By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Photo of Mahathir is by the Tasnim News Agency, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Prime Minister and newly minted Education Minister, Dr. Mahathir Muhammad recently mentioned that growing inequality between the rich and poor, particularly along urban and rural lines, could lead to class conflict and the re-emergence of communist and socialist ideologies. Whilst promoting his shared prosperity concept, he continued to speak of leftist ideologies as if their emergence would be bad, stating that a country’s growth would be stunted by it.
Unfortunately for Mahathir, he is incorrect. Looking back to the USSR as an example, under Bolshevik rule, economic growth was at an impressive pace. From a mainly agrarian society in 1928, the USSR became a major industrial powerhouse by the 1950s. From working the fields, the USSR sent men to space, invented the light-emitting diode and even the human kidney transplant procedure. Maintaining an economy only second in size to the United States of America for a great portion of its history is hardly stagnant growth. In fact, only after the USSR’s dissolution was the most drastic fall of GDP for the Russian Federation. Even now, in many former Soviet states, people long for the USSR, claiming their lives have become worse since it’s dissolution. Ironic, then, that when capitalism came, the economy suffered massively, unlike what Mahathir would have theorised would happen.
Current models of market socialism continue to prove effective. China, for example, has become the richest country in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity whilst Vietnam is identified as one of the Next Eleven countries. Both employ market models to lay the foundations of socialism by increasing production capacity to one day fully become socialist states. Of course, socialism’s opponents will try to paint these countries as secretly capitalist, yet fail to understand that they are exhibiting socialist systems relevant to the 21st century, adjusted to their stage in development.
Another country showing great success is Cuba, which is still continuing a centrally planned economic model similar to the USSR. The Cuban economy has grown steadily and specific sectors show impressive results. Famously, Cuba was the first country to eliminate mother to child HIV transmission and created a vaccine for lung cancer. Cuban doctors also are exported to various countries for humanitarian purposes. Yet another example where a socialist state proves to be successful. This does not even touch on the Nordic model, another hybrid system that is suited for the countries practising it.
If Mahathir is interested in shared prosperity, he shouldn’t be looking down upon socialism, rather should look towards it for inspiration. This is because it is socialism that teaches to redistribute wealth equally to workers as primary generators of wealth, not capitalism. It is socialism that calls for greater trade union representation to ensure balanced power distribution between employers and employees. Affordable housing, free healthcare and free education are all calls of socialism to ensure class imbalances do not affect the quality of life of individuals. Even more relevant is the call for progressive taxation to ensure the hoarding of wealth at the top 1% of society can be prevented, a key part of any true plan to achieve shared prosperity.
Mahathir wants none of these. He is the destroyer of trade unions, champion of privatisation and the greatest stumbling block in raising taxes for the rich or minimum wages for the poor Malaysia has ever seen. What Mahathir wants is to give vague notions of wealth distribution without actually delivering it. We can already see this in his multiple attempts to undermine the poor by accusing them of being unproductive, whilst he unironically stresses his disagreement with increasing the minimum wage or increasing taxation for the wealthy because of fears of capital flight. He has not been on the streets with the poor asking for their rights to understand their plight.
On the other hand, Malaysian socialists marched to the parliament at the end of 2018 to ensure minimum wages were increased. The same socialists ran and are still running housing campaigns to ask for affordable council houses be built for the common man. When urban pioneers found their houses being demolished by greedy developers, it was socialists that stood by organising them to get adequate houses from the government. When students were being oppressed by overbearing management officials, socialists were the ones on the ground building their capacity to push back against those that undermine their rights.
From climate change to human rights, socialists are there with the people, empowering them as much as they can. Why, then, does Mahathir feel threatened? Perhaps it is because his regime has so far failed in ensuring that which is most desperately needed by the common man. It was under him and his proteges that the people became forced to choose between paying for food or rent as prices have risen but salaries have stagnated. It was under him that trade unions were broken, ensuring the capitalist employer class free reigns to bully and undermine their workers. He is the one that destroyed forests to plant palm trees, burnt coal unreservedly and chained university students like dogs to a post. Mahathirian capitalism is a crony-infested, corruption-soaked, and anti-poor. Why then should we remain shackled? When capitalism chained us, why should we not be freed through socialism?