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Articles, Penang Institute, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Anwar Fazal: Seeing New Possibilities for Social Activism Post-Pandemic [PART ONE]


By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly April 2021

A HEALTH PANDEMIC lays bare the bones of human society. So, if Covid-19 has not riled up your interest in how the world works, in how that world will now change, and in what your place in it will be in the future, then nothing will.

Penang is world-famous for its social activism, and indeed, quite a few of its NGO personalities, its authors and its academicians have been global trendsetters in raising issues and getting young people involved in the world that surrounds them.

Penang Monthly meets up with one of Malaysia’s foremost social activists, Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar Fazal, to hear his thoughts on the impact that Covid-19 is having on social consciousness and on attitudes about the future.

Anwar was instrumental in establishing powerful NGOs in his life, including the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), and in helping to shape Penang Institute (then called SERI) at its founding in 1997. Having worked as an economics teacher, as civil servant in the City Council of George Town, as private secretary to Penang Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu (1969-1990), and as head of the UNDP’s Urban Governance for Asia and the Pacific, among many other things, the 80-year-old chairman of Think City, and recipient of The Right Livelihood Award (often called the alternative Noble Prize), his social advocacy ranges from consumerism to pesticide control to anti-corruption to breast feeding, just to mention a few.

  • Anwar Fazal is Chairman of Think City, a subsidary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Photo: Think City.

Covid-19 has really changed the game for everyone whatever his or her place in life is, hasn’t it?
Yes, yes, and changed things locally and globally; we are seeing a really glocal phenomenon. And this has happened in a way that we have never seen in history before. Its impact has been strong in politics, on ecology, on equity and issues of justice, but also on culture. People having to stay at home effects them greatly, in how they relate to various things… to music, to gardening, to other people.

While there has been disconnection, we also experience huge connection through digital means. This connectivity has become the norm all of a sudden, and the notion of distance disappears in many ways. This is a great leap in our civilisational condition. Without taking a ship or a plane, we can now visit digital museums, watch amazing concerts and so on, just with a click.

Digital learning is transforming education, along with governance and how we perceive Nature.

Weaknesses and strengths in all these matters have been unveiled.
Yes. Our level of pollution becomes obvious, how our cars have been fouling up the air becomes obvious. Our rivers are looking cleaner, and the variety of birds that I see in my garden lately has been amazing.

The conditions we seek for a healthy Earth with efforts like the New Green Deal, have been placed in front of us as a gift. We glimpse how the world can be a very, very different place. A new breath has moved around the world.

But we must not fool ourselves. The monsters remain. Informed stupidity, in contrast to ignorance, is a big problem. We see that we need to develop systems of accountability. So, very often, democracy is but demagoguery; and is manipulation from behind the scenes by powerful interests and lobbyists.

Alternative Lifestyles

We have also seen much discussion in the world about a “reset”. To your mind, what do you think is involved in a reset that can be as comprehensive as is being proposed?
We all suddenly see how things can be better. Another world is possible. In fact, the coronavirus is one thing, but the problem lies also in how humans live, how urbanised we are, how much we travel, how politics try to dictate reality, and so on. In the slowing down of movement and activity, we get a sense of simplicity. Our garbage lessens, and people begin doing things that they feel are just fun to do.

Civil society can now have real models, no longer just dreams, to work towards. Possibilism, a favourite word of mine, grows in strength. We can see that if we don’t organise ourselves, we are going to end up with an “I-told-you-so” situation… too little too late.

We have to create jobs. We should use the situation to create new kinds of jobs, many of which are naturally developing anyway. We see how resilient our SMEs can be due to the fact that they have been independent-minded workers, craftsmen and so on. We see musicians and dramatists emerging from out of the crisis.

It’s clear that it’s not always about maximising profits, there is a search for alternative lifestyles.
Yes. Elements of a circular economy have emerged and these are leaving a lasting impact. And if you have a progressive government, then these things can be built upon. Civil society has a large window now in which to move like never before.

The challenge will be that governments in most places have not changed, and will come back with the same thinking and the same models as before. The “resetting challenge” by civil society must be organised, and rooted. Anyone anywhere should be able to have a new kind of power. One person can make a difference, through connections. Global connections are there. Shaming governments is much easier now.

Do you mean that to succeed, a civil society movement has to be global then?
It has to be glocal. It has to be rooted. At the same time, all over the world, the same movements can be found. There is the power of success as well. There are many successes over the world in environmental issues, in democracy issues, and so on. These are powerful examples.

  • Some of Anwar Fazal’s literary endeavours.

Spreading Success Stories to Inspire

Anwar Fazal: I like to talk about the Pancasila of Power: You combine the Power of One with the Power of the Many, the Power of the Halo, by which I mean spiritual traditions, the Power of Information, and the Power of Success. With the last, I mean that we should recognise and celebrate every victory no matter how small. Good work inspires good work. We should put forward success stories to inspire people, and to encourage them.

You know, the consumer movement is one that deals most comprehensively with things that worry us. We are the consumers of products, of the environment, of services, of kindness… so I took the consumer movement from being a materialistic one to being a whole new movement with a vision of the consumer that connects to other aspects of modern life. You can increase consumption of the right kind, so you get movements for happiness, kindness, mindfulness.

The future is not a destination. The future is a journey, and everyone has a certain power in forming the future, in deciding the journey. If you want to grow, make the whole world your garden; if you want to learn, make the whole world your university. It’s a mind-set change that’s required.

“University” is related to the ambition of learning about the universe, about everything, isn’t it?
Yes. But I like to use the word “multiversity” instead, to highlight diversity. “Universe” suggests unity, conformity. Multiversity highlights its own chaos, its own connected chaos. Trying to create a “One World” is not the way to go. You have to think in biological terms instead, about the reality of ecosystems. Ecosystems are so diverse. Humanity is diverse, and it interacts with Nature in all sorts of ways. Some relationships benefit us, some damage us… The bee can give you honey, or it can sting you.

You see how Malaysia’s Vision 2020 that was publicised in 1991 tellingly did not mention the environment. That is a great failing in how we approach the world, in how we journey ahead. In fact, in focusing on the ecology, religions actually come together more easily.

Diversity is such a strength. The ethnic diversity in Malaysia actually provides us with the possibility to become a global centre for language learning, and we should not be trying to stop the learning of certain languages. Diversity is in everything.

[PART TWO of this Penang Profile will be in May 2021]  

Lockdown Ruminations
By Anwar Fazal
(published on April 12, 2020 in Counter Currents –

I have never had
such a long unending weekend..

Celebrating clear blue skies,
a greater fluttering of birds and
the flowers sprouting like never before.
A lovely pink moon adorned the Universe
this morning.

Inhaling all these wonderous views,
doing deep breathing exercises,
holding the breath to the count of forty
was an exhilarating joy..

Then I thought of the poor
and the migrants..
I saw darkness and screams..
We must be blind and deaf
not to feel those pains..

But it was not the Virus.

It was the wheels of injustice,
the military-industrial-financial complex,
their care for wealth not health
who poison people and planet
that make those pains
the fires of hell.

Sorry Virus, sorry.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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