Consummate Consumerist

New Straits Times 1993

His passion is consumerism, and in this Anwar Fazal has excelled many times over. ALINA RANEE speaks to an exceptional individual for whom consumer rights go hand-in-hand with responsibilities.

The first impression of Anwar Fazal, winner of the Right Livelihood and Global 500 awards among other prizes, is definitely a lasting one.

Attired in a brown geometric-print batik shirt for the early morning interview, Anwar emerges as a quiet, soft-spoken individual, yet one who is assertive when he has to be.

Born in 1941 in Sungai Bayor, a small hamlet in Perak, he studied economics, business administration and education at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

At least, he tried to study in between a hectic student leader's schedule.- Even in those days, he had honed considerable leadership and administrative skills – being president of the university's student union and also president of the National Union of Malaysian Students.

As fellow consumerists readily testify, "networking" has always been Anwar's forte.

He was actively involved in setting up several global consumer networks, among them Consumer Interpol, a global alert system monitoring hazardous products, processes and wastes; Pesticide Action Network (PAN), an organization which succeeded in lobbying for an international code on pesticide distribution and use; IBFAN, or the International Baby Food Action Network and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), both effective in encouraging breastfeeding and controlling widespread promotion of baby milk powder.

Now the regional coordinator of Asia Pacific 2000, under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Anwar's role involves bringing multifarious groups together, cutting across cultural, economic and organizational barriers, something that people who know him say he does exceedingly well.

With a budget of US$2 million (RM5 million) spread over three years, the programme encompasses training, research, support for non-governmental organisations, and helping communities to meet the challenges of the urban environment. 'Anwar is adamant that action must begin at the community level. He favours the idea of a "State Of The Community Report" whereby the community sets its own targets and action plans, instead of having community development. Needs met in an ad hoc manner as is happening now.

If the country can have a five-year plan, so can the district and the community, he says. This would give people in the community some idea of the targets to work for, how far they have progressed since the last Plan review, and what initiatives they want to implement next. Under the late Tun Abdul Razak, some effort had been made in this direction but the idea has since died down.

Anwar says the UNDP is "trying out such a community action plan in India and the Philippines. If we can have a workable protocol and iron out any problems with it, the model can be applied in other countries too."

There is a lighter side to Anwar Fazal. Not many know he was a dramatist of sorts during his school days. In fact he once acted in a school play with Abdul and businessman.

Abdul Ghani had to dress up like Gandhi. 1, of course, had more clothes on," he recalls.

The same sense of humor was shown at a customer relations talk Anwar gave to employees of Malaysia Airlines recently. "So many people have told you so many things about customer service. Standing here now I feel like Elizabeth Taylor's fifth husband trying to teach her about sex," he disarmed the audience. Yet behind this affable ease lies a sharp, some may say uncompromising, consumerist's vision.

Anwar-would like to see serious consumer research, "more in-depth than what we are having now", taking place in this country.

In the Tun Hussein Onn Memorial lecture delivered on Oct 16, he advocated that i Malaysian Institute for Consumer Studies be set up. Such an institute, he says, could be an independent think-tank on a continuous basis. "We have a core of good people who could form a network which could be inter-university, inter-disciplinary and inter-sectorial."

He sees the institution's role as: identifying research needs, trends or legal gaps, and developing policy materials and more textbooks.

Consumer, rights, – says Anwar, must go with responsibilities. His Rukun Pengguna or five principles of consumer responsibilities encompass:

  • Critical awareness – asking questions about the goods and services we consume. "Why"
  • We consume should be as important as "what" or "which'.
  • Involvement or action – asserting ourselves to ensure we get a fair deal.
  • Social responsibility – acting with concern and sensitivity to the impact of our actions on others. Voting with purchasing power can reinforce racist or repressive regimes. Selective or non-purchase can help bring about not just better products but a better world.
  • Ecological responsibilities – developing heightened sensitivity to the impact of consumer decisions on the physical environment.
  • Solidarity – forming citizens groups which can have the strength and influence to ensure adequate attention to consumers' interests.

Anwar's family is also consumer-oriented and involved in community issues. His wife, Mahmuda,a retired teacher, is active in the Women's Crisis Centre.

His two teenaged children, Aslam and Saleena, he says, are consumerists too.
"When they were young, if they saw people smoking near them in a restaurant they would send them little notes saying smoking is bad for children." This, he stresses, happened without any prompting from him. He says Malaysia is ahead, of many developing countries in its consumer protection laws and the creation of a Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs.

Anwar, however, admits that we are far behind the Scandinavian countries where "consumer protection is part of the personality of government, and part of the personality of business", and where "you have consumer education even at kindergarten level."

What brought Anwar into consumerism was not one event but more "a series of things".
"I'd come back to Penang after years of student activism, and I could see things that were not right."

It was the 1960s, and Anwar, who had already been active in the international and national student's movement, felt he had to act at the local government level, "to be interested in the services provided, like rubbish collection, food sold in the marketplace, and services in low-cost housing schemes."

A consumer organization was then active in Selangor, but an earlier attempt to form an active consumer association in Penang had not been successful.

Anwar acknowledges the contributions of "people like Syed Adam Aljafri and (Datin Paduka) Ruby Lee – these were two of the early pioneers of the consumer movement in Malaysia. (Tun) Dr Lim Chong Eu was another." (At one time Anwar was private secretary to Dr Lim, the former Chief Minister of Penang.)

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Anwar reminds us, was primarily a project of the Universiti Malaya alumni." (Datuk Seri) Dr Ling Liong Sik, at that time a young medical doctor, was active in the student alumni. With other volunteers we began CAP (in 1969)."

Anwar became secretary of CAP, and in 1974, he was asked to head the regional office of the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU). He became president of IOCU in 1978 a post he held until 1984.

He recalls how difficult it was to decide between remaining in government service and going into consumerism full-time, but he made the decision because he had been "working 10-day , weeks" handling his job as well as voluntary work under CAP and IOCU.

Anwar chose the consumer movement, and he has no regrets. Government's loss was the consumer movement's gain. Anwar's skills as a motivator came in useful. He has, for example, helped groups in Mauritius, Hong Kong and China streamline their own consumer protection movements.

In 1982, Anwar received the Right Livelihood Award, popularly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. For his work in world consumerism, Ralph Nader's magazine Multinational Monitor named him "Activist of the Year" in 1983.

Anwar served as chairman of the Nairobi-based Environmental Liaison Centre International during 1987 and 1988. His environmental conservation efforts won him the United Nations Environment Proramme (UNEP) "Global 500' Award in 1988 and also saw his induction into the "Environmental Hall of Fame" by Mother Earth News.

It is typical of the man that for these achievements he credits "the teamwork and coordination" between various groups that made things happen. Acknowledged as a talent spotter who has nurtured many consumer researchers and leaders, Anwar says a key problem now is identifying future leaders of the consumer movement and the community.

Ensuring continuity of good leadership is essential, he says, because society, like fish, "rots. from the head down".