Thursday, July 29, 2010

Penang & Labour Party(1952-1969)

Labour Party, the local Chinese called it lau-kang-tong(勞工黨). The Labour Party of Malaya (Malay: Parti Buruh Malaya; Abbreviation: LPM) was a political party of Malaya that was active between 1952 to 1969. It was originally formed as a confederation of state based labour parties known as the Pan-Malayan Labour Party or PMFP(馬來西亞勞工黨).

The 50s and 60s were the days of Labour Party as opposition; DAP was weak compared to Labour Party. When they control the city council, the city bus was called city council bus by the locals even long after the party have dissolved. The supporters of opposition still talk fondly of the city council elections.

The LPM's roots lay in the state labour parties that were established after the British government announced plans to organize local elections in 1950. In 1952, representatives from the state parties, 21 trade unions and the Malay left-leaning organization SABERKAS (or Syarikat Berkerjasama Am Saiburi, not to be confused with the present day SABERKAS in Sarawak) met in Kuala Lumpur and decided to form the PMFP. This organization initially took an anti-communist stand but was not overtly anti-colonial. The party joined the Socialist International as a member.

The party chairman Lee Moke Sang was forced to resigned as public servants were barred from political office. D.S. Ramanathan became the new chairman. With the rise of more radical socialist leadership, the positions gradually took a more anti-colonial form and in June 1954, the organization was renamed the LPM.

The Labour Party of Malaya (LPM) was a multi-ethnic socialist party of the 1950s and 1960s. Its political origins lay in the ‘New Trade Unionism’ of the Cold War period. Before Merdeka, the anti-communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), with the support of the colonial government, encouraged the formation of a non-militant trade union movement and moderate Labour Parties located in different regions of the country. Yet, the LPM grew into a mass radical political party whose rise and fall were crucially shaped by circumstances often beyond its control.

LPMP in the Early 1960s

Emerging from its victory in the City Council Election of December 1957, LPMP became the ruling party of Georgetown in 1958 with a majority of eight seats. The five originally elected councilors were D.S. Ramanathan Tan Phock Kin, C.Y.Choy, Sabapathy and David. Ramanathan’s tenure of office was only for a year. He was however reelected together with three other new councilors, Lim Kean Siew, Ooi Thiam Siew, and Lee Kok Liang. With a slate of creditable professionals and trade unionists, the party had won overwhelming support from the city dwellers, especially the down-trodden who had long been neglected by the Alliance Party.2 In the 1959 State and General Elections, the party pledged to achieve ‘power in a democratic state by peaceful, non-violent, democratic and constitutional means’, and comfortably won five state seats and three parliamentary seats in the state of Penang on the platform of a multi-teneted policy statement of the Malayan People’s Socialist Front comprising the Labour Party of Malaya and Partai Rakyat.3 With committed services and remarkable delivery of well-intended social and economic projects to improve the living environment of Georgetown, the multi-ethnic Socialist Front swept its way into electoral height winning fourteen out of fifteen seats in the1961 City Council election.4 Four LPMP candidates, namely the Mayor Ooi Thiam Siew, the Deputy Mayor, N. Patkunam, D.S. Ramanathan and Lim Kean Siew, won with handsome majority in wards that were not purely Indians or Chinese. Patkunam had stood in an entirely Chinese area against an MCA Chinese candidate, and Ooi Thiam Siew and Lim Kean Siew had fought in areas with sizeable Malay votes and all won.5

While appropriate strategy and visionary planning might have ensured LPMP’s electoral successes throughout the years, one other invaluable resource that organisationally linked the party to the masses was the incessant political education activities carried out by party functionaries and cadres. These were leaders and members of the proscribed Malayan Socialist Youth League and Union of General Workers, Penang & Province Wellesley who had joined the party after 1958.6 Many CPM-influenced underground elements had also at this time accepted secret instructions to work within the party to defeat the Alliance.7 (Vasil 1971: 125) The third group consisted of young left-wing Chinese school leavers who had been in one way or another involved in the students’ movement. They joined the party to realise the ideals of ‘social justice and human emancipation’. Their respective roles in propagating the influence of LPMP were indeed significant. There was also the existence of a pre-Council Group to bring the party functionaries and city councilors together. It comprised representatives of all branches within the city limits and all elected councilors. In such an informal arrangement, the party functionaries and cadres could influence party members to the wishes and the desires of the council, and inculcate party ideology amongst the councilors and at the same time, bring the feelings of the masses to the attention of the councilors.8

From a modest number of eighteen branches in 1959, LPMP had by 1963 a total of 38 branches under the umbrella of the division registered at 274, Macalister Road. Georgetown had six branches, and rural districts outside the urban boundaries had seventeen. Province Wellesley was divided into Seberang Perai Utara, Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan with seven, four and four branches respectively.9 Of the fifteen members in the division committee, two were professionals trained overseas, one teacher, one trade unionist and one senior technical superintendent. They occupied the important portfolios of Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Hon. Secretary and Hon. Treasurer in the set-up. The other ten were clerks and workers who had risen as emerging young leaders, including four of the influential ‘ten marshals’ of the Socialist Front.

If the Labour Party still around today; will they able to take control of Penang, instead of DAP?.... let the historian provide the answer.

1. The Labour Party of Malaya, 1952–1972;
2. Riding the Storms: Radicalisation of the Labour Party of Malaya, Penang Division, 1963-1969 ; by Mr. Tan Kim Hong, Inti International College, Penang,

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