Radicalism in Malaysia: past and present

From January 15 to 26, five Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members participated in an exposure tour of Malaysia, hosted by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

Day 1: Arriving in Kuala Lumpur and Bersih rallies

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur late on Friday evening and stayed in dormitories that served as a training facility for the Catholic Church.

That night, PSM members told us about the Bersih rallies, which have been among the largest demonstrations to have taken place in Malaysia.

Bersih translates as “clean”. The rallies are organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections to demand transparent governance and a strengthening of real democracy in parliamentary democracy.

Since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, the same right-wing conservative coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front) has held government.

There have been a series of Bersih rallies, starting in 2007, and continuing in 2011, 2012 and 2015, each time bringing more thousands out on the streets.

As we walked down one of the streets Bersih 4 had rallied on in August 2015, PSM members showed us a particularly well-known photo of Bersih 4 protestors on the same street facing off against riot police. They then explained that police used tear gas on the crowd, which also involved shooting tear gas into the lower floor of a nearby hospital.

The Bersih 4 rallies were declared illegal, but that did not deter the large crowds who participated. There were a number of arrests during the rallies.

One thing that became apparent talking to PSM members and other left activists: they attend rallies expecting police violence and violence from right-wing thugs hired by the ruling political party. Key organisers also participate expecting to be singled out for arrest during the rally or getting a knock on their door afterwards.

One of the first questions asked of Resistance members was: “How many times have you been arrested?” PSM members were surprised to be told it was not common to be arrested or even detained at demonstrations in Australia.

One thing is certain though, to expect that type of response from the government and police, yet still organise and participate regardless, takes conviction in one's politics, trust in other members of your organisation and a lot of guts.

Day 2: History and politics of Malaysia

On Day 2 of the tour, PSM members gave a presentation on the history and politics of Malaysia and the key issues affecting Malaysians today. This explained some of the difficulties that the PSM faces today.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied Malaya from 1941 to 1945. For three weeks between Japanese surrender and the installation of the British Military Administration, the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) filled the power vacuum.

The Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MCAJA), organised by CPM members, recruited in this period. By 1945 their armed strength exceeded 6000 members. At this time the MCAJA began reprisals against collaborators in the Malay Police Force and civilian population.

Despite many in the rank and file advocating revolution, the leadership surrendered to the British and agreed to disarm. For many, this was a lost opportunity. The CPM then began to build a broad coalition to achieve independence by legal means.

Due to poor economic conditions at the time, the British Military Administration was faced with strikes and demonstrations in which the CPM played an active role. The CPM also gained influence in the Malayan Democratic Union and the Malay Nationalist Party.

In 1948, the British declared a state of emergency and outlawed the trade union federations. The police were given increased powers of arrest and punishment, including the death penalty, which could take place without trial.

Hundreds of CPM members were arrested and their organisation was declared illegal. Party members were forced into the jungle where they formed the Malayan People's Anti-British Army. They also engaged in intimidation and assassination of civilians to coerce material aid, although these actions led to the erosion of popular support.

To prevent peasants aiding the guerrilla fighters, in the mid-1950s about 500,000 people — roughly 10% of the population at the time — were relocated and forced into compounds surrounded by fences, barbed wire and police. An additional 650,000 workers, who were already working in mines and estates, were “regrouped” into similar compounds.

In the late 1950s the Emergency Regulations were withdrawn. The country, now called Malaysia, gained independence from Britain in 1957, and in 1960 the Emergency Period was officially declared to be over.

Communist guerrilla fighters continued to organise across the border in Thailand and China and it was not until 1989 that they officially surrendered and laid down their arms.

The Malaysian government has publicly accused the PSM of being “communist” and has sought to stymie its activities, making it harder for the party to campaign and recruit.

The PSM's membership has been predominantly Indian Malays. Only recently due to particular campaigns and economic hardships, has it started to recruit Chinese Malays and ethnic Malays.

[To read more about the formation of the PSM and their work today, read part 2 in next week's issue of Green Left Weekly.]