is PSM gearing towards GE15 [the next general election]? Are there some plans in place that you can share with us?
Kumar: I think GE15 is going to be a nightmare for all of us. It is so complicated now, and it doesn’t look like political parties are motivated by higher principles or have well-formed long-term programmes for the country. Everyone seems to be just going for power, whatever it takes! Well, for us as a political party, we have to take part in the GE. It would send the wrong messages if we didn’t.
But it is going to be difficult to do well unless we are part of a coalition. So, we are exploring the possibility of having an electoral pact with Pakatan Harapan – they were our former partners before. And we might have that if the terms are OK but it [the pact] is still being negotiated.
PSM is quite a democratic party, so this has also got to be negotiated within PSM itself. Because there are some people in PSM who are fiercely independent, don’t want us to compromise on issues and they have a right to canvass their position. So, it is still work in progress.
But we will be taking part, perhaps in an electoral pact with the PH or, if that doesn’t work, as independents.
Juliet: OK, still a lot of planning going on, I suppose – not quite sure what’s going to happen. Like you say, it’s going to be a messy GE, I think, coming up. But GE15 aside, what is PSM’s plan for the next 10 years? I know you’ve been in discussions as a party – what are your plans for the next 10 years?
Kumar: Well, the next 10 years will be to grow the alternative. Even now most people don’t quite recognise that the PSM is significantly different from the existing parties: the PN, the BN, the PH. People tend to see us as a more grassroots version of PH – more hardworking, more consistent, that kind of thing.
But I think we are more than that. Our vision for Malaysia is different from PH’s. PH is still within the neoliberal fold. They identify corruption as the major issue in Malaysia and poor governance. They believe that once corruption and poor governance is settled, everything will be fine.
But the PSM’s analysis is deeper. Of course, corruption is an issue, governance is an issue, but the issue that the other parties do not take into account is that the whole world – not only in Malaysia, the whole world – is under the (sway) of the top 0.01%, the billionaires. And they have structured the whole global economy in a way that puts a lot of countries in Asia and Africa in a disadvantaged position.
Take, for example, things like wage suppression. Our factory worker in Bayan Lepas will get about one sixth or one eighth of the wages of the same factory worker producing semiconductor parts in Germany or the US. Same process, same number of parts per hour, yet our worker will get one eighth the pay.
That is not a problem of low productivity. The World Bank will tell you that you are poor because you are not productive, but they are not being honest with us. It is not productivity. It is … the global system [that] has been structured in a particular way.
If you are a firm in America and you want to outsource the production of some of your components, you get a businessman in Malaysia, a businessman in Thailand, a businessman in Vietnam, you give them the machines, you give them the technology, and they produce the components, and you buy it back from them.
And because they can only sell it to you, you can control their prices. So, you price it at one fifth or one eighth what you have to pay in America. And there is where you make tons of money there. American workers lose jobs; of course, Malaysian workers and Thai workers get jobs but the wages would be so much lower.
And if the Malaysian boss challenges the American boss and says, “Why are you paying me so low I want a bit more, the American company will say, “Look, I can go to Thailand.” Either you give me at the rate I’m asking you or I’m going to reduce orders.
And the Malaysian boss who has built the factory, who has maybe taken bank loans – he is now dependent on this contract with the US MNC [multinational corporation]. He is a cog in the global chain; he depends on the global chain. He cannot say, “OK, I’m going to sell this component to Korea, South Korea or Taiwan” – because it is a component specific for the product being made by the US MNC. Anyway, the component is probably protected by patents and all that. So, he’s tied into this global chain though being unfairly treated.
Now this is the kind of thing that the Pakatan and the BN don’t quite understand – this kind of structural imbalances where there is massive transfer of wealth to the billionaire class due to wage suppression in Asia and Africa.
That means though Malaysian workers work, a lot of the wealth that they produce is not given to them as wages. But it is taken as cheap inputs into products of MNCs and then sold all over the world at high prices. I think the DAP and the PKR don’t recognise this sort of imbalances.
So we are more than just a hardworking version of the PH, more than grassroots work… yes, we are grassroots, but we also have a different vision, a different analysis. For us, handling corruption alone is not sufficient. Of course, we’ve got to handle corruption, we’ve got to have better governance – yes, all that is true.
But we have also got to work in the longer run on recalibrating the global economic structure – and that we can’t do alone. We got to do it with the Group of 77; we got to do it through Asean; we’ve got to lobby within Asean, for example, and say, let’s stop this race to the bottom.
We’re all cutting corporate taxes because we want to get FDI [foreign direct investments]. But if we cut corporate taxes, do we have money available for social welfare programmes? Of course, it is then limited. We’ve got to do these kinds of things to increase government revenue in all Asean countries so that we can all give a better deal for the poorer sectors. This sort of awareness is not there in the other parties. And the general public don’t recognise that we have these other dimensions.
So, I think in the next 10 years… we’ve got to tell people: look, our vision is a bit different, from the vision of the BN, and the vision of the PN, and the vision of Pakatan. We see there is a need to recalibrate the global economic system; we’ ve got to rein in the power of the billionaire class; we’ve got to become a movement that people recognise as different. Not just a part of PH.
And we’ve to build that movement to something that can have real clout in our Parliament and in our state assemblies – to build the political movement not only within PSM but outside PSM as well – a progressive movement for the 99% that is for people before profits. That’ll be our vision for the next 10 years.
Juliet: That is an amazing vision Dr Jeyakumar, and I think after going through 2020 the 99% of us do know that a severe revamp is in order, and so we wish you well, and if anyone is interested to find out more about the work that you do, the best thing to do is to head to the website: partisosialis.org
Kumar: Yes, we also got a YouTube site as well.
Juliet: Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr Jeyakumar.
Kumar: Thank you Juliet.
Transcript by: Janice Fredah Ti
Produced and presented by: Juliet Jacobs