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Small parties, big questions

(Pic by barunpatro /

POP quiz — how many registered political parties are there in Malaysia? This is not such an easy question to answer. The official website for the Election Commission (EC) of Malaysia says there are 31 registered political parties to date. But a quick browse shows that the EC actually lists the Barisan Nasional (BN), technically a coalition comprising several parties, as one political party.

The EC also does not include the spate of newly registered parties such as the Hindraf offshoot, Parti Hak Asasi Malaysia, and the Hindraf splinter offshoot, the Malaysian Makkal Sakthi Party. The latest registered party to be listed by the EC is Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), which currently holds the Sungai Siput seat in Parliament and the Kota Damansara seat in the Selangor state assembly.

But it’s safe to say that there are more than 30 registered political parties in Malaysia. Roughly half of this number consists of the 13 parties in the BN coalition, and the three in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). What about the other parties? What role do small parties actually play in a democracy? Do they even make a difference in the political landscape?

Chin (Courtesy of James Chin)
Bright future

“I think there is a very bright future for small parties in Malaysia,” says Monash University Sunway Campus’s Prof Dr James Chin. The political scientist, however, clarifies that there are small parties, and then there are small parties.

“The future is bright for small parties that are concentrated in particular states or small regions,” he explains, citing specifically the smaller, regional parties in Sabah and Sarawak.

“I won’t be surprised if someone sets up a Kelantan-based party, using the Kelantanese dialect to woo voters,” says Chin, adding that such a party would be successful in the state, but not outside of it.

He tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview that small parties defined by niche issues, such as the Green Party, do not have bright futures in Malaysia.

“It’s the nature of the Malaysian political marketplace, where big parties need big machinery to survive,” he says.

And with this, Chin stresses that leftist parties such as PSM and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) are technically not small parties: “They are only small in the Malaysian context because they cannot seem to break out in the larger political landscape. But their ideologies are actually far-reaching and could have mass appeal, in theory.”

That said, Chin reckons both PRM and PSM will continue to flounder in Malaysia because voters continue to vote along racial and religious lines.

A creative opposition

PSM’s Sungai Siput Member of Parliament (MP), Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, who is a columnist with The Nut Graph, agrees with Chin to an extent.

In a telephone interview with The Nut Graph, Jeyakumar says it is the “systematic obliteration” of secular leftist parties — first by the British colonial government and then the post-independence Alliance government — that catalysed racial politics. He points out that the parliamentary opposition leader in the 1960s was Ahmad Boestamam, a socialist. He acknowledges, though, that over the decades, the tide has turned.

“It is true that PSM has no voting strength to bring about changes [in Malaysia]. Even within the [federal] opposition, we are very small and insignificant.”

However, Jeyakumar says the “activist past” of many of PSM’s current leaders is forging a new political culture, at least in Sungai Siput.

“There was an issue regarding the relocation of more than 40 families of urban settlers here in Kampung Sungai Buloh. The previous PR Perak government had agreed to relocate them within their original residential radius. But the current BN government wanted to send them 20km out of town.”

The situation, Jeyakumar says, was dire because the land office was intransigent. If he had played a conventional role as an MP, Jeyakumar says he would have been hamstrung as an opposition rep in a BN-controlled government. Instead, he spoke to the settlers and facilitated a plan of action among them.

In the end, 70 of the settlers demonstrated in Sungai Siput for their rights in July 2009. This may be a small number by Kuala Lumpur standards, but Jeyakumar says it sent shockwaves throughout Sungai Siput. The current menteri besar’s office then stepped in, and the settlers successfully renegotiated for a fairer resettlement location.

Jeyakumar says it is important to become a “Yang Berhormat organiser” in such situations where both the state and federal BN governments are not supportive of opposition MPs. “If they don’t want to listen to us, fine. But we can facilitate people’s power to challenge their policies.”

True colours

Syed Husin
Unlike PSM, PRM has absolutely no seats in Parliament or in any state assembly. And yet, on 16 July 2009, the party had reason to celebrate. Kuala Lumpur High Court judge Low Bee Lan threw out a request by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali and other PKR leaders to have PRM deregistered.

Syed Husin, the former PRM president, along with other former PRM leaders such as current PKR vice-president R Sivarasa (former PRM vice-president), were proponents of a 2003 merger between PRM and the then Parti Keadilan Nasional. The merger gave birth to the current PKR. But there was a faction of PRM members who opposed the merger and held a national congress in Johor Baru in 2005, effectively keeping PRM alive.

Since then, Syed Husin and the former PRM leaders who joined PKR have tried to get PRM deregistered. It is surprising, therefore, when PRM secretary-general Koh Swe Yong tells The Nut Graph that a party like PRM stands a good chance of growing if the PR takes over federal government.

But Koh does not intend this as flattery. “When the PR gets into federal government, it will show its true colours, and people will see that PRM is actually the real alternative here,” he says in a telephone interview. “Right now, people are supporting the PR just because they want to overthrow the BN.”

Koh’s observation could well be written off as that of an embittered PRM leader. Nevertheless, it raises even more questions about whether small parties can change Malaysia’s political landscape. The PKR-PRM tussle crystallises the issue: if small parties are that inconsequential, why did PKR, Malaysia’s biggest parliamentary opposition party, try to destroy the “insignificant” egg it hatched from?

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2 Responses to “Small parties, big questions”

  1. Farouq Omaro says:

    Yeah, not to forget Parti Setiahati Bersatu Sabah (Setia), Parti Bersekutu, Parti Punjabi Malaysia, Parti Murut Sabah, Malaysian Dayak Congress, Kongress India Muslim Malaysia, Pasok Nunuk Ragang, Angkatan Keadilan Insan Malaysia and what not.

  2. kamal says:

    Absolute agree. I thought it was a bit premature that people were suddenly clamouring for a two-party system: the PR and BN. I feel it is equally premature to write of the impact of a Green Party in Malaysia. If we vote according to racial/ethnic and religious lines today, it is probably the result of the pool of choices. The BN obviously has much invested in ethnic politics, and the only opposition coalition has not shown that it is any different.

    Yet if we look at some of the more recent issues that we face, a lot of it deal with the environment. From deforestation and land degradation to the expansion of palm oil plantations and the clearing of forests to accommodate urban growth, there’s a common theme: it effects the lives of people, some more direct than others. And it has resulted in people taking action.

    Sometime back, there were protests against the Selangor Dam in Kuala Kubu Baru that saw a diverse group of people protesting the loss of that pristine space. KL-ites cycle or go trailblazing there; the Temuan communities were directly effected; white-water-rafting operators were worried the dam would effect their business; other people who lived further away were concerned that this would effect the fisheries and tourism businesses downstream.

    In recent years, we have urban groups urging for the conservation of forests plots in Damansara Perdana as a green lung for the city. In Sarawak, recent news reports tells of Penan and Iban communities putting up blockades to prevent encroachment and the subsequent loss of what they claim is their native land to logging and palm oil. And then there are the effects of land degradation, Cameron Highlands [being one example] …

    A green party should not just represent conservation per se, but issues related to sustainable management of natural resources. It is also about building a greener city, township, etc. It is bringing down the cost of living through eco-friendly designs (houses, offices, etc.) and using less more efficiently. Green issues aren’t just about tree huggers; in the end it boils down to raising issues about being responsible and ethical consumers.

    Remember the day when one ceiling fan was cooling and the tree shade outside made it comfortable to walk about in the daytime? We also didn’t take many plastic bags home because people brought their own bags or trolley to the market. Perhaps I am slightly romanticising the past, but times are changing; the effort to make life comfortable has cost us a lot more.

    We complain about the haze, the heat, the garbage left uncollected in townships around and perhaps beyond KL, the lack of green spaces in towns, of polluted rivers, pollution of our beaches and coastal waters, of the degradation of our forests and the destruction of the biodiversity replacing it with single crops. From Kedah to Sabah there is news on our primary forest areas being given up to logging concessionaires, palm oil estates or developed into dams. There’s supposed to be a whole series of new dams coming up in Sarawak, and of course there is the subject of the Kelau Dam that will quench the thirst of KLites.

    With so many issues that directly affect us — from basic rights, aesthetics and our pockets — how can a green party not have a big impact on politics in Malaysia? Unlike the PSM or PRM, the green party can cover the interests of both commercial and communal interests. What is good for the environment in the end is good for business. And what is good for business is always good for the people.

    Of course, this will take time in Malaysia. Both the BN and PR will have to let go of the notion that might is right, or in this case, a vulgar sense of majority politics. Inefficiency is not just more expensive; we also coming around to realise that we live in a finite system, and at some point the consequences of our excesses do come back to haunt us.

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