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Malaysia -- PSM leader: People's welfare above party ideology

by Terence Netto
This article is from Malaysiakini, a Malaysian web newspaper

Mohd Nasir Hashim, newly-elected state assemblyperson for Kota Damansara in Selangor, will have to buy a pair of leather shoes and baju melayu hitam for the upcoming oath-taking ceremony - the customary attire for Malay legislators upon induction.

It will be no swanky place from which Nasir will obtain his outfit.

“I’ll probably get it from Chow Kit,” offered the first-time legislator who, with the rest of the winning assemblypersons of PKR, DAP and PAS, was holed up in a hotel in Subang yesterday, sequestered from ‘crossover bookies’.

Chow Kit is the bazaar-quarter of Kuala Lumpur famed for cheap buys; Nasir won’t purchase costly Malay ceremonial attire or an expensive Western suit for the swearing-in and sittings of the Selangor legislative assembly. Hence an outfit from Chow Kit must suffice.

The leader of the as-yet unregistered Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and a former deputy dean of the medical faculty of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has always been shod in sandals.

Frequent changes to domicile have forced a spare wardrobe and simple footwear on this fighter for the rights of the inadequately housed, who has lived his life as spartanly as the people he campaigns for.

Nasir, 61, like his younger PSM comrade Dr M Jeyakumar (right) - who dethroned MIC president and Sungai Siput parliamentary incumbent S Samy Vellu in the polls last Saturday - contested under the PKR banner because of similarities in party manifestos that made the people’s welfare a paramount goal.

“That’s what we must concentrate on once we take office. I hope all my colleagues in this coalition will focus on measures that will help the poor, preserve the environment, and empower people in the decisions that affect them,” said Nasir.

His comments were an obliquely reference to the possibility that differing political ideologies may engender intra-coalition conflicts.

Veteran of a three-decade involvement in the fight for squatters threatened with eviction by developers of commercial and residential schemes Nasir, held that if PKR, DAP and PAS legislators place people’s welfare above ideological compulsions, things would be smooth sailing for the loose coalition.

“If our focus is the people’s welfare as the manifesto of each party in the coalition has emphasised, then we will proceed without ideological wrangles. We must seek the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Quixotic struggles

Malacca-born Nasir, holder of a doctorate in international nutrition from America’s Cornell University, is of a linage (he’s first cousin to Umno’s Rahim Thamby Chik, former chief minister of Malacca) and from an academic milieu (he was a student at the elite Royal Military College (RMC) in the mid-1960s.

At Cornell, he had Umno’s Afiffudin Omar, Napsiah Omar and Siti Zaharah Suleiman as peers. All this ought to have propelled him to conventional pathways in Malaysian politics rather than the quixotic struggle for a socialist polity.

Detained in late 1987 for 18 months under the draconian Internal Security Act, convention-flouting Nasir, upon his release, gained the recognition of his peers at RMC.

They chose him ‘Old Putra of the Year’ in 1989, a signal honour - and implied rebuke to his jailers - from an establishment-leaning fraternity renowned for supplying the personnel that drives government, business and academia.

The experience of detention without trial and the unexpected honour that followed it did little to alter Nasir’s political flight path.

His party’s struggles for those at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder - Indian Malaysians, mainly, who inhabit the squatter settlements on the fringes of urban centres pushing outwards in an insatiable quest for land - is by no means an election-winning strategy.

‘No-work, no contest’

In the 1999 general election, PSM asked for but were refused a chance to contest in Subang. As a matter of policy, PSM only asks to contest seats in which they have done work for the poor. In 1999, Subang was allocated to PKR’s Irene Fernandez under a seat-sharing arrangement between PKR, DAP and PAS.

Nasir could have been given the chance to contest in another constituency but the PSM policy of no-work, no-representation, dictated that he sat out the election. He campaigned for Jeyakumar in the latter’s stirring but unsuccessful bid to unseat MIC boss Samy Vellu.

In the 2004 general election, Nasir was allocated the Subang parliamentary constituency. He lost by more than 15,000 votes. For last Saturday’s poll, Nasir readily accepted the smaller responsibility of contesting in Kota Damansara, which falls under Subang.

A 15-year championing of the rights of squatters to low-cost housing in the constituency had given PSM a credible presence and visibility in the area.

This enabled them to ride on the waves of discontent generated successively by electoral reform group Bersih, by Hindu Rights Action Force, and by PKR’s indefatigable campaigner Anwar Ibrahim, who blended popular anger with rising prices and corruption into a potent call for change.

“The BN claimed that Anwar is a has-been. They underestimated him though their decision to call an election before Anwar qualified again to contest was confirmation of their fear of him,” said Nasir.

“He’s still a force as it was he who was mainly responsible for steering all streams of popular discontent into a concerted torrent for change. His campaigning fired the public imagination that change was possible.”

Nasir admitted that PSM would have found it difficult to attain parliamentary and state legislative representation without the benefit of the waves marshalled by Anwar (left).

“It takes many ripples to build a wave. PSM has contributed to the wave that swept so many candidates of the opposition to victory,” he asserted.

Nasir cited his tally of 700 of the 3,300 postal votes in Kota Damasara’s nearly 30,000-strong electorate.

“Tell me, have opposition candidates anywhere obtained more than one-fifth of the postal tally?” asked Nasir with a hint of subversive, though not boastful, laughter.

His postal tally is rare among a count thought to be the monopoly of the BN. It only means, in Kota Damansara at least, that PSM’s long day’s march in behalf of society’s poor has resonated in unlikely recesses.

The party’s struggles may not be so quixotic after all.

2 Com:

Peter Boyle | March 18, 2008

The PSM's electoral victories open up new prospects to reach out to millions of Malaysians hungry for change after decades of corrupt and undemocratic rule by the Barisan Nasional federal government. But there also new challenges.

PSM ran under the name of the Parti Keadilan (Justice Party) because the government has denied the PSM registration because it is allegedly a threat to national security. See this interview with PSM General Secretary Arul I did for Green Left Weekly. But now they are in a tricky situation with Nasir Hashim holding a seat in the Selangor state assembly where a conservative Keadilan politician has become the new chief minister. Apparently he is quite conservative, as are about half of Keadilan's elected politicians who came from a split from the Barisan Nasional in the reformasi period in mid-1990s. I plan to do some follow up interviews with PSM leaders about how they are dealing with this quandarry. The Malaysiakini interview with Nasir Hashim demonstrates the good tactical approach the PSM has already begun to take. By counterposing people's welfare to ideology, they turn the tables on the ideologically conservative Keadilan politicians.

Peter Boyle | March 19, 2008

Yesterday I did an interview for the Links internet journal with PSM leader Arul which canvasses recent developments such the ruling parties attempts to mobilise its supporters in ostensibly in defence of "Malay rights", and the growing popularity of the PSM as evidence in mainstream media coverage and large turnouts to its meetings (e.g. "We had a gathering at our service centre in Semenyih. We expected 300 to attend. To be safe, we ordered food for 500 but 1,000 came! Fifty people became members.").

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