Sometimes, when local politics has run out of ideas and senses, you will be tempted to roll up your sleeve and plunge an arm, shoulder deep, right down to the bottom of the barrel, hoping that against all odds, you will draw out gold.
That is perhaps the case with Parti Sosialis Malaysia. Formed in 1998, it has always been “one of those fellas” lurking in the shadows, an acquired taste for people living on the political fringes. “We started out as a vanguard party” says A. Sivarajan, the party secretary-general, out of his office in an old quarter of Brickfields, near KL Sentral. Rent is only around RM1,500.
Socialism brings about memories of one of the country’s favourite bogeyman: communism. So the first decade after the party’s inception, PSM was labelled a national security threat, even though then, their membership consisted mostly of poor plantation workers.
It contested its first general election in 1999 under the DAP flag and fielded Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, a medical doctor. He battled S. Samy Vellu for the Sungai Siput parliamentary seat and lost by some 5,000 votes. It would take two more elections for Jeyakumar to unseat Samy Vellu and since 2008, the doctor has been the man to beat.
Ironically, 2008 was also the year that the party was allowed to register itself with the Registrar of Societies. The context here was the reforms initiated by the then prime minister Abdullah Badawi.
Today, PSM has about 2,000 card-carrying members. “But as for those we are continuously working with and those in areas which we mobile, that could range anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 ‘members’ throughout the whole country,” says Sivarajan.
According to party estimates, demography wise, it consists of 60% Indians, 20% Malays and the rest being Chinese or others.
It also touts to have roughly a quarter of its members who are under 30 years old. Among its younger ranks is lawyer K. S. Bawani. Most people know her for being told to “listen, listen, listen” when she was university student a few years ago.
The party’s youth chief and activist is Khalid Ismath. Two years ago, he was slapped with 14 charges – 11 under the Communications and Multimedia Act and three charges under the Sedition Act – for his Facebook posts on the Johor royalty.
He is not the only to run afoul of the law. Party president Nasir Hashim was arrested and detained without trial under the defunct Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) for 15 months during Operation Lalang.
Jeyakumar was also arrested in June 2011 after being accused of trying to wage war against the king and revive Communism. He was arrested under the Emergency Ordinance, which allows for indefinite detention without trial and he remained in solitary confinement until July 2011, spending a total of 28 days in detention.
But the doctor is an endearing MP. He is always working the ground and tirelessly addresses the problems of the marginalised. He is also a recipient of the Malaysian Medical Association Award for Community Service. Needless to say, he is PSM’s best export and one of the few MPs who actually functions as one.
That’s the problem with PSM: public relations. While its rivals – Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan, both coalitions of parties – have sharpened their rhetoric and strategy, PSM does not seem to be doing much except for, well, highlighting the plight of the poor and marginalised.
Then there’s this issue of espousing communism and values that are deemed antithetical to Malaysian political culture. Not to mention seditious, too. Thing is, elections are not won with mere goodwill and our previous polls show that.
One example during GE13 was Mak Khuin Weng who ran as an independent candidate for the Bukit Gasing state seat in Selangor. In an ideal world, his campaign – against violations of developmental rules and land titles being wrongly given out in thousands of homes in Petaling Jaya – would have landed him a seat on the state assembly. He ended up losing his elections deposit.
Unlike previous elections, PSM is going to at it alone this time and not under the banner of Pakatan Harapan, after a fallout between the party and its contemporaries. It claims to have been snubbed by the coalition after the 13th general election.
“So we are moving independently, we have identified which seats we are standing and have started to work on them. But we are still open to talks with the opposition,” quips Sivarajan.
Among the opposition, no one else is taking this well than the DAP. It wants to wrest Sungai Siput by fielding a candidate and the reason: as PSM is contesting in DAP-held seats, it will contest in Sungai Siput.
PSM has yet to make clear which seats it wants to contest. On the cards are the state seats of Seri Muda, Semenyih, Kota Damansara and Port Klang, all located in Selangor. It did express desire to contest five parliamentary seats, among them Cameron Highlands and Subang.
None of these are held by the DAP, which came close to winning the Cameron Highlands seat in GE13. But PSM deserves to contest Cameron Highlands because it has put in the work since 2004.
The DAP on the other hand seemingly has abandoned the constituency after the loss. It does not have an official office and M. Manogaran, the candidate, has not been seen post-GE13.
However not everyone in the party is in accord with dismissing PSM. Boo Cheng Hau the assemblyman for Skudai in Johor, urged Pakatan to get the party on board. He believes the party’s grassroots work would help the pact.
He is right. Aside from PSM, the only parties with robust grassroots machineries are Umno and PAS. The latter also had a fall out with DAP when it was part of the defunct Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
The socialist party wants to be the alternative this general election. It requires candidates to declare its assets on a yearly basis. It eschews parachuting a candidate and espouses members to set up an office and work for the community for five years before offering themselves up for candidacy. It also works with the poor and marginalised.
The last bit here sees to define PSM as a party which draws its support from the urban poor. But will the urban rich, a sizeable voting bloc in many of the party's targeted constituencies, feel comfortable with a poor man's party?
“We are offering something different. I can’t say that everyone will support us, but we’ve been welcomed in a way. Some people are looking at us as spoilers; some are not. But I think the mood of ‘Ini Kalilah’ is no longer there because people know Pakatan and they are still not happy with them.
“So some are willing to test us you and that kind of impression is something good. We may not be able to convince the majority to our side, and that’s fine. But we are putting both feet in to come out to promote ourselves are an independent block from the existing ones. That’s good enough. Of course, the bonus is winning seats,” says Sivarajan.
Pundits usually place their bets on ruling coalition Barisan Nasional in the event of a multi-cornered showdown and it is a scenario that the opposition is trying to avoid at all costs.
But given that PSM is adamant on striking out on its own, a three-cornered fight in some of the seats is an eventuality and though it may not win a huge chunk of the votes, it’s good enough to take those precious few that might tip the scales in favour of the opposition. Indeed, winning seats is a bonus at this stage in the game.
If anything PSM’s potential fate reflects three things about the nature of Malaysian elections. First, cash is king. Campaigning is not cheap and to fully maximise your presence, you need a fat purse.
Second, voters are a vacuous lot and this bit is universal (think: Donald Trump and the so-called resurgence of the far-right). In PSM’s case, particularly with Sungai Siput, it will definitely see voters swinging either to MIC or DAP. The sad bit is: it’s not due to a lack of hard work and trying. Some, despite receiving aid and help from PSM, have expressed clear intentions to vote otherwise.
Third, it’s victim to an inequitable voting system. The country’s first-past-the-post system, coupled with the PSM’s limited resources, will not allow many of its fans throughout the country to cast their ballots for the party.
Then you could throw in its socialists leaning into the mix, but that’s not so much of a deal breaker over here – How many Malaysians actually even understand the basic principles of socialism?
What’s unique about PSM is that it is a party driven by and born from ideological principles, so it offers Malaysians some variety come GE14. The question is how far can ideology carry the party forward and whether this is the stuff that is needed to reinvigorate an already quotidian political scene?
Because after all that work of reaching to the bottom of the barrel, you will only want to draw out gold. Imitations will not cut it.
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