Monday, April 22nd, was the birth date of Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia.
Coincidentally, his name was invoked and lampooned by PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia/Pan Islamic Malaysian Party) President, Abdul Hadi Awang, during a ceramah (campaign speech) in Terengganu, the night before. Hadi spoke of how PAS had to ‘save’ Pakatan Rakyat from certain elements, which was his justification for the 7 seats where the Islamist party is at odds with their coalition partner, PKR. He said that PAS cannot work with people who held up posters of Lenin and Stalin, or hung the photo of Karl Marx within the premises of a certain party headquarters. Fundamentally, PAS cannot work with those who held to the communist ideology, which is banned in Malaysia, something he was quick to point out to his audience (which was a touch ironic due to the number of PAS members who have suffered state oppression in the past).
One wonders which party is Hadi referring to. Which seat or candidate is he directing his sarcastic polemics against?
As a keen observer of the current political situation, as well as a friend of PAS (my article ‘Working with PAS’ provides an account of my respect for their members), I feel compelled to express some of my personal thoughts on this matter. But first, some context is required.
There is no doubt that Malaysians live in a time of momentous change, where social and political forces are realigning at a pace beyond the control of the state, politicians and the Rakyat (the people) themselves. These are accelerated times, and we feel its vertigo and excitement in equal measure. In times like these, history can provide some sense of orientation for all citizens here who have been hungering for change for such a long time. We often forget that the reason why change is so palpable in the air is because the old order of things, or what Clive Kessler has so aptly called ‘Malaysia’s second post-independence political “dispensation”, meaning the New Economic Policy (NEP) era from 1970 and thereafter, has fully exhausted itself and is in a state of permanent crisis. This regime framework that has held Malaysian society together is now in utter disrepair, where the social forces that has developed in the last 40 years can no longer exist within the institutional and political structures designed for that time. In other words, a New Malaysia has emerged, and like new wine, it is bursting the old wineskin at its seams.
None other than Antonio Gramsci, the quintessential Italian political thinker, has captured this present crisis moment in Malaysia so well: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Taking the cue from Gramsci, one can say that Malaysia is presently in a state of suspended transition, where the old order is dying but the new is yet to be formed. This ‘new’ is precisely what is being fought over, the battle of forces that will shape the new political and institutional landscape of the country. This election can be taken as a key marker as to how things really stand, the political barometer as it were, which explains the unprecedented interest and excitement generated thus far. ‘Ini kalilah’ (This time), the slogan that encapsulates public sentiments throughout the nation.
However, the words of Gramsci also carry a dire warning that in the midst of this transition, certain morbid symptoms would appear. And it is to these symptoms I will try to diagnose and interpret in the current imbroglio involving PAS, PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat/Peoples Justice Party) and PSM (Parti Sosialis Malaysia/Socialist Party of Malaysia). Like many Malaysians, we turned out full force on nomination day, supporting our respective candidates. Many among us returned home disappointed seeing the number of multi-cornered fights around the country, in spite of electoral pacts agreed upon earlier.
A significant case in point is the way PSM was treated by their supposed allies, PAS & PKR. Initially, it was just a matter between PKR and PSM with regards to the use of the ‘Socialist Fist’ as the logo for seats where PSM candidates were standing. The moral argument involved here is pretty clear. All of us can perfectly understand how oppressive the Registrar of Societies (ROS) was towards DAP, suppressing their use of the Rocket, and they have our full sympathy and support. But what about PKR’s suppression of PSM’s right to use their logo for the elections? PKR’s attempt at hegemony smells of brute political bullying, where one excuse after another was used to extract a concession by the PSM to use the PKR logo instead. Even the claim that only a Malay candidate would be a winnable one in the state seat of Semenyih was put forward to justify why Pakatan Rakyat went for a PKR candidate, instead of PSM’s Arutchelvan, who has been a grassroots activist and councillor for years in the area. In the end, Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj and Dr. Nasir Hashim agreed to use the PKR logo to defend their respective seats in Sungai Siput and Kota Damansara, only to be shocked later when PAS has fielded their own candidate in Kota Damansara, in spite of the pact made. What this represents is that the Rakyat’s hope for real change in Malaysia is in danger of betrayal, its spirit tainted, because the end of winning Putrajaya does not justify the means. If a revolution has to be defended with abusive and undemocratic ways, then it is no longer the same revolution that the Rakyat has supported or worked for, and we are no different from our oppressors.
I will turn now to address two other major issues that I submit for consideration before the Malaysian electorate. The first regards the claims and allegations made by the PAS President against PSM, and secondly, an argument that Malaysia’s crisis of political transition may engender a phenomena that Gramsci has called, ‘Caesarism’ (which I will explain in due course).
1) Answering Hadi Awang’s aspersions
The statement of Tuan Guru Hadi was particularly disappointing, claiming that PAS will not be able to work with people who hold to Marxist ideology. He also alleged that there were supporters of this ‘group’ (he did not name PSM specifically, but one can deduce from what happened in Kota Damansara, where PAS put forward its own candidate in spite of Dr. Nasir Hashim contesting under PKR’s ticket) who held up posters of Lenin and Stalin, as well as hanging the picture of Karl Marx in a certain headquarters or ops centre.
For the public who has participated in many of the events and gatherings organised by the PSM, to claim that there were posters of Stalin and Lenin in such meetings is absolutely baseless and not true. One must be able to differentiate between Soviet Communism and the ideology of Socialism, and Tuan Guru Hadi has committed the logical fallacy of equating the two. Instead of the authoritarian and deformed communism practiced in Soviet Russia, Socialism embodies the set of political values that strives for an equitable, fair and democratic society, free from the exploitation inherent in capitalistic countries. In fact, one should remind Tuan Guru Hadi that Islam and Socialism shares an inherent impulse towards social justice, where both are set against the commodification of human lives and rapacious profiteering. A Muslim professor from Universiti Malaya has told me in no uncertain terms that the current financial system in Malaysia, based as it is on debt creation, is categorically un-Islamic. The charging of interest is haram. As such, Tuan Guru should appreciate a lot of the criticisms against rampant financial capitalism as articulated by socialists the world over. Anwar Ibrahim’s claim that PAS and PSM suffers from ideological conflict is overstated to say the least. If PAS and DAP can have mutual respect and cooperation, in spite of their differences on certain issues, claiming ideological conflict as the stumbling block between PAS and PSM cooperation is simply disingenuous.
It is also a great disservice to the rich and admirable history of PAS itself, which had close ties with the socialist cause in the days of their founders such as Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Ustaz Abu Bakar al-Baqir, Ustaz Abd Rab al-Tamimi and countless others in the party. The founders’ close commitment towards uplifting the peasants and the poor was truly inspirational. Judge for yourselves the very words of Ustaz Abd Rab al-Tamimi in 1948:
“If there were no Menteri-menteri Besar in Malaya we would still eat and live, so it is to the peasant that we should give our respect, not to the Menteri-menteri Besar… The peasant has overthrown the Malaya Union. Have no fear. Let us be called Communists and so on. We are fighting for our lives and will do so with great determination.’’ (Excerpt from pg. 119, ‘The End of Empire & The Making of Malaya’ by Tim Harper)
Such were the convictions of the early PAS leaders which represented a major challenge to the British colonialists, who were basically extracting the extraordinary riches of Malaya at will. Lenin called imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, and PAS had a great history of anti-imperialism.
As a personal anecdote, if you have the chance to visit PSM’s headquarters in Brickfields, you will not find the pictures of Lenin, let alone Stalin, on the walls. Instead you will find the portraits of Malayan heroes who struggled for Merdeka, iconic figures such as Dr. Burhanuddin Helmy, Shamsiah Fakeh, Lim Chin Siong, P Veerasenan, Pak Sako, Ahmad Boestamam, and S.A. Ganapathy.
Are they not worthy of our respect and emulation?
2) The Spectre of Malaysian ‘Caesarism’
In this time of transition, Gramsci has warned us that there may be certain dangers lurking, ‘morbid symptoms’ he call them.
One of these forms of social pathology or symptom is that of ‘Caesarism’.
When two opposing sets of forces are finely balanced, in this case BN and Pakatan, resulting in some form of political impasse where neither sides could hegemonise or dominate the other, what we get is a situation where ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born,’ a form of social paralysis. It is precisely in such critical moments in our history that great ‘men of destiny’, full of charisma, will offer themselves to the nation, to provide the necessary leadership to overcome the impasse and construct a new political settlement based on the force of their personality. Gramsci uses the term ‘Caesarism’ for such figures because he saw that the crisis in Italy from 1910 to 1921 resulted in the ascension of Mussolini and his fascist regime, the new Caesar who appealed directly to the masses, bypassing any need for civil society’s involvement in the nation’s democratic processes.
Are we in danger of Caesarism taking shape in the Malaysian political situation? We have already seen attempts at this by none other than Prime Minister Najib Razak who has basically shaped his 1Malaysia administration based on his personal image, rather than the track record of the BN coalition. The slogans that BN continually emphasize in this election is ‘Undi PM’ and large billboards of the PM’s face. These direct appeals to the masses must not be confused with the real involvement of the Rakyat in institutions of decision-making. It is populism, without popular democracy. Given that the PM has many detractors, his efforts can at best be characterized as an attempt at hegemony, where we will find out just how effective his campaign has been, come May 5th.
A Caesar can also take the form of a political party, where the party can function in exactly the same way, that of spouting populist slogans while maintaining a firm monopoly over the mechanisms of popular power. The way PKR and PAS jockeyed for seats and bullying the small, grassroots-based PSM is not very assuring to the Malaysian electorate. What kind of democracy are we going to get if Pakatan Rakyat managed to capture Putrajaya? Will a relatively weak Malaysian civil society be bullied and kept at arm’s length from the levers of state power? Tuan Guru Hadi’s language of PAS needing to step in to ‘save’ Pakatan Rakyat, in justifying the incursion of a PAS candidate in Kota Damansara, smacks of such Caesarist tendencies. The Rakyat doesn’t need saving, Tuan Guru. The Rakyat needs to be served, period.
In conclusion, the only possible cure to the morbid symptoms developing in this nation is the Rakyat empowered to occupy their rightful place at the centre of our parliamentary democracy. We need to remember that all the freedoms, rights and liberties we enjoy today is not the gift of rulers or politicians, but the direct result of very long, concerted struggles on the part of ordinary Malaysian workers, farmers, and peasants. In other words, they were brought forth by struggles from below. This is why a small party like the PSM, rooted in organizing the poor and the marginalized, must be given the democratic space to compete in elections, by their allies in Pakatan Rakyat, especially. They can provide Malaysians a real democratic option, just as the fringe, Greek socialist party, SYRIZA did for the Greeks. When the two coalition system has matured in this country, there is no guarantee that democracy will be alive and well. Just witness how discredited the mainstream political parties are, in Spain, Greece and the United States. Small parties can fill the political void, especially in times of economic hardship and disaster, precisely because they were untainted by power and corruption.
As we approach that fateful day of decision, may all Malaysians campaign and vote for real change with no illusions that any party or politician can save us. Only the Rakyat, in full democratic participation and self-government, is the solution to our moment of crisis. Let us all work on the ground with Gramsci’s wise words in mind:
‘Pessimism of the intellect, Optimism of the Will’.
Boon Kia Meng is an activist-filmmaker. His film ‘M-C-M’: Utopia Milik Siapa?’, a winner at the Freedom Film Festival 2012, documenting the issue of escalating house prices and debt in Malaysia, can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv9bWjgEXtc