Letter from Malaysia

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Elections last month gave opposition parties significant victories. Arutchelvan Subramaniam reports on how the campaign was built.

The twelfth general election in Malaysia, held last month, was a unique event in the history of the country. Unlike the elections of 2004, when the ruling National Unity government returned to office with an enormous mandate, this time around the electorate signalled their utter disillusionment with the government of prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by supporting opposition parties in droves.

Not since the 1960s has the opposition made such massive headway, surpassing even the gains made during the economic crisis of 1999.

While few could have predicted such a momentous victory, that the electorate were utterly dissatisfied with the Badawi government was clear to see. This was, after all, an administration completely out of touch with reality, known for its gimmicks and novelties, but short on substance. It chose to send a Malaysian astronaut to space on a Russian craft, for example, simply to say that a Malaysian citizen had done that, while food prices increased and racial tensions deepened.

In among the celebrations of the opposition parties, the Malaysian left has made a serious return to the political stage. Two members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) won their elections and will be sworn in to the state assembly and parliament respectively.

PSM chair Nasir Hashim won the Kota Damansara assembly seat in the most populous state of Selangor, while Jeyakumar Devaraj caused a huge upset by beating a senior minister and leader of the third largest component party in the National Unity coalition in the state of Perak. It is the first time socialists have won seats in Malaysian parliamentary and state assembly elections since 1964.

While our party remains officially unregistered (having been denied registration several times on the basis of being a "threat to national security"), we have built a significant base among plantation and industrial workers, the urban poor, and progressive student movements, involving ourselves in the day to day struggles of the Malaysian working class.

While other parties are involved in civil and political protests, PSM is the only party built on both the sociopolitical and economic struggles of Malaysians, supporting and organising pickets, strikes and demonstrations among the working class. We have also emerged as a real champion of the plight of the poor, irrespective of race.

It is this grassroots work that helps explain PSM's electoral success. While endorsing a joint opposition manifesto, we also campaigned on a separate seven-point manifesto.

This included, among other things, demanding an end to neoliberal policies (including the privatisation of healthcare and education), the protection of workers' rights, affordable housing for all, and an end to racial and religious politics. We spread this message in many different ways, using mobile vehicles and ceramahs (open speeches), house to house visits, small group meetings, mass leafleting and holding discussions with various community groups.

Everywhere we went we carried our party flag and our official election logo. Our leaflets and manifestos spelled out what we mean by socialism and our central message that the party is a working class party, standing for the interests of the majority of Malaysian people. We also pledged that, once elected, we would form "People's Councils", giving power back to the people to administer the areas in which PSM has been successful.

The party will now meet to decide the best way forward. A code of ethics will be drawn up to clarify the guidelines by which party members should behave in their roles as elected representatives in parliament and state assemblies. More generally, we will seek the best way to establish people's councils to ensure maximum participation by the electorate and to ensure that the people continue to play a critical role in the continuing struggle to build a left alternative in Malaysia.

Arutchelvan Subramaniam is the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Malaysia