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Articles, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

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


Ooi Kee Beng Penang Monthly, May, 2021

PENANG MONTHLY CONTINUES the conversation with Penang’s most prolific social activist, Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar Fazal, on social activism, on having a positive mind-set, and on the importance of communication. [PART ONE was published in April 2021]

Galactic Organising

Can we talk about your use of ABC, for Anger, Bravery and Creativity, to discuss certain crucial details in social activism?
When I highlight the word “anger”, I mean to say that one must learn about anger, about how to relate that to passion, to the energy, to differentiate between positivity and creativity. When you see something as wrong, you must not be afraid to see that as wrong. Anger in itself is bad for you. In fact, it is often said that getting your enemy angry is one good way of defeating him. So being angry is not a state to remain in.

Bravery is about the courage to stand up, and to understand; it is about having conscience. It’s about strength, community, strategic sense.

In your experience, what is it that makes a person creative, and what does not?
It’s a mind-set… it’s about seeing the straight line and also noticing the curving line. During my Friday prayers, I like to let my mind be like a swirling dervish, I let it go where it will. One’s mind must find its own serenity.

In all the years I have known you, it has fascinated me how you are always so positive about things.
I try not to allow bad things decide how I think, and become an obstacle. You should make bad things work for you. I remember the time when I started Consumer Interpol. Someone complained to Interpol about it, and the local police came to see me. So I had to explain the idea to them. All too often, products like medicines and pesticides that were banned in developed countries got sold in the developing world. This could go on for years. So, what I told them was that, while Interpol caught international criminals, we were simply trying to catch international criminal products.

After that, we were given a huge grant – USD100,000 – to continue with our work. Nowadays, such information about dubious products being sold in less developed areas in the world is simply channeled to a central website in the United Nations.

You have been a social activist all your life, haven’t you? Looking back now, in what area or areas do you think your impact has been most durable, or deepest?
All the civil society organisations that I have started have had enduring impact, I am proud to say. This is because they were never started hierarchically. I would say a third of my time has always been devoted to training, to workshops. I leave behind a group of people, a network, to carry on the struggle… I call it galactic organising.

But before you act, before you start a movement, there would be choices to make, points of focus you identify, for efficacy if nothing else; and finding the right conceptual level at which to act. Can you say something about that process?
You look around and you see issues, be it consumer issues, or breastfeeding or environment issues. Let me illustrate with the belachan case. You know how this prawn paste used to be brown. But in the early days of the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), we noticed that belachan had become red. We ran tests and found that red colouring was being added to it. And that was cancerous. We decided to release our findings just when the UMNO general assembly was to meet. The main papers carried it, and that forced the government to act, and the Ministry of Health was forced to build up a unit to test for such things.

One should not accept what’s wrong. But it’s important how one communicates. Effective communication is key. You get people to understand with all parts of their brain, and that way, you get to the thinking part of their brain. We became the best communicators at that time.

You were involved in CAP from the start, were you not?
I started it. This was in 1968-69. It began with the Universiti Malaya Graduate Society, which was a very active group. I got Dr. Ling Liong Sik to draft the constitution of CAP. But already in 1965, Dr. Lim Chong Eu had raised the need in Parliament for a consumer protection society. He then tried to start a Penang Consumer Association together with the Straits Chinese Association, but that never took off. Selangor picked it up and Syed Adam Aljafri and a group of people started a consumer association in Selangor.

Dr. Lim Swee Aun, my family doctor in Taiping, who was Minister for Trade and Industry, was also involved. A letter was sent out by him to all states calling for consumer protection associations to be formed. Can you believe that happening today!?

The state government didn’t have the capacity, however. It so happened that I knew Syed Adam Aljafri, and they got in touch with me as chairman of the library. We arranged talks, and all in all, over 300 people attended our exhibition on drugs being used in many of our products. Many signed on, and I arranged for the inaugural meeting to be held at the Town Hall. Being a civil servant, I could not lead the movement, so I got Mohamed Idris, an outstanding city councillor, to be its president. He had just lost the 1969 elections, running for UMNO, so the timing was right for us. His first reaction was: “Consumers’ association, isn’t that about shopping?” [laughs]. That was his first reaction, so I had to put him right. The movement later became his whole life.

I found the book Unsafe at Any Speed (published in 1965) by Ralph Nader, who later became a good friend, very inspiring.1 I was CAP secretary the first five years, being a person who is particular about getting documentations right. We were very active back then, and Idris was always wanting to get things done, always impatient [laughs].

Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu was very supportive of it, and we engaged with as many stakeholders in our programmes as we could. With every movement that I have started, I engage the community of people whom I imagine would be most interested; I introduced the word “network” into social movements; and that proved a powerful idea.

What made CAP such a globally significant movement?
We took it out of the Value for Money trap. We took it to the level of Value for People and Value for the Environment. We opened up environment issues, and social issues. I always quoted from, and I gave credit to, the Americans who in their very first issue of Consumer Report from the 1930s, carried an editorial already saying that a consumer movement is not just about the products, it is also about the conditions under which the products are made. The consumer movement’s genesis is linked to the trade union movement. The first statement on this subject was from the International Labour Movement, and in Scandinavia, it was the cooperatives who were most concerned about such issues.

The 1970s was a special era, wasn’t it? Social activism was strong, and many did go into such work. Do you think we are at such a point in time again, following the shake-up everyone now feels, with Covid-19?
There is a whole group of new movements, with young people, happening now, to be sure. They try to transcend identity issues, and all are making use of the internet. If they can connect with each other, and if effective space can be created for them, then changes will happen.

SERI (Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute, now Penang Institute) was formed through the exercising of something called the Sustainable Penang Initiative. I was asked to be director for SERI then, but I was in the UN, so I couldn’t, but I agreed to help out with the project as much as I could. This was back in the late 1990s.

With funding from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency, UNDP and UN-ESCAP), we held roundtables on ecological sustainability, social justice, economic productivity, cultural vibrancy and popular participation. Over 500 people were involved in these discussions, and this went on for one-and-a-half years.2 Can you imagine that? A lot of it was thanks to SERI’s Dato’ Dr. Leong Yueh Kwong, who did a lot of the thinking around this. Susan Siew (from World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, WABA) was the very able local facilitator. Khoo Salma (from Penang Heritage Trust) was coordinator and principal writer for the project.3

Never ever before had there been such a thorough exercise in the history of this country where all segments of society were involved in a thorough discussion on matters vital to the country’s development. That was the beginning of SERI, of Penang Institute.

“Sustainability” was a novel idea then, and Penang was in the forefront of that.

The term is now extremely popular; it’s a mainstream term nowadays.
Yes, and when it becomes mainstream, it becomes diluted, it becomes polluted… and it gets captured by the powers that be.

We must never forget that Penang was a global centre for social activism, and in many fields. Breastfeeding, consumer rights, sustainability…

The Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society of which you are president… what kind of future do you see for it, especially with the Covid-19 outbreak?
There is room for it to be more and more relevant. Public health matters are not going to go away, and we have this great man, this legend from Penang, as an inspirational asset, whose contributions to the practical science of fighting epidemics were enormous. There is much that the society can do to draw attention to public health and public involvement in keeping society safe.

Is there an autobiography by you coming up, on the way?
Not really. But I have two books just out. One is called Moving Forewords. I don’t think there is anyone anywhere who has written more forewords than me [laughs]. The other is First Food First Right, on breastfeeding.

They were published when I retired as director for WABA, after 15 years. I am very particular about titles, as you see.

I have taken up two hours of your time now. Thank you, Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar, for taking time to talk to Penang Monthly on social activism.
You are very welcome. It’s good to have a chance to chat on such things.  

1 See Christopher Jensen: “50 Years Ago, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ Shook the Auto World”: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/automobiles/50-years-ago-unsafe-at-any-speed-shook-the-auto-world.html.
2 See The Sustainable Penang Initiative: Penang People’s Report 1999. Penang: SERI.
3 Khoo Salma Nasution: The Sustainable Penang Initiative: Creating state-society partnerships for sustainable development. Working Paper 7, International Institute for Environment and Development. London: 2001: https://books.google.com.my/books?id=hBWe4WCxAiEC&pg=P#v=onepage&q&f=false.  See also Anwar Fazal: The Sustainable Penang Initiative: Participatory and Action-oriented Approaches in Measuring and Improving Community Well-being. Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Working Paper Series, January 2010: file:///C:/Users/OOI/Downloads/THE%20SUSTAINABLE%20PENANG%20INITIATIVE%20PARTICIPATORY%20AND%20ACTION-ORIENTED%20APPROACHES%20IN%20MEASURING%20AND%20IMPROVING%20COMMUNITY%20WELL-BEING.pdf  Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com


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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