The Labour Party of Malaya, 1952–1972

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The rise and demise of the Labour Party of Malaya was an important experience of socialist politics in Malaysia.  Mistakes were made and many leaders and members paid a heavy price for them. Even so, their courage, commitment and sacrifices before and after independence cannot be denied a proper historical appreciation, observes Tan Kim Hong in tracing a brief history of the party. 

The Labour Party of Malaya (LPM) was a multi-ethnic socialist party of the 1950s and 1960s. Its political origins lay in the ‘New Trade Unionism’ of the Cold War period. Before Merdeka, the anti-communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), with the support of the colonial government, encouraged the formation of a non-militant trade union movement and moderate Labour Parties located in different regions of the country. Yet, the LPM grew into a mass radical political party whose rise and fall were crucially shaped by circumstances often beyond its control.

Regional labour parties

The first regional Labour Parties shared some characteristics of organisation and ideology. Their leaders were English-educated leaders of the Malayan Trades Union Congress. Their members were largely Indian and Malay members of public service unions. The parties were modelled on the British Labour Party, having democratic socialism and multi-culturalism as guiding principles.

However, they were different in policy formulation and execution. The Penang Labour Party spoke earnestly of moulding national consciousness and instituting administrative reforms to help the down-trodden. It paid some attention to the issue of self-government but steered away from the core question of ending colonial rule. On the other hand, the Selangor Labour Party expressly aimed to achieve independence through constitutional means. Its other important objectives were economic egalitarianism, the socialization of the means of production, equitable income and wealth distribution, and political liberalization.

The colonial government tacitly supported the involvement of such regional Labour Parties in elections but prohibited them from expanding beyond their geographical boundaries. Thus, the Labour Parties operated in restricted spaces. Their leaders could only conduct limited discourses with their small membership. Besides, it was difficult for them to transcend existing language barriers to disseminate ideas of social justice and political equality to the masses.

On 26 June 1952, the Pan-Malaya Labour Party (PMLP) was formed from the amalgamated membership of the Penang, Selangor and Singapore Labour Parties. With Mohammad Sopiee as its National Chairman and Osman Siru as his deputy, the PMLP was more a liaison organization than a structured party. The party did not admit individual members but accepted all democratic labour and socialist organizations as members. Its formation was expedient, to take advantage of early electoral politics; yet, it was a pioneering attempt to galvanize workers’ support in impending municipal elections.

The PMLP’s constitution had two main objectives: to co-ordinate labour and socialist organizations to achieve national independence, social justice, and political, social and economic emancipation; and to cooperate with labour, socialist and other organizations in Malaya and elsewhere to promote a higher standard of social and economic life for workers.

The PMLP’s first policy statement, Towards a New Malaya, passed in September 1952, laid out much of its programme which included democratic socialism, workers’ participation in industrial policy-making, land for the peasants, and provisions for social welfare, medical and health services, and social security and pension schemes for all. In economic management, the PMLP wanted to check industrial and commercial monopolies, provide agricultural subsidies to farmers, enlarge the acreage of rubber small holdings, manage the rubber industry, reform the salary structure of workers, and revamp the taxation system.

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In 1953, sixteen intellectuals including D.S. Ramanathan, Tan Phock Kin, N. Patkunam, Lee Kok Liang, C.Y. Choy, Tan Chong Bee and V. Veerapan from the Fabian Society of Penang joined the PMLP. These professionals and teachers, all social democrats, moved to immerse themselves in politics, offering analyses, recommendations, and political participation vastly different from those of the moderate trade unionists favoured by colonial officials. By early 1954, the PMLP had come to resemble the British Labour Party, advocating gradual economic nationalization and a welfare state.


Pan-Malaya Labour Party

On 5 June 1954, the PMLP took the new name of the Labour Party of Malaya (LPM). With the election of Lee Moke Sang as its Chairman, the LPM proclaimed itself a political organization to unite the workers and peasants of Malaya and struggle for a united, independent and democratic nation. The LPM’s manifesto for the 1955  Federal Election was inclined towards socialist reforms. (See box for details)

On the eve of Merdeka, LPM gained from the Chinese school students’ movement and the national workers’ movement; the organizational collaboration between an emerging Socialist Youth League and the Pan-Malaya Union of General Workers; and cooperation with Partai Rakyat (founded in December 1955).

These developments brought LPM victory in the George Town Municipal Council election of 1957. The party won five out of the nine contested seats, a result that strengthened the party’s multi-ethnic mass base in Penang, and gave a leading role to the Penang Division in the LPM’s national structure.

The Socialist Front

Merdeka Day was a turning point in LPM’s history. With Parti Rakyat, the LPM formed a coalition, the Malayan People’s Socialist Front (SF), which was the second legal alliance to transcend communal differences. The SF’s 1959 policy statement, also named as Towards a New Malaya, laid out its position on the national language, art and literature, education, the Orang Asli, Malay reservation land, plantations and mines, fisheries, labour and social welfare, and defence and foreign policy.

In subsequent local government elections, the SF won control of the City Council of George Town, and the local councils in Jinjang, Serdang, Tanjung Sepat, Pengkalan Titi and elsewhere. In George Town, the SF fulfilled some of its campaign promises, for example, by implementing low-cost housing projects such as the People’s Court in Cintra Street and the Kampong Selut scheme in Jelutong.   

In the 1959 General Election, the SF progressed in mixed constituencies in Selangor, Johore and Penang: it gained 34.6 per cent of the popular vote cast in the constituencies it contested. The SF was poised to be a non-communal socialist alternative in Malayan politics during the 1960s.

The issue of ‘Malaysia’

The SF confronted a huge political obstacle, however, in the ‘Grand Design’, previously conceived by Britain, and promulgated as ‘Greater Malaysia’ by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in May 1961.

Following a Five-State Socialist Conference of the proposed Malaysian territories, held in Kuala Lumpur in January 1962, the LPM moved to accept Malaysia in principle at its 9th Annual Conference in August. The LPM’s new Secretary-General, Lim Kean Siew, maintaining that the merger of Singapore with Malaya was inevitable, nonetheless warned that ‘unless our thinking is radically changed and the inconsistencies of the Malaysian concept are removed, ultimate conflict and disintegration is inevitable.’

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However, the party rank and file became bitter over the ‘Malaysia issue’ after the detention under the Internal Security Act of Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan Sosialis and SATU leaders in Singapore under Operation Coldstore in February 1962. The use of the ISA there, coupled with the arrest of Parti Rakyat Chairman, Ahmad Boestamam in Malaya, was seen as a move to repress the left in Malaya and Singapore. From then on, the SF’s relationship with the regime badly deteriorated.

SF’s decline

The SF’s performance in the 1964 General Election was adversely affected by two major factors. First, allegations had been made from June 1963 of malpractices in the City Council of Georgetown and other SF-controlled local councils. Second, the Alliance, the People’s Action Party, and the United Democratic Party – respectively led by the Tunku, Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Lim Chong Eu – vehemently attacked the SF as the ‘fifth column’ of Indonesia.

Despite SF’s repeated acceptance of Malaysia and a 5-Point Plan to secure a truce between Britain and Malaysia, and Indonesia, the SF and LPM fell victim to the psychological manipulation of voter sentiments and suffered their worst defeats, even in their own electoral bastions.

It is quite likely that some LPM cadres and functionaries were convinced then to adopt a ‘hard line’ vis-à-vis the regime. Soon they found other reasons to be so.

In the 1960s, the ISA was widely and indiscriminately used to detain hundreds of LPM and SF leaders and members in Taiping, Batu Gajah and Muar. Repeated repression of this sort undermined the LPM and SF’s organizational effectiveness. The detentions of Ishak bin Hj. Mohammad, Abdul Aziz bin Ishak and Datuk Kampo Radjo on untried charges of setting up a government-in-exile during Konfrontasi with Indonesia were attempts to repress the Malay Left.

In 1965, key SF leaders, such as Chairman Hansul bin Abdul Hadi, Secretary-General Tajuddin Kahar and Assistant Secretary-General Tan Kai Hee were arrested to foil a demonstration called for 13 February, the SF’s Human Rights Day, to commemorate the second anniversary of Ahmad Boestamam’s internment.


Radicalisation under repression

The pace of radicalisation intensified. The SF’s Perak Division hailed the ‘February 13 Incident’ in Kuala Lumpur as an epochal event in the struggle against neo-colonialism, and an instructive lesson in class struggle. The LPM division in Perak went on to develop a theory of shili douzheng (militant struggle).

A different kind of problem developed after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on 9 August. Within the SF, the LPM and Parti Rakyat diverged, principally over the issue of official language. In December, Parti Rakyat resolved to break away from the SF while Lim Kean Siew announced that the coalition would end on 16 January 1966. At this juncture, internal quarrels terminated the SF’s control of George Town City Council and LPM lost a most important political platform.

Between July 1964 and June 1965, LPM Assistant Secretary-General Dr. M K Rajkumar had warned the party of the infiltration of agents provocateur who would create internal confusion and division. The Perak Division’s stance was part of a smear campaign against the ‘rightist’ LPM leaders, five of whom resigned in March 1966.

An ad hoc Central Secretariat now led the party towards more strident radicalization in ideology and tactics with worsening repercussions. An Anti-US Imperialism Campaign resulted in the mass arrests of cadres, members and supporters. The LPM Central Secretariat called an Extraordinary National Delegates Conference on 24–25 September 1966 that resolved to expedite ‘anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-feudalism and anti-Malaysia’ struggles.’ While combining ‘mass struggle’ with ‘constitutional struggle’, the Conference placed the former ahead of the latter as a strategy to wrest political power.

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The end of the LPM

In October 1967, the 13th National Delegates’ Conference in Penang passed ‘ultra leftist’ resolutions on such matters as US imperialism, Soviet revisionism, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Vietnam War, ISA, worker-peasant united front, mass organizations and revolutionary strategies.

The LPM now initiated regular street demonstrations all over the country which culminated in the Penang hartal of 24 November 1967 in response to the unpopular devaluation of the Malaysian currency. The regime’s response was more repression with ISA and other measures. The party was crippled when divisions in Penang, Johore and Malacca, and 36 branches in the country were proscribed.

The Kedah Division’s call for a boycott of the 1969 General Election was endorsed on 29 September 1968 by an Enlarged Central Committee Meeting comprising three de jure members and several other divisional representatives. By the end of the year, in protest against another wave of arrests on 9 November, LPM councillors at all levels had resigned from their positions. And, after ‘May 13’, 17 other LPM branches were banned and over a hundred members were detained.

In September 1969, an accord of understanding was reached between LPM’s Lim Kean Siew and Dr. Rajakumar and Parti Rakyat’s Kassim Ahmad and Syed Husin Ali to hold to ‘scientific socialism’, ‘working class solidarity’ and ‘the unity of the people of all nationalities’ against ‘chauvinism and narrow nationalism’. No steps were taken to work towards such objectives.  

Three years later, in September 1972, the Registrar of Societies deregistered the LPM on account of its failure to submit annual reports for several years.

The rise and demise of LPM is an important experience of socialist politics in Malaysia.  Mistakes were made and many leaders and members paid a heavy price for them. Even so, their courage, commitment and sacrifices before and after independence cannot be denied a proper historical appreciation.

LPM Manifesto for 1955 Federal Elections

  1. To implement planned economy to fulfill needs of the Malayan people. All exploitation of the workers should be stopped and all monopolies and inefficient industries should be nationalized;
  2. To amend the Labour Law and the Trade Union Ordinance. All unions to enjoy the full rights of free assemblies and political participation;
  3. To provide the poor with legal assistance;
  4. To solve problems of unemployment, and to enforce minimum wage and parity for women workers;
  5. To resolve issues of land indebtedness and to assist peasants with land, agricultural cooperatives, agricultural banks and collective farms;
  6. To promote local industries with tariff protection;
  7. To establish a Central Bank to regulate circulation of money and
  8. To implement compulsory free primary education, and to develop secondary schools and tertiary education.

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