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Malyasia: PSM fighting for fair play

from Indain Malaysian online

Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, 53, will go down in history as having all but ended MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu’s 30-year-long political career. The Sungai Siput MP and founding member of the Malaysian Socialist Party talks to R. NADESWARAN and TERENCE FERNANDEZ about equality, justice and felling a giant.

Part of your campaign was a little "up-market", talking about trade agreements and the like. What are your reservations about globalisation and free market systems?

Historically, you see, even industrialised countries required tariffs to build their own industries. For example, Britain destroyed India’s textiles, destroyed India’s shipbuilding so that they could build their own industries. Even making salt was banned in India. They had to get salt from England. That’s how Gandhi’s salt march came about. So to develop their own industries, they imposed tariffs. After 200 years’ headstart, they’ve got the technology; they’ve got the infrastructure, now they are denying us the tariffs.

So countries in Asia and Africa have to be raw material producers for the rest of our lives! And the price of cotton, maize and coffee has come down over the years. If you look at the prices now, what we are producing has come down. Only now oil has gone up, and because of that rubber for synthetic rubber has gone up, vegetable oil is being used for fuel so palm oil has gone up. Previously, the terms of trade for primary products were coming down. So the whole international trading system is unfair and we have to challenge those things and it is unfair to restrict our industrialisation policy. The whole concept of intellectual property rights for a socialist is that intellectual property is one of the means of production that belongs to the people – not to individual capitalists or corporations.

When a person makes a breakthrough in a particular field, it is based on the accumulated knowledge of mankind over the last 10,000 years. The numeric system for instance, originated from India. Who’s paying them royalty for that? Each breakthrough made at this stage is not solely because of that particular genius. It is based on mankind’s accumulated knowledge which you are using to make that particular breakthrough. So to say the whole thing is mine and you have to pay me royalties for the next 20 years is not on! You did the work, you put in the effort, we should pay, but to patent it is not right. Look at the AIDS medicines. They are costed by the branded names and they cost 100 times more than the cost of production.

Look at Thailand, the cost of manufacturing is only US$1.

In India especially and they are trying to stop that. All these are obscene and we must speak out against it and not pretend that everything is fine. We may have a problem of governance, corruption or cronyism. But taking these away, we still have the problem of imperialism of control and bullying by the rich nations, big corporations and we cannot bluff our way around that. That’s why we are a bit worried about some of the other figures in the government who are a bit big on investment and talk about investment rates as such.

So is this why a country like Malaysia needs protectionist policies?

As a matter of principle, something like the NEP (New Economic Policy) is something that a socialist would not be against. You have affirmative action for certain groups who require help as you cannot rely on the free market and meritocracy to solve their problems. Under the free market and meritocracy systems, the orang asli will remain as they are; the Indians in the estates and squatter areas will remain as they are as they cannot compete in a free market. The free market benefits those who are able to compete, so for the state to provide affirmative action for the poorer groups is something a socialist will have no problem with. The only problem now is that we should not be defined by race or religion but by socio-economic need for all peoples – and since the Malays still make up the larger number of the poor, they would get the help. But we would like to stop the cronies from siphoning off the major share of it; only the crumbs are going to the needy. That has to be stopped. We must commit ourselves to helping the poor of all races. So the principle of the NEP which is to address poverty is something we will not be against. Only problem is it is now an excuse to make money.

But this kind of affirmative action is something that the FTA (free trade agreement) will not allow as the FTA’s stand is that the market solves everything which is bull****!

This is where PSM has an advantage compared to other parties. We have a comparative analysis that the others don’t. They have a tendency to be soft on the likes of (former World Bank chief Paul) Wolfowitz while we won’t.

Our role in Parliament along with other guys like Charles Santiago (Klang MP) or R. Sivarasa (Subang MP) – who share similar views – whom we hope that if we take this line of criticism, we will get people from the other parties to take on a similar position.

So there is a conflict of views among the parties in the Barisan Rakyat?

Ninety percent of our stance is no problem – talking about governance, corruption, welfare for the poor … they are already saying those things. But for those who think that the world trading system is fine and you just need to fit in and be efficient and win the game, that kind of thinking, we think is not going to be that easy.

Currently the game internationally is making it more lucrative for investors. You do that by cutting down waste cost, cut down environmental protection measures which are costly and you cut down taxation on profits to attract investors. When you do that, how can you subsidise expenditure for the poor? Something’s got to give somewhere. Unless you’ve got so much Petronas money to pump in, otherwise if you reduce corporate tax, for example Singapore is only 22% we are 28% we need to bring it down further, then something like the GST is something you need to impose because you need to get your income from somewhere, right? And GST is a regressive tax and this will affect those who spend most of their income which is the poor.

So it is all linked. Your policies to make Malaysia an investors’ haven so that they will come here and not go to China will in many ways impinge on the people because you need a low wage rate and you don’t have enough money to subsidise healthcare and transportation because you are reluctant to tax the investors.

Of course you can use Petronas money efficiently if you save the money that goes into crony contracts, plug the leakages, then you can put it into your subsidy programmes.

A system that taxes the corporation instead of the man in the street is perhaps what we need. But how do we do that without scaring away investors?

Maybe if the corporate groups don’t have to pay for corruption then they would be prepared to pay taxes.

What we need is an administration that is less corrupt, then with the money they (corporations) save on corruption and lax efficiency, they will be prepared to pay taxes.

There is this underlying contradiction between the free market world of corporate-led globalisation against welfarism espoused by the political parties.

What can the government do to improve healthcare?

What we want the government to do is increase the budget. It is now about RM10 billion a year. We want the government to increase it to RM15 billion, put in some Petronas money and push up the budget. We want them to have a separate health commission and pay the doctors more so more of them will stay in service. Also give them other perks like sabbaticals. Medicine is a fast evolving field. Nothing will be lost if every three years, a specialist is allowed to go abroad for three months to pick up some new skill. It’s not just the money, give them a chance to do research and learn a new skill. Give other perks that will improve the health sector.

Also freeze approvals for new private hospitals because if you have new private hospitals, then it attracts more doctors and specialists from the government sector. You cannot stop what’s already there but prevent them from expanding will help to ensure more doctors and specialists stay in the public health sector.

Ultimately it will help keep the health cost down as what we spend on insurance payments is huge especially on private hospitals.

Also, something like health tourism – healthcare is not the main focus as more private hospitals are being built to cater to health tourism.

You need a good core service in the public sector so that the government doesn’t keep losing to the private sector.

If you look at it, the private hospitals are not really private. One of the biggest chains is KPJ which is Umno linked; Pantai Holdings another big chain; Sime Darby is coming in, Petronas is coming in. All the GLCs are making health into an industry and making mega bucks out of it. The government has a private health industry and it seems that the government is deliberately running down the public health industry to promote the private sector. The two are linked! So we must stop approving new private hospitals and even expansion of existing private hospitals. And at the same time improve the service conditions for the staff. And to do that, put in some Petronas money.

I don’t think it will work if the Petronas money is not spent properly.

The problem is the leakages. Someone told me that the annual budget is RM140 billion and one-third of that is spent on leakages because you have got screwdrivers costing RM300 and that kind of bull****.

One Health Ministry official told us that the cost of constructing a private hospital is only RM260,000 per bed, but the government’s cost is RM1 million per bed. Care to comment?

We must think of getting an ombudsman to look into this kind of things. Also we should push for local council elections in the five states that are under the Barisan Rakyat and if we do it in these five states, it will put a lot of pressure on the rest of the country to adopt it. It will cut down a lot of this graft as they will be forced to face the populace. It will be a major step forward.

We have not faced this kind of opportunities before – winning five states, breaking the Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority (in the Dewan Rakyat), we can bring up things in Parliament. It is a period of opportunity. But it must be the politicians and civil society plus the media to make use of this and do something. If we fall flat on our faces, people will not give us this kind of opportunity again.

So what about Sungai Siput?

Sungai Siput must be a model constituency.

How do you define that? What are the issues there?

The orang asli issues, urban poor, squatters, permits for petty traders, small farmers without grants, new villages without grants … plenty of problems! There are also many jobless youths … young Malays and Indians without any qualifications. The unemployment rate is quite high. The factories here prefer to hire foreigners, so I have to look into these issues.

I have the advantage of that our party and our campaign attract a lot of people with conviction. They see PSM as doing something. A lot of them who come forward are good people. They are sincere and willing to sacrifice, so we want to see how to make it possible for them to come and work with us full time.

I will still work as a doctor a few times a week. My pay as an MP will go to the party programme so that we can hire full-timers. Their job is not in the office but out in the field. Sungai Siput is a large area. And of course, we have a core group of volunteers who have been there for the last nine years. It is our volunteer work which helped us win this time.

Hasn’t Sungai Siput been well taken care of?

They’ve got good roads-lah! Even the Peneroka Bandar, in town itself you have squatters who have been promised and promised but still have not got what they deserve.

What is your connection with Sungai Siput?

It dates back to 1977. We were involved in the Social Service Corps TLS (Tamil Language Society) where you have to stay in estates during the (university) term holidays. We kept going back, setting up kindergartens, tuition centres. Then in 1986, we had a full timer and then we saw that the problem of education is that we cannot educate people out of poverty, housing conditions, lighting, lousy estate schools and pay. Just saying "education, education, education" is not enough

You have to do more than that. That’s why in 1991 we began this Rural Development Programme (RDP) campaign calling on the government to extend all anti-poverty programmes offered to Malay kampung to the estates.

Until now, estates are considered as private, so it is the role of management. But management being businessmen don’t give as much. So we said the government should take over all the labour lines and living areas and consider them as kampung.

But there was no response from the government?

No. Not much.

Didn’t you approach Samy Vellu for assistance?

He said not possible, we are doing enough, all these excuses.

Did he help?

His way of helping is to just give money. What kind of help is that? Here we are talking about changing unjust structures, changing labour laws, employment conditions. That’s the kind of help he cannot do because he is tied by the system.

But in terms of giving money for a temple, a hall and building roads, putting tar on estate roads, those kind of help he can do, so we cannot say he hasn’t helped. We are talking about things affecting the distribution of income between the corporations and the workers and we are asking for laws to change that.

One of the things we are asking for under the RDP campaign is that if an estate is sold and workers retrenched, they should be given a house because they worked for three generations for you.

Unlike the Malay factory worker or estate worker, if the former is retrenched, he can return to his kampung; but the Indian workers who came here as indentured labourers; where can they go? You don’t pay them good wages to start with, they can’t buy a house so they eventually become squatters. Twenty years down the line when the urban area becomes more developed and the land they lived on and reclaimed and dumped soil and built drains and made more economically viable, that land is taken away from them because they are squatters. So they get double – kicked out of the estate with nothing and then kicked out of the urban areas. That’s why you have Hindraf. It is an accumulation of being pushed into a corner.

So what is your order of business in Parliament?

I’ve got to learn the ropes-lah! But Internal Security Act is one of them. I have been against the ISA for a long, long time.

There are two positions – one is to completely abolish it and another is following Suhakam’s suggestion to keep the ISA but cut down the detention time to a maximum of three months. You can’t keep holding people for two years.

The Suhakam annual report is not even debated in Parliament!

Now we’ve got one-third, we can ask for it. With the ISA, the strategy is whether to abolish it straight away or keep it as an interim measure. Like in India, after three months you have to charge or release them. But here, this two years multiple of two is worrying! These are the things we have to discuss. The Opposition has to strategise. Go for something pragmatic like the Suhakam proposal to reduce the stint or go for abolishing the ISA altogether.

You know, there are some who feel that you need the ISA in the wake of religious extremism! So we have to carry the population’s view also. So the thing is whether you want to be principled or pragmatic. Tie their hands so that the ISA doesn’t become so fierce! But that’s just my view. We have to discuss with the other parliamentarians as well as groups like GMI, Suaram and Hakam to come up with a consensus on what is the best strategy.

If it comes to a vote in Parliament, we won’t win the vote but if it is supported by a campaign, then they will have to listen.

So where did the votes come from for you?

Sixty-five per cent of the Chinese votes spun my way and 37% of the Malay vote which is lower than the last time (38%). I am a bit surprised as 2004 was (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad) Badawi’s good year. I don’t know if the Malays were confused about Hindraf. We thought it would be close. I thought I would lose by 1,000 votes. I didn’t expect this, especially the Chinese swing. The Indians of course swung my way.

It must feel good to be David slaying Goliath.

It feels great! It’s a combination of factors – the government becoming unpopular; Hindraf, Makkal Sakhti – but also our work for the last nine years also played a part. People have not seen a candidate staying back consistently after losing twice and being a regular. We actually helped out 20-30 communities here and in Penang. So people know that.

I am no stranger. I say "look I lost but yet I did this much, give me the power, imagine what more I can do", so it encourages them.

Even the 37% of Malay support is because of our work. We’ve been working with a health coalition and water coalition where PAS is involved so PAS knows us. PAS used its whole machinery to help us win. So it’s our work, PAS and Hindraf … to bring that guy down, a lot of factors came together.

He didn’t expect it. We too didn’t expect it. Until the last vote was counted I didn’t expect to win.

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