The Malaysian Ideology, Pragmatism, Socialism and Populism

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir's recent comment saying that Malaysia "has no ideology" has generated a few debates and discussions on the Internet. Of course that statement is debatable. I can agree to some extent. You have to understand the context of his argument.

I think what Dr Mahathir was trying to say is that the government does not subscribe to any fixed political ideology. Take for example the Communist China. In reality China is no longer a communist or socialist state, though they are often proud to claim theirs as "Chinese-style socialist". But in actuality it is pure capitalism. What separates them from the American capitalism is that in China it is a state-controlled economy, while in the US, private enterprise.

Malaysia, on the other hand, though we have never officially or politically claimed ourselves to be a socialist state, key elements of socialism and populism existed in some of our economic structures and policies.

As a matter of fact, "left" and "right" economic policies were adopted by the federal government, though such policies were never mentioned as being socialist or liberal or conservative. In essence, Dr Mahathir- a free market believer - is above all a pragmatic. And I'm not too sure where does Pragmatism sits if you're judging his statement based on the Western democratic scale.

This debate reminds me of second Prime Minister, the late Tun Razak. In the early 70s, the opposition once accused his government of having no political ideology, which ironically is similar to what the great doctor is saying today. Tun Razak responded by saying that Malaysia's main ideology is development. "Politik Pembangunan" is the government's ideology then, said Tun Razak. By today's standard he would most likely be described as a Centrist.

Most political parties in Malaysia are still race-based; UMNO, MCA, MIC, PBB (Sarawak bumiputra-based party), UPKO (Kadazan-based party) just to name a few. The Indian community, despite being one of the smallest minorities in Malaysia, have the biggest number of political parties said to be representing them. The oldest being the MIC. The rest are IPF, PPP (Indian-based multiracial party), Human Rights Party, Makkal Sakhti Party, MIUP (Nallakarupan's), KIMMA (Indian Muslim) and Parti Punjabi Malaysia. Not sure if I missed any.

In spite of this 'Malaysia-has-no-ideology' debate, it is interesting and surprising to see the growing number of leftist or socialist-based parties in Malaysia since Merdeka. It begs the question, if Malaysia has no ideology, why then do we have so many ideology based, particularly left leaning socialist parties?

Historically, the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), formed in 1930, is the oldest political party in Malaya. In 1940s, the AMCJA-Putera coalition consisting of Malay leftist and Chinese left-leaning parties formed the biggest challenge to Dato' Onn's UMNO before they were banned by the British in 1948. In the 50s and 60s, the socialist political movement were led by the Malay-based Partai Rakyat and the Chinese-based Labour Party, which together formed the Socialist Front (SF).

Another left-leaning party, a Chinese-based DAP, an off-shoot of Lee Kuan Yew's PAP was formed in the mid 60s. Unlike the SF, DAP's ideology is democratic socialism. In spite of the ideology, DAP is more popular for being perceived as a Chinese Chauvinist party that advocated narrow chauvinistic values.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet socialist regime, the fall of Berlin wall and the reunification of West and East Germany, many especially in the Western democratic states happily pronounced the death of socialism. But in Malaysia the decade saw the birth of another socialist party, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), led by former PRM leader, Dr Nasir Hashim, now an elected State Assemblyman in Selangor.

The only thing that differs PRM and PSM is probably in the nature of their membership. While PRM appears to be more multiracial in its outlook, PSM draws its support mainly from the rural ethnic Indian community, despite having a Malay as its Chairman.

Although PRM was supposed to have been disbanded, like the old Labour Party or Boestamam's short-lived Parti Marhain or Ku Li's Semangat 46, after the PKN (Keadilan)-PRM merger, The funny fact is that PRM is still around. It is like seeing the re-birth of Bank Bumiputra (BB) even though BB has merged with Bank Of Commerce to become Bumiputra Commerce Bank (today CIMB).

Moving forward, what would be, or should be our national political ideology? Would things change drastically if the opposition wins the 14th General Election in 2016? (BN to win the 13th GE).

Looking at the way things are going today and the nature of competitive politics today, I dread to think that we may be possibly plunged into an era of greater populism in future, at the expense of our national interest and our nation's long term growth.

If I may sum up in one sentence on the ideological shift from the 1970s to today, it would be the shift from pragmatism to populism.


Anonymous said…
Any ideology you mentioned is not entirely free from criticism. Socialist parties failed in Malaysia because their support base has always been the lower classes. Middle class Malaysians have no real representation in leftist circles and are psychologically excluded from voting socialist candidates. Exclusive representation is seen as communal as the outright race based parties.