The Malaysia that Could Have Been: Political and Economic Reflections on the API Political Testament

Locating the Political Testament of API within the tradition of Third World Nationalism and Socialism.

The Political Testament of the API (Angkatan Pemuda Insaf or Awakened Youth Organisation) was certainly noteworthy for the fervent radicalism and conviction in its call to wage the anti-imperialist struggle against the British as well as the emerging Malayan elite. It is, however, also noteworthy for the vision of a Malaya or Malaysia it had sought to bring forth. Though the short document is filled with elements of what we might now with hindsight call Third World Nationalism or Third World Socialism, the author, Ahmad Boestamam, did not have these references in mind when writing it. Noting this, it is worthwhile to speculate what this alternate vision of Malaysia might have looked like and the emancipatory potential it holds.

A Third World Nationalism Ahead of its Time

The Testament, having been written in 1946, preceded the success of the revolutionary project it aspired to so much. The Indonesian Revolution it repeatedly mentions, which largely ended by 1949, had yet to fully establish its sovereign republic. The Third World project that would begin in 1955 at the Bandung Conference, brought together newly liberated nations and asserted the call for independence — both political and economic independence — from both the capitalist Westerns powers and the communist Soviet Union. This independence was envisioned to be the right of formerly colonised peoples to chart their own democratic and developmental destinies. The liberation projects of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, future icons of the Third World project, had not yet come into existence for Boestamam’s inspiration.

The calls for genuine democracy and a radically progressive economic policy places the aspirations of API well ahead of its time among the anti-colonial struggles globally. Its program echoes that which was carried out throughout the liberated Global South. Issues in the document such as full employment, land redistribution and new freedoms were rallying cries of many anti-imperialist movements. Drawing its inspiration from the Russian and Irish Revolutions, its recognition that the struggle is not merely against foreign occupiers but also domestic collaborators and capitalists places API very much in line with the socialist current of the time and at the forefront of national liberation thought in the Third World. This stands out in sharp contrast to many countries in the Global South that sought to make peace with the domestic feudal and capitalist class. Boestamam and API instinctively understood that local elites were no ally of the people.

Malaysia’s Possible Democracy

In the Testament, one of API’s stated purposes was to rebuild Malaya along the lines of a genuine democracy that is based on the sovereignty of the people. Boestamam’s call for genuine democracy is telling for it distinguishes itself from the formal democracy that had been established in the West, a democracy in which the right to vote was narrow and often favoured landlords and capitalists.

The Testament’s demands in the realm of politics were that: “the colonised peoples should be given to right to speak out on matters of state, and the right to be chosen and to choose to be given to all, not for it to be exclusive to the propertied and their likes. The freedom to speak, express oneself in the press, assemble and so on. The abolition of laws that determine the punishment for newspapers for criticising the administration and for publishing writings deemed seditious. The abolition of detention centres for those involved in politics and the labour movement. The abolition of laws that discriminated on the basis of the colour of one’s skin and other such laws.” – page 23, Political Testament of API.

This commitment to the people’s sovereignty would have opened up many new political possibilities in terms of ordinary Malaysians’ participation in the ruling of their country. What we inherited instead was a negotiated transition in which the political and economic elites held the levers of power and allowed the people to passively cast ballots every five years. Though API and Boestamam did not invoke ideas of direct democracy and workers councils, a Malaysia in which those socialist structures were part of our everyday lives would go a long way in making our society a more equitable one.

An Economy for the People

The economic program in the Testament appears to draw inspiration from the Soviet Union in its invocation of a “planned economy” in which economic matters were handled by the state. Its demands for the sphere of production were an end to unemployment, the abolition of forced and child labour, support for female workers and the right to demand wage increases, just to name a few. For the peasantry, what the document called for included the abolition of private land ownership, redistribution to the landless peasants, freedom to sell their goods and state assistance with agricultural credits.

In a strange irony of history, we did get a version of the API economic program but one that was highly disfigured and lacked any democratic impulse. The New Economic Policy brought about by Tun Razak did resemble the socialism of the Third World like that of India and the Arab socialist nations of that era. Malaysia, much like the Soviets, did have Five Year Plans, nationalised natural resource sectors, redistributed land to the peasants and used the state to strategically industrialise the economy. The NEP was indeed instrumental in reducing poverty across the country and did improve the material conditions of many. However, this centralised economy machine ultimately served the political class and their allied capitalist, eliminating any popular participation in the planning or operation of Malaysia’s economy.

What ultimately distinguished the NEP from the aspirations of API and those of Third World Socialism was the element of economic democracy which its leaders understood was critical in developing a society for itself. That economic democracy could have expressed itself through a more egalitarian distribution of the nation’s wealth, autonomy for villages to administer their own land, a strong labour movement and greater control of industrial production by the workers themselves.

The Malaysia that Could Still Be

Reading it today, what is refreshing about the API testament is its commitment to political and economic democracy from below, something that is blatantly missing in Malaysian society. The political rights that we are so often told are sacred, are regularly trampled on by an authoritarian state in the name of the public good. Our economic freedoms under capitalism are illusory as we have little control over our workplaces and the way wealth is distributed. The Political Testament of API reminds us that our independence struggle is still incomplete without genuine democracy for all Malaysians, no social justice as long as there is capitalist and feudal oppression among us.

Originally published in Malaysia Muda’s Jentayu.