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Often the frustration felt by the left when organizing public talks and sessions is that we are speaking to the converted. There is a feeling we have not progressed very much. But there was a refreshing and reassuring change this time at the Socialism 2011 conference organized by the Parti Sosialis Malaysia on 20/11/11 at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur.
The conference themed Socialism – An Alternative for Malaysia, and organized for members of the public, saw a turnout of over 150 people, and what was exciting was the significant number of new faces among the participants. It was an indication of the disenchantment of thinking Malaysians with the current state of affairs in the country, and of the loss of faith in the existing system. This is the disenchantment that brought thousands to the streets for BERSIH, and that is making people identify with the worldwide ‘We are the 99%’ and the ‘Occupy’ movement. There is a search for an alternative. Faith in the capitalist system has been steadily eroding with the bitter experience of worsening economic hardship, bailouts of the rich, the sickening corruption of the ruling elite, and a system of governing that is akin to a circus.
The socialist system as an alternative seemed the most timely theme for the PSM which had managed to emerge somewhat shaken but intact from the government’s infamous use of the Emergency Ordinance on six of its leaders. The role of the rakyat nationwide in pressurizing the government to release the six was unprecedented especially given the government’s use of the communist bogey to criminalise the Parti Sosialis Malaysia. It showed that the rakyat had matured and could no more be dictated to by an irrational government whose credibility was a question mark. We felt that the socialist conference for the year should enlighten people about the concerns of socialists on the question of socialism as an alternative for Malaysia, the economic system and cultural policies that are envisaged.
The first panel on the topic Has Malaysia Prospered Under Capitalism? comprised of three interesting speakers from different backgrounds. Sdr Wan Saiful from IDEAS, argued that in Malaysia we don’t have full-fledged capitalism yet due to too much of government intervention, and that therefore the failures cannot be blamed on the capitalist system! The next speaker, Prof Dr Terence Gomez outlined the shortcomings of the system and argued for the institution of more social democratic programmes to enlarge the safety net and better governance. Dr Jeyakumar, the socialist MP of Sg Siput started off by talking about the achievements of capitalism in Malaysia as compared to other post-colonial societies, but how these are far outweighed by the failures, and that since global capitalism has entered a long period of decline, countries like Malaysia have to move towards a socialist economy.
The second panel saw our special guest, Sdri Melanie Barnes of the Socialist Alliance of Australia, and PSM central committee member Sdr Choo Chon Kai presenting on the topic, Is the Socialist Economic Model A Viable Alternative? Critique of the Previous Socialist Models. They gave a critical analysis of previous models and held up Venezuela and Yugoslavia as models we could look at.The third speaker, Sdr Premesh Chandran, CEO of Malaysiakini, gave an energetic presentation of how we should be innovative and not wait to take political power before embarking on ‘socialist’ economic ventures. He outlined several online incentives that could benefit socially useful projects.
Panel Three on the topic, Is Socialism Practical In a Multi-cultural Society like Malaysia? Freedom and Full Human Development discussed the merits and suitability of the socialist system in a multi-cultural context. Though it was the difficult post-lunch session, the quality of the presentations kept everyone focused and attentive. Sdr Ahmad Fuad from Islamic Renaissance Front argued very convincingly that cultures have to be understood dialectically and not as "things" that were discrete and separate. He proposed that the different cultures in Malaysia all have revolutionary and humanising aspects which are congruent. He argued that we have to "indigenize" socialism to make it more recognizable to the Malaysian people. Sdr Hishamuddin, analysed the development of the Malaysian nation in a humorous yet provocative and insightful manner. His witty repartees to Sdr Jeyanath (SABM) who had a challenging time trying to keep to time, had the audience in stitches! Hisham emphasized that we have not solved the National Question and it keeps coming back. Sdri Rani Rasiah of the PSM argued that the socialist system with its objective of full human development in a classless society was the practical alternative to the capitalist system that was exploitative and used ethnic differences to divide and rule.
The conference came to a close after the fourth panel presentations on the topic, Socialism ala Malaysia. Sdr Boon Kia Meng the first speaker gave a spirited presentation on the topic and offered many ideas about the concrete actions that can be taken by socialists in Malaysia. "Who are the proletariat in KL?" he asked the audience. Kia Meng suggested that all those who contributed building of KL should be considered the Proletariat and that they have the right to have a say how the city was being run. "We should take back the city," he urged.The other panelists were Sdr Arif Abdull of Durian FM, Sdr Chong Ton Sin of Gerak Budaya and the PSM Secretary General, Sdr Arulchelvan who reflected that just a short 13 years ago, when the PSM was launched, many friends said that it was a suicidal move to call ourselves socialist, but now many people the world over are turning to socialism for answers. Arul reminded us that the shift from capitalism to socialism is a process and the tactics undertaken should recognize that fact.
Overall the conference saw a vibrant discussion of ideas, with many questions and comments from members of the audience. It seemed highly relevant to the socio-economic upheavals and the search for alternatives taking place outside the conference room, in Malaysia and abroad.