A common refrain is that the development of class consciousness in Malaysia is stunted due to the emphasis on ethnic-based politics. For example, we have seen over the years that communalism and the suppression of labour militancy were crucial in building the present-day centralised state; thus class interests are often subordinated to the stronger pull of ethnicity. This was apparent to Syed Husin Ali, academic turned politician, who noted in his 1984 book: “Ethnic and class forces pull the society apart, in vertical and horizontal directions as it were, but at the present juncture of history the ethnic pull is more forceful and dominant”. Economic competition became less about the struggle between different classes and manifested predominantly as conflict between ethnicities.
This was not always the case. In the 20th century, even in hostile environments, the working class organised and agitated for improved working conditions, wages and representation within industrial settings and public life in general. Labour militancy reached its height in the aftermath of the Great Depression, in the postwar years and also during the Communist Insurgency in the early 1960s, before eventually being brought to heel by state repression. As we shall see below, while these struggles were not entirely free from communalism, they highlight how class consciousness could be shaped by conscious effort and organising.
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