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Comrade Nasir Hashim

By J Terence Netto

Socialism was a hazy enough concept in the century gone by; it was maddening to track the arguments of its fractious proponents over which set of values and structures truly reflected it. The triumph of the market late last century as a mechanism for the exchange of goods and services was taken to have finally resolved one question at least: that now, it mattered little what socialism was about because the market had reduced it to obsolescence.

Technological innovation had empowered the individual, reduced the size of trade unions, and generally rendered sentimental the fellow-feeling on which the socialist project thrived. Even if you agreed with the argument that some of the totalitarian dictatorships of the last century, erected on socialist ideas, were abominations inflicted in its name, you had to concede that the idea had become a relic of a bygone era.

So when the Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM) quietly put it out that they were thinking of dropping the term from its name and constitution in early 1990, hard upon the heels of the fall of the soviet states in Eastern Europe, there was near unanimity in the party that in the era of triumphant capitalism, shards of the broken old ideology could be serviceable in critique of capitalism's worst excesses. No longer was socialism useful as a negation of capitalism, concerned with the character of civilisation and the long-run transformation of the way people live and work. What remained of the old ideology would be melioristic - of capitalism's excrescences. Realists bit their lips and accepted the change; purists cringed. That was where Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim, 54, at present pro-tem chairman of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), took leave of his former colleagues in PSRM.

"I told them that they could drop 'sosialis' from the party name but not from its constitution," said the former associate professor of his ex-PSRM cohort. "But they felt otherwise and in disagreeing, I had to leave," explained Nasir, whose mild manner belies a flinty commitment to the socialist vision.

By most reckonings, it was a gentle parting of ways between Nasir and his former comrades in PSRM, which duly became Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) and went on to be a partner in the Gagasan Rakyat (People's Might) coalition that fought the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 1990 General Elections.

"Perhaps in wanting to join forces with Tengku Razaleigh's Semangat 46 in 1990, they were in haste to drop the socialist ideology from even the party constitution," said Nasir, musing on the events at the beginning of the last decade.At that time, Nasir had only recently emerged from a 15-month spell in detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He was one of more than 100 politicians, social, trade union and religious activists detained in Operation Lallang in October 1987, a time of political ferment in Malaysia. That period of lonely incarceration - the first 60 days in solitary confinement with its random interrogative bouts - had served as the anvil on which Nasir hammered out the socialistic imperatives of his political vision. Suffering was the crucible of socialist soul-searching.

"I didn't see any of my interrogators as people acting from malevolent intent towards me," he said. "They were merely instruments of a system that was bound to be oppressive when things do not go their way." Likewise, Nasir did not think that surviving that ordeal with his convictions intact was a notable stripe on his escutcheon. He said he survived the random tyrannies visited on him during solitary confinement and the relentless interrogation through a combination of luck and wits. He came up with the latter just when his interrogators, wanting him to admit to a Marxist conspiracy, thought they had him on the verge of implicating others from among his circle of social activists. Under duress, Nasir somehow avoided squealing. "It was my good luck to escape," he recalled of what would have been the acme of a political detainee's humiliation - telling on comrades not yet detained, to escape more turns of the tyrannical screw. "Don't ever believe that you can be a hero while in that hell," he allowed with self-deprecatory candour. "You survive with honour - you are lucky," he said in tones redolent of barely averted defeat.

After his release in early 1989, Nasir resumed his role as associate professor at the medical faculty of Universiti Kebangsaan, parting company with PSRM a year later. He was to become deputy dean, his social activism on behalf of squatters and assorted members of what socialist icon Frantz Fanon called, in a bardic phrase, 'The Wretched of The Earth', doing no great harm to his academic advancement.

In fact, it was while in the groves of academe that Nasir's socialist convictions had taken shape. That was in one year, in 1974-75, at Cornell University in the United States during doctoral studies in international nutrition. Studying and researching the subject under a left-leaning professor, he began to trace the connections between what people eat and what they earned and how they earned their income. "Under the tutelage of that professor who had worked in Tanzania and studied the links between diet and class belonging, my socialist beliefs took root," recalled Nasir.

In one year, subsisting on corned-beef sandwiches at Cornell, Nasir pored over the major works in the socialist canon, mainly by Karl Marx. After that immersion in socialist literature, Nasir returned to Malaysia in 1976 for field work on his thesis entitled, 'Nutrition States of Preschool Children in a Felda Scheme in Sungai Buaya.' This experience in the Felda scheme near Rawang only reinforced Nasir's socialist convictions. He returned to Cornell to defend his thesis in 1977 and returned to a teaching position at the Universiti Kebangsaan. Shortly afterwards, with K S Jomo of the University of Malaya, he helped set up the Institute of Social Analysis (Insan), that was to generate trenchant analyses of the causes of poverty among rural and urban poor. Nasir also joined the then PSRM.

"Although my socialist convictions began firming up at Cornell, the early promptings came from my father," recalled Nasir. A railway guard whose duties had him shutttling between Singapore and home in Melaka, Nasir's father could speak fluent English and stashed socialist tracts under his bed, which Nasir would come across periodically when foraging about the house. "My father did not mention anything about the stuff he had under his bed but his conversation, especially after he had his morning paper and cigarettes, was inclined in favour of the working class," said Nasir.

The second of nine children, Nasir made it to the elite Royal Military College in Sungei Besi for secondary education which he completed in 1966. The early death of his father in 1963 almost saw him give up schooling to join the army but college teachers persuaded him to continue. After his Higher School Certificate in 1966, he gained a scholarship to Manmouth College in Illinois, for his first degree, followed by doctoral studies at Cornell.

Nasir well knows that he could have taken the path more travelled. A first cousin is Tan Sri Rahim Thamby Chik, an Umno man who was once Chief Minister of Melaka, and while at Cornell, his Malaysian contemporaries were Siti Zaharah Sulaiman, Napsiah Omar and Afifuddin Omar, all of whom went on to some national prominence with Umno. But it appeared that socialism ran in Nasir's veins as indissolubly as the more prosaic formulae of nutritional science.Before and after his ISA detention, Nasir's work in Insan and with the as-yet unregistered PSM revolved around urban and rural squatters. With the help of his PSM colleagues, they set up a 'Jawatankuasa Sokongan Peneroka Bandar' - 'Support Committee for Urban Pioneers' - that succeeded in gaining some recognition for the Bahasa term they coined for urban squatters - peneroka bandar.

This term confers respect for the efforts of people who had built dwellings on land they did not own, in areas that were to become thriving urban centres. When the land was later bought by housing or industrial developers, the 'peneroka bandar' became expendable flotsam, with little or no compensation for their past inputs on the land. Through the interlocutory efforts of the Jawatankuasa Sokongan, a few legal strides were made in the courts where the battle to win compensation for 'peneroka bandar' inevitably wound up. There, a legal coinage - 'licensee in equity' - became the basis for court-ordered compensation for assorted 'penerokabandar'.

Throughout the 1990s, these struggles for compensatory recognition in behalf of the urban landless took Nasir and his socialist cohort through such rapidly urbanising areas as Ampang and Subang, to name some of the more well-known arenas where peneroka battled developers with Nasir in the forefront, his dark glasses and distinctive shock of white hair an increasingly familiar sight in newspaper reports. Thus when the informal opposition alliance, called Barisan Alternatif (BA), gathered in an historic unity that included the unregistered PSM to contest the General Elections of late 1999, Nasir, having quit Universiti Kebangsaan in 1997, nursed a populist claim to the Subang parliamentary seat.

In the event, the BA allotted it to Parti Keadilan Nasional who fielded Irene Fernandez. A disappointed but not embittered Nasir sublimated his feelings in a spirited effort up north in Sungei Siput on behalf of fellow PSM comrade, Michael Devaraj Jeyakumar, who contested on a Democratic Action Party ticket against Barisan Nasional heavyweight, Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu. Irene lost, Samy Vellu won, by margins that provide heart to the PSM coterie for electoral battles to come.

Both Nasir and Jeyakumar have lost no time, looking ahead to the registration of PSM, among several battles on behalf of Fanon's wretched. A petition has been filed in the courts to overturn the Home Ministry's rejection of their application to register the party. It comes up for hearing later this month. But to Mohd Nasir Hashim and his socialist ilk, their dockets might just as well be dateless, because in their long march towards a socialist future, there is little time for what-might-have-been; their sails set ever against the wind.

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