Contesting Equality: A History Of The Malayan People'S Socialist Front, 1957-1965

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Like many other places in the world, Malaya was pushed to the frontier of decolonization after the end of World War II. Secularism, Communism, Islamic revivalism, as well as some other forces that represented particular ethnic or ideological interests competed with each other intensely in the political arena. Despite the heavy pressure of the Emergency Regulations against the communist remnants, left-wing political parties remained active in Malaya, as the leftists believed that their socialist ideology would provide an alternative to the ethnic-based politics of Malaya that had been deeply rooted on the British colonial rule. On 30 August 1957, exactly the same day when the independence of Malaya was declared, the Labor Party and the Parti Rakyat formed the Malayan Peoples' Socialist Front in order to contest the first general election after the country's independence. Although the two constituent parties were actually dominated by Chinese and Malays respectively, the Socialist Front claimed that their non-communal approaches to independence would promise a brighter future for the people of Malaya irrespective of their races and origins. However, the Socialist Front only existed for a very brief period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The disintegration of the Socialist Front was not only directly affected by its failure in attracting voters in elections, but also indirectly influenced by the coalition's intrinsic internal conflicts, which were caused by the leftists' different understandings on various political issues, largely due to the mono-ethnic nature of each constituent party. On one hand, the conflicts between Malay leftists and their non-Malay counterparts could be explained by the primordialist view that "ethnic groups are characterized by deep, ineffable attachments related to family, language, territory, custom, and religion." On the other hand, however, although the situationalist view on identity contradicts the primordialist one, its ideas are also applicable to the case of left-wing organizations in early independent Malaya, especially at the regional level: instead of being predetermined and static, the similarities and differences between ethnic identities were artificially constructed, modified and politically influenced. Despite sharing the same ideology and space of living, the "Malayness" and "Chineseness" seemed to be two contesting forces that alienated people from each other through the construction of distant connections with their respective ethnic "selves" who had very little life experience in common. R. K. Vasil argued that Malaysian politics was more "communal" than "ideological". In this thesis, however, I challenge the validity of this argument by not only exploring the rise and fall of the Socialist Front, but also by scrutinizing the roles that the leftists played in the major events in the formation of Malaysia. I will first demonstrate how the Socialist Front articulated its political ideal of "democratic socialism" and how the Malay left and non-Malay left were formed differently. Subsequently, I will investigate the three major debates that the Socialist Front engaged in, namely the making of Malaysia's national language and education system, the merger with Singapore, as well as the dispute over the three territories in North Borneo. For this ii part, my main sources are the newspapers published by the Socialist Front and its constituent parties, such as the Chinese newspaper Huo Yan Bao, the Malay newspaper Suara Rakyat, as well as some other official documents. In the third part, I will pay close attention to the deep-rooted divergence between the two constituent parties of the Socialist Front by comparing the two constituent parties' different understandings on Malaysian issues and their distinct approaches to the formation of the new country. Primarily focusing on various key issues that led to the collapse of the socialist coalition in 1965, this study attempts to provide an alternative interpretation of Malaysian politics by looking beyond the pure communalistic line. I argue that although eventually superseded by fundamental yet indeterminate factors such as race, religion and cultural resentment, ideological struggles and communal struggles are not mutually exclusive. Instead, left-wing ideology is in fact deeply embedded in the country's communal political struggles, within which various interests groups make efforts to contest the problematic "equality" under the banner of "We" (all Malaysians) instead of "we" (individual ethnic group). iii

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Socialist Front; Malaya; Equality


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Union Local


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Willford, Andrew C.

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Tagliacozzo, Eric

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Asian Studies

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M.A., Asian Studies

Degree Level

Master of Arts

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dissertation or thesis

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