An Alternative Vision For Malaysia

Author: Jeyakumar Devaraj
Publisher: SIRD Centre

An Alternative Vision For Malaysia is the most recent collection of writings by Sungai Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj.

Dr Jeyakumar, who is one of the founding members of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), is also a practising doctor and has published other books before, including titles in Tamil, some of which are out of print.

True to his work, activism and adherence to socialist principles, his writing focuses on the poor and the marginalised in Malaysian society. There are 17 chapters in this slim book, most of which comprise parliamentary speeches and seminar papers presented at various venues around the world between 2008 and 2014.

In keeping with PSM’s commitment to making the class struggle relevant and contemporaneous with Malaysian issues, all of the pieces included in this book are easy to understand, lucid and devoid of complicated academic concepts that might prove to be a barrier for newcomers to socialist thought.

It is a solid entry-point for people who want to learn more about how to apply socialist thinking to pertinent issues like Malaysian healthcare or public transport.

It’s also an accessible book for people who need socialism the most but who may lack the time and resources to spend on exhaustive material: workers and poor people living in the margins of society. As such, I hope that there are resources available to translate this book into Malay, Mandarin and Tamil for greater reach.

As Dr Jeyakumar details throughout this book, suppression of communist and socialist groups from the 1960s onward ensured that the dominant narrative of capitalist realism and, as the 1980s progressed, neoliberalism, became the accepted form of “common sense” to many Malaysians.

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So the biggest hurdle for the average Malaysian reader is the unlearning of decades of indoctrination that present capitalism as the best and most natural way of organising production and social and property relations.

The issues that arose with communism, like in the Soviet Union, were further repackaged and circulated following the Cold War via the American culture industry and academic disciplines as wholly evil or nefarious, contributing to the demonisation of leftist thought.

As such, many Malaysians tend to view socialism and communism as schools of thought that are inherently tied to despotism, authoritarianism, dreary architecture, breadlines and the absence of pleasure. This mindset is what Dr Jeyakumar discusses with nuance in his pieces without excusing missteps in leftist practice.

Starting from the first chapter The Right To Livelihood, Dr Jeyakumar shows how capitalism systematically erodes basic livelihood and dignity at the expense of a few who make it to the “top”, or who successfully exploit the labours of others enough to capitalise on profits.

“Economic policy in many countries is now formulated with the goal of attracting private investment,” he writes, pointing out that the GST is one measure lowering corporate tax that occurs concurrently with the formalisation of contractual labour (in other words, precarious labour with no benefits or safety net).

This makes it even more difficult for ordinary people to maintain a bearable lifestyle, much less “invest” in their future. As such, corporations are accorded human dignity while humans are made more and more expendable.

Other chapters take on increased privatisation of healthcare and the extremely serious ramifications this has on the well-being of Malaysians. He clearly delineates the move towards health care privatisation locally, briefly sketching out the history, and concludes that the common sense talk of the benefits of competition and free-markets and liberalisation only “accrues to the upper class”.

As he explains further: “A free market system based on private providers attempting to maximize profits for themselves will lead to misallocation of scarce health resources and to the under-servicing of the poorer sectors of society.”

Similarly, Dr Jeyakumar goes on to show how policies on housing and public transportation create a city that is ultimately only comfortable for the middle- and upper-classes. And he doesn’t deal in the abstract – he lays out with clarity the concrete political changes that have resulted in increased closing up of the commons and the subsequent miseries inflicted on society’s poorest and most marginalised.

This collection doesn’t neglect the material realities of culture, and features some useful thoughts on how leftism needs to approach religious issues in Malaysia. With sensitivity and respect, Dr Jeyakumar points out that many of the issues that minorities in Malaysia have with Islam have been the result of political manipulation, where religion is used as a smokescreen to sow dissent between people and maintain rifts along ethnic and religious fault lines to prevent solidarity.

At the same time, he acknowledges the role of religion in allowing oppressed peoples in the global South, particularly in the Middle-E ast, to find common ground to resist American imperialist interventions in their countries.

As such, Dr Jeyakumar suggests that religion can’t be thrown out or left to its own devices, but urgently needs to be integrated into socialist thinking.

This is a well-timed collection of writings that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

There are minor problems that include some editorial oversights like missing footnotes in Chapter 11.

Additionally, it would have been excellent to have Dr Jeyakumar explain in detail the concepts of imperialism, or Marxist terms like “use value” and “exchange value” (which might throw off some readers who have not read volume one of Karl Marx’s Capital).

An extensive bibliography of recommended readings would also have been helpful.

Further discussions about capitalism and labour exploitation in relation to the “reserve army of labour” would also have been useful, considering current brutal policies towards migrants and asylum-seekers like the Rohingya.

As it is, thanks to progressive publishing ventures like SIRD and Gerakbudaya, Malaysians who see the urgent need for an alternative to capitalism, and to counter dominant narratives that present capitalism as the only possible reality, will find much hope and ideas for concrete action in this book.