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What will it take for PSM to win more public support?

The party needs to get more people to accept its counter-hegemonic narrative


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First of all, I would like to apologise for disappointing you with our [the Socialist Party of Malaysia’s or PSM’s] dismal election performance these past six years.

We know that many of our friends get quite upset with the results. We too were, initially – for we believed our efforts on the ground would win us many votes. We were mistaken.

But we have come to see that [Italian philosopher Antonio] Gramsci’s analysis of society speaks to our predicament.

Gramsci said the ideology of the ruling class becomes the dominant ideology of the entire society. He termed it the hegemonic ideology of society. People make decisions based on the ideology perpetuated by the ruling class.

In Malaysia, for the past fifty years, ever since the demolition of PSRM [Malaysian People’s Socialist Party] and the Labour Party by ISA [Internal Security Act] arrests in the 1960s and 70s, the people have been only exposed to ethnic-based politics.

So, when a party like PSM puts forth a different, class-based analysis, most people do not understand it. It sounds foreign.

According to Gramsci, it is only when a counter-hegemonic narrative, as put forward by PSM, gains acceptance among a significant portion of the people, will the party start doing better at the polls. He termed this process a “War of Position”.

What is this counter-hegemonic narrative that PSM should be putting forward? It has five pillars. I will share with you the first, to give you an idea.

This first pillar is that attracting foreign investments and raising the gross domestic product (GDP) is not enough. The distribution of the wealth created to all levels of society is even more important.

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Malaysia has done very well in raising its GDP. Over the past 50 years, our GDP has increased 24-fold in real terms. That means after correcting for inflation, GDP has gone up 24 times.

But the mean wage of factory workers has only gone up 1.4 times in real terms over these 50 years.

This is because of the model of development adopted in Malaysia. Malaysia relies on foreign direct investments to create jobs. We compete with Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

All these countries try to be as business-friendly as possible. And all of us are keeping the cost of labour as low as possible to attract investments. That is why the real median wage of factory workers only went up 1.4 times over 50 years in a country whose GDP increased 24-fold.

Another way of sharing the wealth of society is by subsidising public services like transport and healthcare and implementing social protection schemes like a universal old age pension.

But our government says it cannot expand the social safety net because the government deficit is too big.

The budget deficit is so large because Malaysia has lowered its corporate tax rate from 40% of profits in 1988 to the current 24%. This, again, is linked to our model of development.

We are in competition with other Asean countries to be business-friendly. Thailand charges a corporate tax rate of only 19% of profits. So we are caught in a race to the bottom.

As a result, government revenue has decreased from 25% of GDP in the 1980s to its current 15%. One of the main aims of a progressive government would be to gradually shift the distribution of national income to benefit the 99%.

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We need to articulate these points in language that ordinary people can understand. We also need to delineate the steps that should be taken to extricate ourselves from this mess.

I will not go into the other four pillars, as that will take up too much time.

Apart from this “War of Position”, that is aimed at mobilising people around this counter-hegemonic narrative, PSM needs to identify and train 30 to 40 candidates over the next 10 years.

[These should be] individuals who have gone to the ground so that they understand the various problems that the bottom 40% and middle 40% of households face. Individuals who understand and are able to explain PSM’s five-point counter narrative. Candidates who are prepared to let the party intrude into their financial matters.

PSM plans to set up a committee that will audit the financial status of all our elected candidates every six months.

In today’s world, politicians face a huge risk of being influenced or bought by corporate interests. You do not have to go and ask for bribes. They will knock at your door! The business elite will seek you out and offer them.

So the prospective PSM candidate must be prepared to accept the party’s help to meet this challenge.

There are some in the party who say this is too intrusive.

I reply by saying that 60 years ago, being revolutionary meant going into the jungle and putting your life on the line. Today, being revolutionary only means putting aside your ego and individualism to allow the party to help you handle the ever-present risk of being influenced by the billionaire class.

READ MORE:  PSM co-founder Rani tirelessly strives for the oppressed

We are now in the process of identifying potential candidates. Please encourage idealistic individuals whom you come across to find out more about PSM.

There are friends who ask whether it is possible for PSM to build a progressive third force in Malaysia over the next 10 to 15 years.

To some of them, I quote the Baghavad Gita – Arjuna’s conversation with Lord Krishna before the start of a war. Krishna said that each person must carry out his duty steadfastly.

The historical role of PSM, as the largest left party in the country, is to hold up the banner of non-ethnic, progressive politics. This banner should provide a rallying point for everyone in Malaysia who is fed up with the race-based politicking and the persistent economic hardship faced by the majority of the people.

Will we rally enough people to our cause? Can we build a multi-racial electoral slate? Will we succeed? That depends how clearly we are able to project our counter-hegemonic narrative. Only time will tell.

And we will need your help. Do attend our conferences and congresses to help us refine our analysis. Share our material with people you think will be interested. Keep a lookout for idealistic individuals who can be fashioned into good pro-people candidates. And keep coming for our fundraising events.

Let us together build a better society.

Salam perjuangan!

This was Dr Jeyakumar’s address at a PSM high tea event on 21 April.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Jeyakumar Devaraj
Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member and contributor, served as Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput from 2008 to 2018. A respiratory physician who was awarded a gold medal for community service, he is also a secretariat member of the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation and chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.
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