Uncle Idris – Legendary Peoples’ Champion Passes Away (May 2019)

This Obituary was first published in The Muslim News, 31 May 2019

S.M. Mohamed Idris, ubiquitously known as ‘Uncle’ Idris in Malaysia, passed away on Friday 17th May 2019 at the age of 93.  He was laid to rest on the morning of Saturday 18th May amongst appreciation of his visionary work from all sections of Malaysian society and the wider global community who knew him.

I had the good fortune to be introduced to Uncle Idris in 1982 when he invited me to the inaugural meeting of the Third World Network. When I arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport, the Chinese immigration officer looked at my British passport and then looked puzzlingly at me. After a pause, he told me that he was obliged to send me back to the UK as my passport had expired. In those good old days there were no digital passports and the like so it was easy to make this kind of a mistake. The immigration officer then asked me what the purpose of my visit to Malaysia was.  I informed him that I had been invited by Uncle Idris to a meeting in Penang. Upon hearing this, the officer said that he could not send me back as Uncle Idris would be offended and he knew his work well and greatly valued it. He then found a rarely used provision in the law and gave me a temporary entry pass for three days and advised me to get my passport renewed at the British Consulate in Penang. When I visited the British Consulate in Penang, the consular officer, a Chinese lady, upon hearing the purpose of my visit expedited the issuance of a new passport saying that she respected Uncle Idris’s work greatly and wanted to help his guest to the best of her ability. The convoluted process of getting a valid exit permit on my new passport elicited a similar helpful response from the Malay immigration officer in Penang when I went to him with a colleague from my university days in the UK.

It was clear to me that I was invited by a personality who was widely respected in Malaysia back in the early 1980s.  The accolades which followed his passing away only served to show that this appreciation for his work had only multiplied many times since then and also become global. Such was his stature that the city of Penang is now considering naming a road and a park after him. What was the secret behind this remarkable man?

A self made man and proud Muslim, Uncle Idris’s family origins were in Tamil Nadu in India, but he lived and spent most of his life in Penang in Malaysia. Always dressed in immaculate white sarong and tunic commonly adorned by South Indian Muslims, he also donned a Songok (a black velvet pointed hat) or a white cloth cap. This signature attire always made him instantly recognisable. He was also a man of meticulous discipline. Even at the age of 90 one would find him at his desk sharp at 8:30 AM reading the days papers. He was not a man of using computers and smart phones. He preferred to read hard copies and his able secretary, Umma, took care of his precise preferences. 

He was involved in the family business of stevedoring for ships visiting Penang and a small jewellery shop in historic old Penang City. He would visit these businesses first thing in the morning before spending the day at the offices of the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) which he founded in 1970.  It was clear that his heart was increasingly in the work of CAP.

Sensitive to the impact of the rapid industrialisation of Malaysia in the early seventies, he found his vocation in championing the rights of the ordinary people to combat abuse and with some close friends founded the Consumer Association of Penang, popularly known as CAP.

Since establishing the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) to champion peoples’ rights, Uncle Idris worked tirelessly to promote the cause of the underprivileged. His genuine concern for the people and unique ability to speak truth to power endeared him to the people of Malaysia and beyond.

CAP describes its mission as ‘giving a voice to the little people’. It is a not-for-profit, independent organisation established since 1970. CAP’s main concern is ensuring the right of every consumer to food, housing, health care, sanitation facilities, public transport, education and a clean environment.

CAP carries out research, educational and representational activities in order to influence policy makers to give priority to basic needs. It handles about 3,000 to 4,000 complaints from the public every year on issues ranging from poor quality products and services to food adulteration and housing. CAP’s campaigning news magazine, Utusan Konsumer has four bimonthly editions each published in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Soon it became clear to Uncle Idris that the problems were bigger. Toxic dumping from the rapidly developing semi-conductor industries, raw sewage discharge into the sea by the tourist resorts going up in Penang’s Batu Firringi (Foreigners Beach), and rough riding over people’s rights in housing and infrastructure development were some of the mounting problems which became acute with time. This called for a bigger effort and CAP under Uncle Idris was instrumental in mobilising for the establishment of a Ministry of the Environment in 1975.

It was then time to look internationally for similar experiences and share best practice. CAP was instrumental in setting up the Third World Network (TWN) which brought together leading activists and thinkers from the global South. The TWN secretariat was housed in the offices of CAP and all the logistics were initially handled by its staff. One of Uncle Idris’s able colleagues, the economist Martin Khor Kok Peng, took charge of developing the TWN.  Leading environmentalists like Vandana Shiva and Claude Alvares from India were tapped. Ashish Nandy, one of India’s most fertile brains was also present. So was Iqbal Ahmed of Pakistan, Fatima Mernissi of Morocco and Roberto Bissio from Uruguay. We had Zafrullah Chaouwdhury explain his essential drugs advocacy and its use in making medical assistance available to the largest number of people. We had Fazal Abed from Brac and Mohammed Yunus from Grameen sharing their experiences of microfinance. Many more from Brazil, Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, Mexico and Indonesia were also contributed tremendously. Soon, this forum became a major focus for the Voice of the Global South. Scandinavian NGOs like NOVIB also joined in the effort. Ultimately, it also revitalised the South Centre in Geneva. Martin Khor later served as the CEO of the South Centre for several years. The South Centre provides a valuable service and key expertise to the countries of the global South in their deliberations with UNCTAD and WTO in Geneva.  It has played a leading role in providing capacity and expertise to many developing countries to empower them to participate meaningfully in negotiations dominated by vast armies of lobbyists and hired experts from developing countries.

Environmental issues like Climate Change and pollution, which have become common fare today, were championed by the institutions set up or inspired by Uncle Idris. The ground breaking book, Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows et al, published in 1972 was roundly ridiculed by champions of neoliberalism. Those days challenging the received wisdom of the developed world was like heresy. Uncle Idris was just ahead of the curve on these matters. However this required a herculean effort to build capacity in the Global South. The TWN thus embarked on a series of programmes with a number of key thinkers invited to deliberate on various issues. The meetings were held in the very amicable setting of the Lone Pine Hotel on Penang’s Batu Firringi. These retreats became a great forum for learning from each other and inspiring confidence in joint action.

I was lucky to be present from the first meeting in Penang and attended most of them over the next ten years. Here we debated the activities of global agribusiness and their nefarious plans to mass market toxic chemicals, terminator seeds and the like. The recent award against Monsanto for the harm caused by its Roundup herbicide was already in our sights in those early days.  The damage caused by unsustainable logging and deforestation was very much on the agenda. So was the movement to push monoculture varieties of key crops like rice and wheat, exposing the producing countries to widespread disease and depletion of rich diversity needed for resilience against particular pests.

Soon we realised that these agendas were pushed by a number of key individuals who were supportive of the multinationals’ agenda. So we decided to take the battle to its source – the World Bank and other UN institutions. At the World Bank the TWN became an active member of the World Bank NGO committee. As chair of the WB-NGO Committee on behalf of the TWN, I was part of the effort to question the Washington Consensus promoted via the Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes to promote rapacious extraction of resources from the global South without regard to any safeguards. The world saw the results of these policies in incidents like the Bhopal disaster when a Union Carbide facility sent toxic gas discharge resulting in thousands of fatalities and injuries. The US multinational was hardly held accountable for this perfidy. India was prevailed upon by Washington to accept paltry compensation and not make a fuss lest it loses US support at key international fora.

The WB-NGO interactions became more forceful. Although, not the sole work of the WB-NGO Committee, the pressure mounted on the World Bank and UN institutions to take poverty reduction seriously and eventually led to the advent of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These have now been extended into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are the key focus for any contemporary discussion on sustainability of the planet.

As our capacities built up Uncle Idris’s relentless push led us to explore wider vistas. The TWN got involved in the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) negotiations in the Uruguay Round. Here again the battle was arduous. A typical case in point was the move by tobacco companies to promote smoking in developing countries to compensate for their stagnant markets in the developed countries as awareness of the harm caused by smoking was gaining ground. The companies had identified young females of child bearing age as the most fertile market for their wares. When the local NGOs in Thailand objected to these vile policies, the companies threatened to sue under GATT rules and penalise Thailand with other tariffs!  This was an eye opener for the TWN campaigners and showed that the scale of the problem was massive and the resources needed to combat it were also massive. The TWN continued to influence key thinkers and decision makers in the global South to champion these causes.

Yet more was to come.  The TWN had organised a continent wide tour of India with its key experts to present these exciting ideas to a wide range of academics and civil society. We toured Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The support and resonance for these ideas was tremendous. However, it was a chance incident in Calcutta which spurred Uncle Idris to bigger horizons. The group was invited for dinner at an upmarket restaurant in Calcutta. Uncle Idris was dressed in his usual dignified South Indian attire. The doorman at the restaurant stopped him and authoritatively said, “Saab Lungi not allowed”. He was effectively saying that the restaurant’s dress code did not entertain this local attire. I have never seen Uncle Idris more furious and upset at this insult. For several days after this incident local officials had to suffer the wrath of his anger and disappointment at the prevalence of colonial attitudes in independent India.

However, once the dust had settled this led Uncle Idris to his final mission. This was project was to mobilise this network of thinkers and activists to look at decolonising the universities and centres of learning in the South. Idris felt that without this, the new radical insights were not transmitted to society at large and old practices were perpetuating the colonisation minds and not allowing them to challenge the status quo. Championing this was very much work in progress and was close to Uncle Idris’s heart to his last breath.

This short reflection shows the restless spirit of this self taught man who motivated and inspired so many all over the world. Personally, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Uncle Idris since our first meeting 1982. Ever since that fortuitous encounter, Uncle Idris has been a true friend, mentor and inspiration who opened new vistas for me and changed my thinking direction in life forever. After our first couple of meetings he knew that we had begun to share a common vision, but he was not a man to let go. His constant fatherly admonitions, whenever I showed signs of slackening, were typical of his unique style of getting people to achieve their maximum potential. He would not take no for an answer. Visiting him would always bring forth a long list of tasks which needed to be done to change the world for the better.

We lost a proud and confident Muslim committed to serve humankind to the best of his ability and capable to inspire a whole generation to rise up to this challenge. May Allah (SWT) grant him a place in Heaven inshallah.

May 2019 M Iqbal Asaria