Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Chin Peng ≠ Communism
Lately, there has been a lot of chatter in the public realm about Chin Peng—to the point where the Minister of Information, Communications and Culture, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, threatened censure against those who openly call for his return—and one of the things that seems to happen repeatedly is the conflation of communism as an ideology with the violent actions of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). I have already touched on this logical fallacy (see comments made in response to Hantu Laut's blog and Zedeck Siew's satire piece in The Nut Graph) but it seems to me to be something worth building on, so here it is again.

The government, operating on the assumption that Chin Peng equals communism and vice versa, views the increasingly vocal support for the former CPM secretary-general's bid to end his exile as corresponding to a resurgence in the popularity of communist ideology, and is concerned that a situation may arise in future whereby peace and order will once again be threatened by revolutionary apparatchiks. For this reason, the powers-that-be remain adamant that Chin Peng not be allowed back in the country and all discussions pertaining to him or CPM should cease. This, however, is deeply hypocritical in light of Prime Minister Najib's official visit to Beijing in conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties between Malaysia and China, as many have already pointed out. While some say that this observation is flawed because modern day China essentially runs a market economy, rendering its socialist pedigree doubtful, a brief examination of history will show that this hypocrisy extends back to the period when China was not communist in name only, and is relevant to the wider discussion of how our government functions.

Tun Abdul Razak first established relations with China in 1974, when the very communist Mao Zedong was still nominally the supremo. This was two years before Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's economic reforms, took over the top post. A year earlier, Razak's administration officially recognised North Korea, then under the iron rule of Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Similarly, in 1967, during Tun Hussein Onn's tenure, Malaysia established diplomatic ties with a Soviet Union helmed by Leonid Brezhnev, a former political commissar who made it a point to reverse his predecessor's partial liberalisation of Soviet society. All these events took place right in the middle of our own Communist Insurgency War (or Second Malayan Emergency) which only ended in 1989 when Chin Peng and gang agreed to give up their armed 'resistance' against the Malaysian government and disband CPM, as stipulated by the Peace Treaty of Hat Yai.


(Chart created using Google Chart API.)

Even if we were to discount totally the fact that North Korea is still firmly communist (and quite bonkers), and restrict the discussion to China during those two years before Deng came to power and the Soviet Union right up until
perestroika in 1987, we would still have to account for the inconsistency between the government's treatment of local communists and foreign ones. If the authorities do not agree with communism as an ideology because it is 'evil', then we should not have anything to do with either country. (Cue Rais's brilliant gaffe: 'Students and Malaysians in general should be made to understand clearly that the country was ... against communism at a political level.') But the truth of the matter is that the government was more than happy to establish relations and trade with both, while each was gripped with communist fervour, at the same time we were labelling our own communists public enemy number one.

As we ponder why such a discrepancy exists, two possible reasons emerge. (A third reason falls outside the scope of this exercise.) One is that the government does not like Chin Peng because he had previously instigated vicious attacks on the populace; the other is that they felt more threatened by, and thus reacted disproportionately to, him due to his proximity in contrast to foreign communists whom they despise just as much but are rather more distant. The first recalls past actions and the second predicts future threats, in both cases, of an individual—neither deals with concrete objections to the actual ideas of communism.

(Top: From left, Suriani Abdullah, Rashid Maidin, Abdullah CD, Chin Peng, Abu Samah Mohd Kassim, Ibrahim Chik and Abdullah Sudin in 1989 SOURCE | Bottom: Abdullah CD meeting former IGP, Hanif Omar, in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 SOURCE)

Both propositions come with controls. The first relates to other former members of the CPM leadership, namely Rashid Maidin, Abdullah CD and Shamsiah Fakeh, who were allowed by the government to enter the country, if only for a limited duration. Some officials contend that because Chin Peng played a key role in orchestrating an insurgency that left in its wake broken lives and painful memories, he should not be permitted to step foot in the country out of deference to those who were affected, but surely that applies to other senior party members as well. The second relates to our blackballing of Israel and, previously, South Africa. For those who argue that we can have relations only with red flag-flying nations and not local communists because the former are not trying to overthrow government, please recall Malaysia's position on Zionism and apartheid, two ideologies the administration felt were reprehensible. In both examples, the government's refusal to acknowledge these two countries was sustained and absolute despite the fact that neither Malaysia nor her interests were threatened by either. Policymakers objected to these ideologies on ethical grounds and applied their judgement consistently over a span of decades. If we can do that for two systems which do not jive with our moral compass, why not for communist countries that espouse an ideology that, if one believed the rants of elected officials, is loathed at least in equal measure, if not more? It thus becomes clear that the administration's contempt for Chin Peng has to do with neither the ideology that inspired him nor his prior actions. This perhaps give more credence to the aforementioned third reason than most would care to admit.

Why does this matter? For one, it proves that the government, at least with respect to this particular issue, is not acting rationally or on any principle other than the puerile you-are-contrary-and-I-do-not-like-you-so-there one. This bodes ill for any person or organisation that falls a little too far left or right and runs afoul of the Barisan Nasional ideal. Not only will such a wayward entity be suppressed (with the degree to which this is done correlating directly to the distance from righteous centre), it will be implemented in such a way as to preclude critical discourse with the public regarding the matter. Contrast our government's inability to tolerate difference to the case of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Successive American administrations, even at the height of Cold War paranoia, never moved to declare the party illegal—it is still extant today. Although, admittedly, US government intelligence agencies tried their best, and succeeded, in reducing CPUSA's considerable influence during the Second Red Scare, the party was allowed to persist, the idea being that while not all of us may agree with the precepts of communism (or any other political ideology for that matter), we are all entitled to the freedom to discuss its benefits and disadvantages openly and without reservations. All ideas are deserved of equal air time, regardless of provenance. Our administration, on the other hand, seems only willing to do the things which benefit them, whatever their operative (il)logic may be. Hardly a comforting thought.

To project a bit, in the long-term this will leave us with a vastly deficient socio-economic political palette from which we can construct new ways to see and interact with society, leaving us with fewer and fewer tools to address the problems arising from our current ethnic chauvinist-dominated way of life. Anecdotal evidence has shown that mainstream political parties tend to adopt centrist platforms in order to capture the greatest number of votes. This happened, in a manner, to trade unions all over the world which, although co-opted by governments for purely selfish reasons (read: to avoid threats to the status quo arising from increased radicalisation of the working class), led to advancements in workers' rights—minimum wage, reasonable limitation of working hours and improved workplace safety—ones we take for granted today. To nurture a society that provides avenues for betterment to people from all walks of life we have to either transition to a more comprehensive political spectrum or diminish disparities between the lower and upper quartiles, neither of which is happening now due to the absence of a credible left in Malaysia. With only some right and some middle, the political law of averages suggests that, in all likelihood, we will inexorably veer into the morass of ethno-nationalist antagonism over time, if we are not indeed there already. To this end, we should be allowed to discuss (insert ideology here) and even form parties to promote these ideologies, so long as it is all done peaceably within the limits of the law.

NB: The countries listed in the chart are all the ones that have ever proclaimed a Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideology at some point in their existence; it was necessary to look to the past and include countries that no longer exist (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, etc)
as few countries continue to profess communist ideology. This does not detract from the point of the graphic, which is that Malaysia has always been more than willing to exchange diplomats with communist countries despite its avowedly anti-communist rhetoric, thus rendering objections to Chin Peng based on his ideology hypocritical.


Update, 5th June 2009:
On a related note, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim recently objected to claims that Chin Peng was a nationalist on the grounds that the 'communists were against the nationalists'. Obviously, Rais's understanding of political ideology, as demonstrated by this comment, is deficient beyond belief. (So much for his time spent at NUS and King's College London.) Firstly, there are different forms of nationalism, and communism falls under the definition of radical or revolutionary nationalism. Secondly, while Malaysian nationalists and communists might have disagreed on the final expression of statehood, as well as the methods to achieve it, both had confluent aims
—independence from colonial rule. Surely that makes our communists 'freedom fighters', by any definition.

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