Socialism and the Nation in Malaysian Political History

In an essay entitled “Culture or Economy – Wherein Lies the Primary Contradiction” Jeyakumar Devaraj takes up the debate around what it means to struggle for the establishment of socialism in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country such as Malaysia, in particular around the problem which has divided the Malaysian left throughout its history, how one is to respond to themes of nationalism and culturalism. Here the left has often been split between those who would view the dominant forms of nation and culture, privileging Malay culture, the Malay language and Islam, as an expression of domination which needs to be confronted before a meaningful socialist movement is possible, and those who believe that in spite of such apparently racist and ethno-nationalist structures, the socialist movement can move in a sense directly to the primary economic and political contradictions around which it can organise.

As Devaraj notes, this is a question which goes back to the days of the Socialist Front and before and was expressed as a split between a focus on “civil rights” issues, of the kind chronicled in Kua Kia Soong’s The Malaysian Civil Rights Movement, which sought to gain educational, linguistic and cultural autonomy for minority groups and a “Marhaenist” style socialist activism which has sought to politicize issues of exploitation, economic inequality and poverty.

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For Devaraj however, the politics of civil and communal rights are a dead-end for socialist activism in Malaysia. The politics of civil rights on the one hand places politics on the plane which parties like UMNO know best, the plane of ethnic and religious rights and on the other hand produces an easy enemy for parties like UMNO to hold up to the Malay masses, in politicizing culture and ethnicity it continues to reproduce both as the centre of Malaysian politics. Devaraj then calls for the left to continue with the “Merdeka consensus” present at the time of the independence of Malaysia, which wasn’t simply the construction of elites but was also supported by the parties of the Malay left and the non-Malay parties, which entailed recognition of Malaya as a Malay polity, Malay as the official and mediating language, Islam as the official religion and a recognition of the special position of the Malays.

In comparative perspective with a country such as Britain this assertion appears defeatist. British politics too contains ethnic and culturalist chauvinism particularly through an English nationalism which calls for an England for the English, and for the production of a majority mono-cultural and Christian country with its symbols as the Church and the Royal Family. The left has sought to continuously challenge this agenda and has perpetually been critical of the Labour Party which has been accomodationist in regard to it. The Labour Party has continuously failed to call into question the overriding structures of British political life, the unelected second chamber, the monarchy, the sheer weight of tradition and it has thus failed to challenge the popular beliefs and traditions of the mass of the electorate, it has repeatedly been unwilling to stand up to public opinion. It has, so the argument goes, failed to develop the basis of a modern British nation-state which has been to the detriment of meaningful Leftist politics and today in the face of Brexit and the swing to the right by traditional labour communities the argument amongst many Labour members is to rebuild this base through emphasising traditional nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. To many in the left this appears as no more than a capitulation to existing power structures and dominant cultures. It appears to reject Marx’s injunction for Leftists not to merely interpret the world but to change it.

Yet in the case of socialist politics in Malaysia the very relationship between class, nation and culture has to be taken into account and here it is worth turning to the writings of James Puthucheary. In essays written in the late 1950s such as “Socialism in a Multi-racial Society” and “On the Future of Socialism in Malaya” he analysed the relationship between nationalist and socialist politics and particularly the nature of socialist politics in an underdeveloped multi-racial society. For Puthucheary the application of European socialist analysis is limited for it bases itself upon class analysis but ignores the importance of communal differences which segment class identities. The problem faced by Socialists in multi-racial societies is then also how to handle communal differences. “Could it not be” he asks “that we cannot embark on building Socialism until we have gone some way in the task of building a Malaysian nation?.  This is aggravated for Puthucheary by the fact that Malaya’s communities were segmented not just by ethnicity but also by language, culture, religion, economic function, loyalty and locality. They spoke different languages, observed different customs, worshipped different Gods, worked different jobs, migrated for economic reasons and lived apart from one another.

No Malayan nation could then be said to exist, and nor was Malaya a multi-national nation, with a common national culture and sense of belonging, it was constituted by separate communities who often wished to remain separate, as in Furnivall’s “plural society”. Thus whilst Socialists assumed that communal disunity was a product of British rule and would cease to exist with the retreat of the British, what they found was that communalism was rooted in relations of economic exploitation, particularly between Chinese traders and Malay peasants, reproduced communal separatism. As Puthucheary sums up:

“It seems to me that the situation is one where there are very few forces for unity. We have no grounds to think that there is a natural momentum that would lead to unity if minor impediments are removed”.

This was to declare two things, firstly that communal differences weren’t simply superficial, a matter of a frame of mind nor collective disposition, they were fundamental to the economic make-up of the country and secondly that a nation could be produced only by a politics which would fundamentally overcome the existing state of things, which would fundamentally challenge the post-Colonial political economy of Malaya. A nation could only be produced for Puthucheary by socialism.

Yet how was this supersession to be brought about? As Puthucheary states, “there can be no change of political power in any form unless such a change has the support of the majority of the Malays. That is, no coup d’etat by the other communities and no revolution based upon the support of Indians and Chinese, however non-communal its aims may be, can be effective. Such attempt will only lead to a civil war… Consequently, with the transfer of political power to a predominantly Malay electorate, all stable political changes will have to be constitutional.” Traditional socialist thinking in societies such as India and Chinese where capitalism and communalism lived side by side argued that unity must be produced through anti-colonial politics. And yet for Puthucheary, this assumed the importance of the antagonism between colonizer and colonised over and above those between communities which in Malaya was untrue, relations of exploitation between communities were often more evident and uneven, than those between British capitalism and each group, and the economic structure of Malaya reproduced communal fragmentation preventing meaningful common interests against foreign capital.

In this sense traditional socialist thinking on colonial/post-Colonial politics was for Puthucheary problematic. The truly meaningful antagonism which must be focussed on within Malaya for Puthucheary was not to be the different communities against the colonial power and foreign capital but the antagonism between Malay peasants and Chinese workers against Chinese capitalists. By disregarding the needs of the Malay peasantry he argues, the politics of communal division will only be perpetuated, communal relations of exploitation will only continue and the peasantry would be led into an alliance with political parties which would represent, in however limited a manner, their communal interests.

Important then for political change in Malaya was the need to take this argument to the Malay peasantry and to overcome the ethnically-neutral and multi-communal approach which led only to a popular belief in the continued Chinese domination of the economy. “These interests will be demonstrated as being common only when socialists lead both of them against the greater control of the economy by Chinese capitalists”. Malaya’s weak majority and powerful minority thus required a model different from that present in other national socialisms.

Dr M.K. Rajakumar, on the contrary, left an indelible mark at every phase of his eventful life. As a medical student at the University of Malaya in Singapore, he co-founded the University Socialist Club and later landed himself in court on a sedition charge for an editorial that condemned Western imperialism and aggression in Asia. Buy here

M.K. Rajakumar would sum up the problem as such “Contradictions exist between the peasants and workers in every country of the world. The people in the village distrust the people in the cities, deeming the city folk as having deprived them of the rightful compensation for their products. The city people on the other hand regard the peasants as being simple and irrational. Only a socialist can transcend these kinds of natural contradictions and understand the significance of establishing a worker-peasant alliance”. Yet as Rajakumar also notes, the problem of worker-peasant unity is also a problem of racial unity between the Malay peasantry and urban Chinese. Chinese workers had achieved a great sense of class consciousness based upon the socialist struggle in China, the Malays were excluded from this history and thus expressed relatively lower class consciousness, the problem then of socialist political change was how to generate this consciousness across ethnic lines. Here Rajakumar would similarly argue for the need to direct work towards the Malay masses with the consideration that:

                “when we are working in a Malay area, we have to be extra careful. In many villages, Malays and non-Malays live together; if we are very active in such areas, we have to take special care of the Malays who live with the non-Malays but form a minority in the community.

Finally when we interact with any Malay, they will pay special attention to how we carry ourselves. Even if they have no political consciousness and their tinking is different from ours, even if they are extremely racialist and say that all non-Malays are bad, we must at least achieve the point of having them say, ‘All non-Malays are bad but the socialist non-Malays are somewhat better’”.

To follow traditional models would then be to fall into an urban chauvinism which is whilst  buttressed by the objectivity of socialist terminology and thinking would perpetuate communal division. And as Puthucheary argues, this problem is central to Leftist arguments over the role of Malay as the national language and the language of education. Such positions are he notes related to notions of cultural autonomy and justified through the nationalities policy of the Soviet Union and Lenin’s arguments for cultural autonomy. Nevertheless whilst Lenin’s belief was in the autonomy of minority communities who had suffered oppression and marginalisation under Russian imperialism, in the case of Malaya, those who had suffered the most exclusion under colonialism were the Malays. Cultural autonomy appeared then as opposed to anti-Colonialism and not as the basis for a multi-national union but for continued fragmentation.

For Puthucheary what was needed then was a common language and common system of education to arrest this process of fragmentation and begin the process of nation building and unity. And thus whilst some might argue that rather than focussing upon education and language Socialists should focus upon eliminating relations of economic exploitation, as Puthucheary shows, communal divisions are equally as important as economic divisions in this political equation. As he would argue, Malayan trade unions managed to clear spaces free from relations of economic exploitation, and yet within these spaces, communal divisions persisted.

Yet rather than focussing upon the matter of nation-building, Puthucheary worried that in its opposition to the education and language policies elements of the Left came to play a reactionary role, allying them with right-wing chauvinists and Chinese educationalists, and in politicizing the matter of language and education it was handing leadership back to traditional communal leaders and sabotaging the possibility of producing a more meaningful political unity. Thus:

 “But many socialists seem to look upon the unrest in the Chinese schools as an opportunity to embarrass the Alliance and to gather a few right-wing communal votes in the election. This may be a very-clever short-term tactic. But it may just be the sowing of the wind for which socialists – and for that matter, the whole country – will have to reap the whirlwind”.

This is a pattern of opposition politics which remains particularly prescient today for as Puthucheary feared, a meaningful left-wing nationalism wasn’t produced and the problem of cultural autonomy became more and more important to opposition politics which, particularly in the period after 1969, grew reliant upon non-Malay votes. What this failure meant was that the problem of the national question, as the production of national unity, became the prerogative of the government and that in the aftermath of 1969, the restructuring of the social and economic systems which produced communal difference was undertaken by the State and the NEP, which it is believed Puthucheary consulted on, emerged as a solution to the problem of capital and nation allowing the BN coalition to assume the mantle of Malaysian nationalism.

Nevertheless against the state-led NEP, Puthucheary continually promoted a socialist and not racial response to the problem of national disunity. What this meant for socialist practice is important, it meant that socialist thinking must take into account the problem and reality of race but that the solution to the problems of race and division must lie in a socialist party which, without a communal basis can begin the basis of forming a national unity. Communal parties Puthucheary argued reinforce communal lines and thus attempts to produce out of communalism a non-communal outcome are destined to fail. What was required for Puthucheary was the conversion of problems of race into problems of class in order to liberate them from the dead end of communalism.

“Socialists are the only people who can end the exploitation of peasants by traders without making it a communal issue. Only we can effectively present exploitation and poverty as class problems, which they are and not as communal problems”.

It was in this sense that Puthucheary was to problematize the role of the Chinese in the Malayan colonial and post-Colonial economy. They weren’t, he argued, in ownership or control of the economy, it was the large agency-houses controlled by foreign interests which played the most important role but the Chinese played middlemen roles in trading and retail and were the face of the colonial economy, the point at which Malay peasants came into contact with wider systems of circulation. Yet he argued rather than a homogenous group the Chinese were stratified by class such that it was on a small group who enjoyed the wealth, with many Chinese also living within poverty.

In this case Puthucheary argued that a purely race based or purely class based approach to the problem of economic divisions based upon community would fail. On the one hand, to only target the Malay community, through more inclusion within the existing system of development would be to accentuate within the Malay community the kinds of class divisions present in the Chinese community, it would not do away with inequalities but simply racial divisions of economic function and wouldn’t resolve the problem of rural poverty. Thus as he would argue “those who think that the economic position of the Malays can be improved by creating a few Malay capitalists, thus making a few Malays well-to-do will have to think again”. Similarly he would argue an approach which aimed to resolve rural poverty irregardless of race through the existing market system would in the end allow for a strong domestic capitalist class to grow which would, based on current ownership, be predominantly Chinese. “The problems which would come from a powerful capitalist class almost wholly Chinese should be taken into consideration in any discussion of Malaya’s political development.”

Puthucheary thus argued that what was required to resolve this dilemma was a challenge to the existing structures of ownership and control and the system of free market capitalism which reinforced existing divisions of race and class. It was to be a restructuring of the economy in a manner which would both restructure control and ownership at its highest levels as well fundamentally challenge the problem of rural poverty, the combination of which would allow for the overcoming of communal divisions and economic inequality. This was the idea eventually taken up after the 1969 riots. The NEP challenged both the laissez-faire system of economic organisation and sought to resolve the problem of rural poverty and communalism, it both undertook a massive transfer of foreign ownership of capital into the hands of the state and sought to develop a Malay capitalist class whilst also undertaking extensive rural development schemes and intensified industrialisation which opened opportunities for rural peasants to migrate to urban spaces in search of work. Yet in the long term it can be seen that the promises of the NEP haven’t been fulfilled. For whilst a massive reduction in real poverty has occurred, problems of rural (and urban) poverty, unemployment and precarity have continued, and whilst there has been a significant change in the ownership of the Malaysian economy, this has occurred at the elite level.

Much of this it could be argued has to do with the fact that the NEP was a state-capitalist project and not a socialist-nationalist project, thus rather than economic transformation being aimed towards the production of a unified nation and subordinated to the demands of the People, it remained subordinated to demands of capitalist accumulation and thus to processes of proletarianization, accumulation by dispossession and profit-maximisation. What this entailed then was, broadly, a process of national unification met simultaneously with fractures between class and race which unevenly distributed the benefits of the NEP and didn’t overturn existing forms of privilege. As such Puthucheary’s fear came true, the NEP came to establish an elite class of Bumiputera capitalists and entrepreneurs and a Malay middle-class and yet a whole class of particularly rural Malays, Orang Asli, non-Malay Bumiputera, Indian estate workers and urban poor, not to mention the foreign workers who are by definition excluded from the project of national unity, and who sit uncomfortably in the frame of the Malaysian nation. Bangsa Malaysia has in this sense been a largely urban middle-class project.

Today then the problem of the production of national unity persists and continues to be the challenge of a meaningful political opposition. The need for the support of the majority of Malays, and particularly today the majority of Malays who live outside of urban areas and whose votes enjoy a greater weight, is as true as ever. The need then to produce an alliance between urban and rural voters to effect progressive political change equally remains important and as Puthucheary and others would argue this is perhaps best resolved through socialist and not culturalist politics. Through as Jeyakumar would argue, addressing the question of Malay poverty.

We return then to Jeyakumar Devaraj’s support for the Merdeka consensus. How is this to be understood? Is it to be understood as simply an endorsement of existing power relations and a call for a socialist transformation to conform to the natural order of things? Or is it rather a commentary on the production of the nation. Here it would appear that what is advised isn’t the separation of the figure of the nation from that of socialist politics but rather a particular way of achieving the nation. The nation is to be achieved here not through its conceptualisation in cultural terms but through a principally economic unification. Yet in order to achieve this economic unification what is required is to prevent the cultural oppositions over the space of the nation. What is required is to prevent the politicization of the cultural sphere, thus preventing the political process from going down the road of open cultural antagonism in order that national unification can be achieved, it entails accepting a broad cultural compact in order to open up space for economic struggle.

In Class, Race and Colonialism in Peninsular Malaysia: A Political History of Malaysian Indians, Michael Stenson offers the authoritative political history of ethnic Indians in colonial and early post-colonial Malaya.  Buy here

Theoretically Partha Chatterjee has described the way in which, faced by the overwhelming power of the coloniser, anti-Colonialist nationalism first defined its sphere of sovereignty within the inner domain of culture and custom and thus as opposed to the modern sphere of technology and capitalist development. Post-Colonial nationalism has in this reading developed under conditions of passive revolution to reproduce this distinction between the inner and outer domain and thus organise the post-Colonial nation as an opposition between the sphere of economic modernity and cultural tradition, enabling he argues the reproduction of the rule of capital and Western modernity through the binary distinction between cultural politics and the modern state. For Chatterjee this was principally marked by the failure for civil society to attain hegemony and by the continued split between the domain of the elite and sub-altern classes, the sub-altern were those outside of the sphere of economic modernity and contained within the sphere of culture, albeit traditional culture. The nation continued to contain within in it then an alien body.

The attempt then to produce the nation through socialism is the attempt to overcome this distinction between the cultural and economic and thus to overcome the split that has divided the nation. It offers against the passive revolution of post-Colonial nationalism active process of socialism. Central here to a socialist politics will be the ability to produce solidarity between rural and urban spheres and thus a functional solidarity between a variety of groups. The terms and form of this solidarity will come to define the nation itself, or whether or not a nation is possible at all, and the problem of solidarity is key then to understand the potentiality for a Malaysian nationalism in years to come.

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