How long does it take for you to unseat an incumbent member of parliament? About two general elections, if you are Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj.
The good doctor is perhaps Parti Sosialis Malaysia's (PSM) best export and we know him for defeating MIC strongman S. Samy Vellu during the 2008 general election. He has retained the Sungai Siput seat since that time.
But the political landscape has also changed since 2008, now with a more fractious opposition, and with tensions brewing between PSM and Pakatan Harapan, defeat is on the cards for Jeyakumar, who has worked in the constituency since 1977.
Our conversation, edited for brevity, follows.
Let's talk about the cooperation between Pakatan Harapan and PSM. Could you bring us up to speed on what has been going?
Nothing much at the moment. They have yet to talk to us. I mean from the beginning they have not talked to us. When they formed Pakatan Harapan, a year and half ago, we weren't invited to the pre-formation meeting and we were not invited to join them.
After that, during seat negotiations, we were not offered to take a few seats. Nothing. So even up to now, nothing has taken place.
How do you explain this: the coalition has allowed to you to defend your Sungai Siput seat, but under a PKR flag. On the other hand, you have come out to say that this time, you will contest under the PSM banner. It's very confusing because it seems someone didn’t get the memo?
PH fully understands this and I think the coalition is still trying its luck. But, again, no one has come to talk to us about it. As for PSM, the party has already made a decision to contest on its own logo and the reason is we are presenting a different analysis of the Malaysian situation, an alternative.
And we need a bit of branding on that. We just can’t be subsumed under Pakatan, because we are with coalition in as far as bringing the BN down. We are with the opposition on that and they know it pretty well.
But, as I have highlighted in my discussions, with the way in which the party looks at the whole global situation, on matters such as the TPPA and global economics, very few from Pakatan see that.
I think most of them from DAP and PKR don’t see it that way – they take the existing world order as a given and it’s something that is okay, whereas we are quite critical with the way wealth is distributed. So we are quite different from Pakatan in that respect.
And, we need to put forward this analysis to the Malaysian public.
Right. This brings to mind two questions. First, why did it take you so long to contest under your own flag? PSM was officially registered in 2008.
Yeah, we got it after the 2008 elections. In 2013, we wanted to contest on our own logo but Anwar Ibrahim asked us to be with them under the “Ini Kalilah” banner. Also a lot of our supporters urged us to go along with them.
Because the deal was if we didn’t do it, we will have to put someone against you. By then, Nasir (Hashim) and I already made posters with the PSM logo and we had to throw it all away, around 20,000 posters for Sungai Siput.
So we were actually very keen on going with PSM but we were persuaded otherwise.
Which leads me to my second question, why still bother working out something with Pakatan when they have repeatedly snubbed you? Isn’t that a weird relationship?
No. I think it's a very principled relationship. From the beginning, we have been saying Barisan Nasional has become toxic and it cannot be rehabilitated, that the culture of nepotism and corruption and even race politics is too deeply ingrained and you need political change – that remains a fundamental issue. That has always been the main issue.
So just because you get snubbed by someone, you join the other side? That's not principled. But the thing is, as time has gone on, I am not sure how much better Pakatan will be, because some of the things they are doing is not so good, in terms of governance.
But you think, changing and dislodging a guy who has been there for so long, to show Malaysians it can be done… So once that first change is made, other changes can follow suit. So we still believe going against BN and bringing a new government in would be the way to go.
That Pakatan has not been nice to us doesn’t change doesn’t change the fact we need a new government.
But isn’t it ironic that the guy, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is now leading the opposition is also the longest serving prime minister? How does that affect your relations with the coalition?
It makes us less willing to join them, right? See, if Pakatan had taken up my suggestion two years ago to study the rural folk – and it’s something they could have canvassed the last two years, especially the rural areas – to reassure the Malays that Pakatan understood their interests and would look after them, and that Umno has actually become a problem and not a solution – then we wouldn’t have needed Mahathir, right?
You turn to Mahathir because you need the Malay votes but if Pakatan had done what we asked them to do… this just shows the lack of the coalition’s understanding of the issue.
Let’s look at 2013, for example. That elections there was a swing of Malay votes away from then Pakatan Rakyat to Umno. PR got more Malay votes in 2008 then 2013, but they won big because of the Chinese swing. That was massive, but the Malays swung against them.
So when we analysed that Malay swing, we found it was the perception that Pakatan would somehow not look after their interests at that time, that the opposition would compromise some of their interests.
That fear is there and that fear is real, and they have not addressed that fear.
If they took up what we’ve suggested and go and really look into problems affecting the Malays and talk about these things, Pakatan would have allayed that fear to a large extent. But they didn’t do it.
I understand why they got Mahathir because they think that can bring in some Malay votes. But it may not be that helpful.
So, what’s different from GE13? What do you think will influence outcomes in the coming election?
Well, Najib Razak has outplayed Pakatan, right? The coalition was on a positive roll and if not for the fact of PAS splitting away… but I think he played the religion card well and managed to entice PAS away, effectively splitting Pakatan.
So he has created a situation where he is in a good position and he is going to do well. I fear he might get back his two-third majority. But I hope I’m wrong. I could be wrong and I hope I am wrong, but he just might do that.
Let’s talk about PAS for a bit. How will that party affect your chances of defending your seat? They have expressed intentions of running as well.
Sungai Siput is a marginal seat and it’s a seat where I only won by some 2,000 votes. So if any major party comes in and puts up a candidate, then it's going to be quite tough. Even if PAS puts a candidate, it will be tough.
Because the party has a certain pull and if you put a candidate and you have a pull and can take away 2,000 to 3,000 voters, then I am done for. This is a very difficult seat.
Now, PAS has its own coalition: Gagasan Sejahtera. What about cooperating with them?
But will it be the principled thing to do? For PSM, the long-term is more important than the short-term. You don’t compromise your principles because of the short-term.
I think the kind of policies that PAS is pushing forward now – a very exclusive set of religious policies – is toxic for the country. This is a very narrow interpretation of Islam, and a very dogmatic one, too.
But you got to inclusive. This is a multi-religious country, and I find the Amanah approach much better. So, no, we just can’t simply support PAS just for a seat. No way. That's completely out of the question.
But do you think the electorate is ready for non-communal politics, especially the kind that PSM is espousing?
Not this time round. But we are working on it. And it will take time for people to understand what we are about.
Malaysians are so used to ethnic politics that they can’t quite figure out the alternatives, and class-based politics has been submerged to a certain degree because it was there in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
So, it will definitely take some time to build it back up and we are slowly doing that.
Interestingly, you are one of the few MPs – or probably the only one – running a “budget deficit”. Do you think Sungai Siput appreciates someone dedicated to his constituency?
Yeah, I do run a “budget deficit” where my family and friends have to help out from time to time. The people of Sungai Siput, I believe, are smart and they know what I have been up to. They know that I have not made money from being MP for them and they appreciate that.
But would that draw them to vote for you this time round?
There are so many factors that make people vote, and different things will appeal to different communities. For the Chinese, you take a very strong position against BN/Umno and they will vote.
But not for the Malays. They are more ambivalent. They remember what Umno has done for them and they still see the party as a protector. All these sentiments will play a role.
Then there’s DAP.
If DAP runs, they will break my vote. They ran against me in 2004, because I stood under PKR. But DAP ran against me because I ran in 1999 under DAP.
In 2004, we were prepared to go under DAP but they wanted us to join the party. We declined because we were waiting for PSM to be registered, so we couldn’t join.
They told us they couldn’t lend their flag anymore and PKR offered theirs in return. But DAP still put up a candidate. Anyway, that candidate lost his deposit and I believe DAP is still a little afraid that might happen again.
Fact is, if any of them from Pakatan runs – be it PKR or DAP – against me, then Sungai Siput is going to BN. And even if I stand aside and let one of them take it, they can’t win, even if PAS is out of the picture.
Sungai Siput is a seriously tough seat and I have been able to hold on to it because we've been there for so long and we've helped people individually. The Malay areas, each time it floods, we go in and give out some handouts. And they have seen us there for so long.
You can’t just parachute in with your logo and try and win. Even myself, when I contested in straight fights, it wasn’t easy. I probably win by 1,000 to 2,000 votes or so? Look, if DAP goes in, they are not going to get the Malay vote.
If PKR goes in, they have a better chance than DAP but PKR has got no grassroots; hardly any kind of machinery.
We have more than 30 years of grassroots work there and it counts for something. We’ve helped many get their Socso, medical help, welfare aid… we got their ICs for them. So the perception about us is a very positive one. Even if people give them money, they will not vote against me; they’ll still vote for me.
That’s why Samy Vellu was holding on to the seat for so long. It was so difficult to get it from him.
How did you beat him by the way?
We’ve been there since 1977, since I was a student, and we did a lot of work like setting up a tuition centre, among others.
But, Samy Vellu in 2008 made some very arrogant statements about Hindraf, and that cost him a lot of votes. If he sat tight and didn’t talk too much, he might have won but because he criticised Hindraf and pissed off the Indians, that played to his disadvantage.
Because during that election, MIC was bussing in some 4,000 voters. They had people outside, Indians from outside, coming and voting in Sungai Siput, and these people only showed up on election day.
But when he said these things, he made them angry. So even the Indians who were bussed in didn’t really vote for him. I think some even voted for me.
Since you represent a semi-rural seat, what issues deserve to be highlighted?
Housing is a big issue. There are a lot of squatters, so that's one major issue. Small farmers, especially Chinese farmers, without grants to their land. Estate housing pension, minimum wage, and unemployment.
These are issues I have been raising time and again. The recent poverty survey that we did grew out of my experience, because I noticed so many people coming and asking me for money. Then when we did a survey on that, we found out more that there were more problems there.
So we did the survey on Sungai Siput in 2015 and we studied those problems. We even did a survey on Malay kampungs and the PAS guys know about this because we went through them to access these villages.
It will be interesting to see what PAS will do because they know what we’ve done with the survey and all that, and they know some of our ideas. I don’t think they disagree with us because there’s something for them.
But they are under a particular party and under party discipline. So it’s difficult for them to not support their party. Some of them have told me, “Dr, we like you. But if our party puts a candidate, we have to vote for him.”
It’s good to know that after nine years, they like you and appreciate the work. To me, that’s good enough.
Curious, how are the Bumiputera faring in these rural areas. Have they been neglected?
It's not neglected because there are lot of programmes for them. Just that the programmes have been hijacked.
The programmes that were set up by Abdul Razak were quit good when they started because the government agencies were handling them, but after Mahathir wanted to create a market for the entrepreneurial class, all of these were hijacked.
So we saw a change from the welfare model of the state to a business model. Back then, the programmes were given directly by government. It was only after Mahathir's time in the ‘90s where all these privatisations occurred to create this class of Malay capitalist and that is what has happened.
Tell us more about the peneroka bandar that keep cropping up in your studies and research. Who are they?
We call them urban pioneers. It’s the word we use for squatters. So in Sungai Siput, there are about eight kampungs, or urban areas where people have built houses either on government land or private land, like for the past 50 years, and now as the town has been developed, these houses are under threat, and the owners are asked to move out.
Most of them are poor people and can't afford to buy houses outside, so what we've been arguing is that, existing urban squatter areas should be made into kampungs, and the government can easily do it.
So for kampungs on public land, the government may agree to give the owners the lots. But later on, there might be a major project that runs through their neighbourhood, such as a road, and the government might have to break down their houses. So usually the government will tell them, “There's an empty lot over there, you can go and build.”
Do that, but also give them grants to the land because these are poor people and you give them an empty lot and ask them to build their houses there, most of them can’t do it. They don’t have the money to do it. What more asking them to buy a house outside of the neighbourhood? They can’t.
So, the way to solve this is by giving them land grants but also go one step further by giving these poor people a RM5,000 loan to build their homes and tend to urgent repairs with the condition that they slowly pay the government back.
Because, the people staying in squatters are the poorest of the urban people. So once you give them a grant, you solve their housing problem. You give them security once the grant is theirs and with the money, they can invest in their houses, repair them, and redo the roofs.
That will be a very good anti-poverty move for the country.
And how has the state government responded?
Silence. They don’t want to respond.
But you are one man from a relatively small party. How do you escalate these problems to the higher-ups?
We are trying. So far, we managed to get lots for 43 families because that area was blocking the KTM expansion. Another area we got grants for about 24 people in the land that they are staying.
But the other seven areas, they haven’t responded. So we have to keep pushing, try to make it an issue, get people to join us in pressing the state government to deal with this issue.
It seems you really do have your work cut out for you. I am curious to know, despite all the effort that you've put in, what happens if you lose this time? Because there's a high chance you just might.
Life goes on. A lot of PSM people are working the ground without being MPs or assemblymen. So, we don't have to be one to work the ground. We will carry on.
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