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Press Comment by Himanshy Bhatt on Thursday, 16th April 2009:

The DAP’s socialist streak

WHEN the Penang government announced late last month that it had eradicated hardcore poverty within its borders, the news raised quite a few eyebrows. It seemed an incredible, if not impossible, task to achieve. On hindsight, however, when one looks at what the Pakatan Rakyat government executed, the solution seems common-sense.

But though it may appear simple, the move was instituted with such impudence and guts it could only come from a political element that is part of the origins and makeup of the DAP – its democratic socialism.

What the state did was to directly uplift every one of the 726 households registered with the welfare department as being in the hardcore poor category by giving them the money. Affected families were literally funded to ensure their incomes are topped up so that they get at least RM500 every month.

These poor souls whose lives, and statistics, seemingly changed overnight must owe their new fortunes to a political decision made way back in 1966. It was then that the DAP was first registered, following the Setapak Declaration, as an offshoot of the Singapore-based People’s Action Party (PAP). What marks the event as significant today is not just its history, but the fact that the party was registered as a democratic socialist entity.

Penang’s success in eradicating hardcore poverty is a fruition of a progressive post-modern socialist ideology. In fact, much of the state’s economic and social policies today can be attributed to a highly-evolved socialist streak in the DAP.

By socialism we do not necessarily mean the radical, anti-capitalist school that emerged in the early 20th century, influenced by the works of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Democratic socialism surfaced as a splinter movement that envisioned the attainment of socialism not through a revolutionary process, but through an embracing, evolutionary one. It embraced civil liberties, free elections, parliamentary democracy and transparency in governance.

It is no coincidence then that the DAP is a long-time member of the Socialist International, whose origins can be traced to early international labour movements.

Now, some 43 years after the DAP was founded, Penang has to some extent become a test-bed of sorts for a modern socialist experiment in Malaysia. Hints of this new wind, blowing along a distinctly proletarian agenda, was already felt on the first day that the DAP took helm of the state by assuming the chief minister’s post, with Lim Guan Eng ordering all summonses for hawkers and parking be waived.

Lim had later even proposed to the federal government an “economic stimulus” plan worth RM48 billion that he said would have a “tidal effect” in directly benefiting 27 million Malaysians during the financial crisis. The plan included giving a RM6,000 annual “oil bonus” to all families earning less than RM6,000 a month, or a RM3,000 annual bonus to bachelors earning less than RM3,000 a month. The amount, Lim said, would cost RM35 billion or one third of Petronas’s 2007 gross profits of RM107 billion.

The idea to use national coffers in a massive way to alleviate the people’s burden is perhaps something that could only have come out with such brazen confidence from the DAP, due to the socialist element in its set-up.

For democratic socialism seeks to improve the rights and standards of the majority by directly increasing the powers of workers and consumers. It does place social welfare as a prime component in the governance of a society.

Any aid or subsidy, however, is not meant to be dished out as dole benefits to passive citizens without resourcefulness or personal enterprise; the aid is deemed necessary to empower people, by giving them impetus to be active participants in the greater economic community.

In one of the Penang government’s boldest moves, for example, all residential landed properties on state land were made freehold, and all industrial and commercial property owners had their leaseholds converted to the maximum 99 years. “We want to give ownership of land back to the people,” Lim had said.

Of course, in practice, the DAP’s style of administration is not so purely egalitarian; but its socialist roots do hold significant sway in how the administration has caught people by surprise, by making sweeping changes with unassuming audacity.

It remains to be seen then how many more surprises the DAP-led government will dish out, and exactly how well its socialist inclinations will work for the state over the remaining duration of its term in power.

* Himanshy Bhatt, theSun’s Penang bureau chief



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