Interview with "AP Consumer
25th Anniversary Commorative Issue, 1999
Much of the early growth of CI ROAP, and of the nascent consumer movement in the region, is attributable to its first regional director Datuk (Dr.) Anwar Fazal, who was also IOCU president from 1978 to 1984. AP Consumer caught up with the ever-busy Anwar to share with us his views on consumer issues, his contributions, and his current work with UNDP
AP CONSUMER: What brought you at a young age into the consumer movement, in the late 60's?
ANWAR FAZAL: We saw the consumer movement as a force for social justice, for human rights, for responsible living. It affected everybody. Coming from a tradition of student activism (I was President of the National Union of Malaysian Students and the University of Malaya Student Union), I saw the potential of the consumer movement for the common good of the community. Everybody is a consumer, consumption affects our daily lives, our pockets and our health. You can say our lives depend on it!
You put IOCU on the map globally - it was during your presidency that Third World issues came to the forefront. How do you see the role of the regional office in Penang in all this?
The critical thing was that we transformed the consumer movement from a fringe group for the middle class into a movement that was central to the process of Sustainable Human Development. We were able to project it as a movement that meant real things to real people - the billions of poor, oppressed, exploited, disempowered.
The second major achievement was to give the movement a vision that gave it both "Rights and Responsibilities. We promoted eight rights and five responsibilities. We expanded the rights to include basic needs and a healthy environment. We introduced, for example, the power of responsibilities - especially concern for the effect on other human beings (the Social Impact Assessment) and the effect on the environment - (the Environmental Impact ', Assessment).
Thirdly, we were central in promoting the power of networking and alliance, building. The consumer movement was looked up to for leadership of the global NGO movement - and we did provide that global leadership. Over a dozen ' global networks were spawned by us. Fourthly, we were central in developing the really first consumer protection I code - the International Code on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Later we played a key role in developing codes on pesticides, pharmaceuticals and the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection. Fifthly, the Consumer Movement was made really global through our networks which extended to both the South and the North. And the Third World, the South, was a true partner and leader of the movement. In so many global organisations, the South just represented tokenism by the power.
Sixthly, Consumers International grew from a handful of people to a force of several dozen. A good part of this growth and power base was in Penang in the information area and in networking, in creative ideas and cutting edge issues. Any major disappointments? - None, really. Someone said we did from Penang several times more than was humanly possible. People were amazed that a small frugal team of highly creative people were blazing trails and building a global force to be reckoned with. Charles Medawar, a leading British public activist, once said that because of our work the consumer movement would never be the same again and there was no turning back.
Are governments in the Third World taking consumer protection seriously? And what should be their role in consumerism?
The governments of the Third World are certainly taking consumer protection more seriously. Just take the Malaysian situation. We have a full fledged Ministry, and local consumer groups once suggested that the annual Consumer Advocate award should be given to the Ministry itself. Of course there is so much more that remains to be done as in the women's movement, the environment movement, the labour movement. The fact that there is a UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection, the fact of increasing democratisation and greater information, means that only a really stupid government will ignore consumer interests - and they are unlikely to last long! We had the privilege of having consumer officials from Mongolia coming here to learn. Everywhere in the world governments are paying attention. Of course the challenges are getting more complex and globalisation is making the opposing forces even more formidable, even ruthless New Multilateral Organisations like the WTO and instruments like the MAI are changing the power equations in new ways. We need to be even better than before to engage the new, ferocious, and far from Consumer Friendly, powers.
You are not a big fan of transnational corporations, especially of their activities in the Third World
The powers of Transnational Corporations have to be countered. The United Nations regretfully was forced to abandon its initiative on developing a code of conduct. The prevalent Market ideology with its Casino Capitalism and Mad Money has serious flaws and there is a need for balance. Community, self reliance, human scale - all these are important values. People.should do some fundamental rethinking. When Corporations Rule the World and The Post Corporate World - Life After Capitalism by David Korten, offer some really outstanding creative thinking on this.
You spoke of an unholy alliance between business and government, and the fact that consumer movement has had to confront established bodies in countries which are not inclined to accept public participation. What are the Issues here?
One of the biggest issues is corruption - money politics, the link between corporations and political participation, and with governments with no transparency. Consumers International has to work with organisations like Transparency International on this. I spoke about this issue nearly 20 years ago when I was President. More needs to be done as corruption eats into the fabric of society and distorts and destroys it.
What is your vision of an alternative to the materialistic, ecologically unsound society we now have?
We need to fight the forces of violence, manipulation and waste. We need to promote the Culture of balance and harmony, the Culture of Caring, of Stewardship and Trusteeship and we need to promote a Culture of Accountability. If I were to suggest a vision, I would take the following five which we are promoting here in Malaysia through the Sustainable Penang Initiative: Social Justice, Ecological Sustainability, Economic Productivity, Popular Participation, Cultural Vibrancy.
How best can we nurture and develop future leaders of the consumer movement and the community?
Any social movement that hopes to succeed must have a creative framework to enable all three generations - the elderly, middles and the youth - to rake an active part. We must recognise the power of the highly talented pensioners and the creative energy of the young. Women bring a whole new untapped power and a sense of unadulterated mission. If you have processes in place for these people's ideas, links, some resource handbooks and headbooks, and interesting and sustaining activities, you have the power to grow. I spend one third of my time nurturing the protection of the youth. A very important aspect of our work was to have four or five interns a year and have some of the world's best persons, spend sabbaticals with the organisation. It was a great synergy, thinking constructively and reminding ourselves that we were a force of happiness. Build joy and fun and creativity into the movement. Be human and caring.
How do you see the consumer movement developing in the next 25 years? Will consumer rights and responsibilities be much the same as when you formulated them in the 70's?
The rights and responsibilities have a universal and infinite quality about them. The challenge is for the Consumer Movement to continue to keep the consumer movement as a people's movement. The challenges of globalisation are only going to make the human element more important. Our link with the human rights, gender, environment, labour, alternative businesses is going to be necessary. New Information Technologies are going to be liberating as well as punishing! We need to be better linked and better inspired.
You have managed to combine a hectic life jetting to all corners of the globe with a happy domesticated family life here in Penang. flow did you do it?
Two of the most wonderful things in my life is a wife who understood and supported my work and secondly a place in Penang where the sense of community , of heart and soul meant you could do so much - go to the beach or the hills or enjoy the most wonderful street food and a great cultural heritage, all within walking or cycling or bus distance. My wife, children, and Penang all fitted in beautifully. As a family we used to help in the office - spring cleaning, making envelopes, joining in picnics, taking care of visitors. The office had a really caring family atmosphere and that made it a joy. My wife Mahmuda had a wonderful formula for me during weekends. I could do anything I wanted during weekends as long as I took my two kids Aslam and Saleena along. So the kids ended up visiting places, listening to speeches, meeting all our friends. Till today it is the spirit of family and community that continues to give me the energy and optimism. It was wonderful growing up together.
Two decades on and you are still at it - developing networks and alliances in your current work.
More recently, I have been developing an urban movement, working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help our cities to be more liveable. We have set up new networks around Transport, Water, Solid Waste, Heritage, Transparency and Integrity, Gender. We support a few hundred initiatives through a programme called Asia Pacific 2000 and The Urban Governance Initiative. One of the more exciting and joyful things for me recently has been developing The Sustainable Penang Initiative. With the support of progressive, caring and committed people like YAB Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon (Penang's Chief Minister), YB Dr. Toh Kin Woon (State Exco Member for Education), Salma Khoo Nasution (of Heritage fame) and Susan Siew (formerly with Consumers International) we have put in place a popular participatory process for a better, more caring and more sustainable Penang. Penang is rated one of the world's best places to live. We want to keep it so and even better it. Consumers International Asia Pacific is fortunate to be in such a beautiful, supportive and energising environment - all the ingredients to do even better in the future. I am looking forward to the next exciting 25 years - I will be 82 then!Back to Interviews