Why A Labour Movement is Essential to Malaysia’s Democracy?

Malaysia’s democracy is incomplete, much of our civil liberties are fragile and often at the mercy of a powerful state and corporations that have gone unchallenged since our independence. Malaysian economic and political elites respond to the growing inequality and suffering amongst us with mere crumbs and rhetoric. Beyond the fragmented opposition parties and civil society, there is no unified force strong enough to mount such a challenge against them. The formal institutions of power, be it the legislature or the judiciary, lack the direct authority and political will to defend the interest of the Rakyat. Until ordinary Malaysians find the vehicle to enact that change, capitalism, and the state that it is bound to, will continue to reproduce the immiseration and injustice it has always brought about.

The Death of Malaysia’s Labour Movement

Yet, this was not always the case. Malaysia had a vibrant labour movement since the colonial era. The wave of strikes from the early 1900s all the way up to the 70s harkens back to a time where labour militancy was common and socially acceptable. However, Malaysia’s labour movement was made to die a slow death, with the British coming down on unions in the name of anti-communism post World War 2, and the administration of the newly independent Malaya/Malaysia continuing that policy. Subsequent administrations would co-opt and smash the labour movement in the national interest, suppressing independent unions and therefore the ability to raise wages in order to attract foreign capital to a low wage environment.

Despite its participation in nation-defining moments like the 1947 Hartal against anti-democratic and exclusionary revisions to the future Malayan constitution, the labour movement has been erased from the official narratives of Malaysian history. The victories it had won were forgotten and the gains it could have made now mere speculation. The demise of Malaysia’s labour movement should not be seen in isolation but as part of a global trend of using the spectre of communism to destroy the movement and the Left during the Cold War. This trend paved the way for brutal industrialisation in the Global South under authoritarian leaders, often with the backing of the West. Nonetheless, some gains of the global labour movement remain with us in Malaysia and it’s worth reflecting upon its place in the development of societies around the world.

The History of the Labour Movement in Europe and America

Democracy may have come before the workers, but it was the workers who made democracy open to everyone. When the United States of America, the French Republic and the British Constitutional Monarchy was established, democracy was only for land-owning elites and the capitalist class. It was workers in the 19th century who fought and died for universal suffrage and the vote to be given to every man. The struggle for the eight-hour workday was advanced by workers at the Haymarket affair on May 4th 1886 in Chicago, Illinois in which protestors died at the hands of police, and organisers were hanged for their role in the demonstration. The date of May 1st was chosen for International Workers’ Day in commemoration of their fight for a better world. 

It would later be the workers who fought alongside women to extend the vote to them. It was workers who fought for many things we enjoy today, the five-day workweek, the eight-hour workday, safety regulations at the workplace, a minimum wage, unemployment and health benefits and the right to unionise. Workers parties that then came to power would solidify these gains and much more. Nationalising industry, providing public housing, regulating markets in the interest of the workers, creating cooperatives. These labour-based parties, be they social democratic or socialist, have been at the forefront in advancing the struggle to other spheres: women’s rights and feminism, environmentalism, democratic expansion and civil liberties.

What a Labour Movement Would Do for Malaysia

The (re)building of a labour movement in Malaysia would have great implications. The first would be the state of our society. With the ability to unionise, strike and withhold one’s labour to extract demands from the employer, the standard of living of ordinary Malaysians would rise. Better working hours and greater ability to control their workplace would allow for the safety and wellbeing of the workers to be much improved. 

Secondly, a strong labour movement would be able to shape Malaysian politics to reflect the will and concerns of ordinary Malaysians. Because one’s identity does not only consist of being a worker but also a person’s racial, gender and cultural identity, a movement of workers would be able to absorb the struggles that affect those who are discriminated against based on their identities. It would also have the capacity to take on the fight for environmental and indigenous justice as these struggles are tightly linked to the structure of our economy and the way we produce goods. 

Why the Labour Movement Must be Rebuilt in Malaysia

Labour unions alone are not enough to bring about a better Malaysia but it is an essential component as a site of democratic education and building power for ordinary Malaysians. Their ability to withhold labour through strikes and mass action can make corporations and the state come to a dead stop. Yet, history has shown that this will need to go further. To make genuine gains for ordinary people, the forces of labour will need to make political demands and become an active agent within the realm of politics. It will need to be involved in social movements that advance the progressive agenda it seeks to bring about. 

The challenges are well laid out before us if we are seeking a return to labour politics. The contradictory class location of the middle classes and petty bourgeoisie, and the forces of communalism remain as major obstacles to that aim. With existing unions thoroughly co-opted by the state and independent organising so fiercely opposed on all sides, the task of developing a unified and powerful labour movement will be a difficult one. But it will still need to be done if we are to build a just and equitable society. Without labour as a social force within our movements, we would be fighting oppression with one hand tied behind our back. 

Further reading and references

  1. Why Is It Difficult to Organise Around Class in Malaysia? by Audi Ali: https://newnaratif.com/research/why-is-it-difficult-to-organise-around-class-in-malaysia/share/rrxnenuraql/129e897917ffd369cf708c7d9fa2a6ae/#_edn30

  2. #SelakTindak – Lima Bacaan May Day by Malaysia Muda: https://malaysiamuda.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/selaktindak-lima-bacaan-mayday/

  3. Reformasi Undang-undang Perburuhan Malaysia:

Originally publish in Jentayu.