Action for Change – An Agenda for Active Citizenship

Address by Anwar Fazal, Regional Director, International Organization of Consumers Unions, at the Post Graduate Medical Centre, General Hospital, Johor Baru, Malaysia, on 31 May 1975.

1.       Malaysia is changing very rapidly – changing politically, changing economically and changing socially. Change brings both problems and challenges.

2.       We have emerged from a colonial economy, a colonial political structure and a colonial social straight jacket and are moving towards a national economy and toward a new national mood and character. The Rukunegara is our social contract – a shared framework for the harmonious and dynamic co-existence of all Malaysians of all races, religions, languages and beliefs.

3.       Government itself has become complex with a bewildering array of agencies; economic life is now diversifying and the distance between producer and consumer. Becoming longer and in our social lives we are building fences around our new homes. New kinds of health problems are emerging in our environment as well as new noises and new smells in many places. We see sophisticated and large business organisations and we witness complex industrial processes that befuddle the man in the street.

4.       Life for the ordinary man, whether farmer or wireman, teacher or lawyer shopkeeper or doctor, are now both easier and harder. Is it better and can it be better? How can we as ordinary citizens make it better? What are our obligations as citizens of a democratic Malaysia?

5.       People think they are good citizens if they behave themselves, obey the laws and vote during election time. Those are not good citizens, they are nice people but minimum citizens. I say this because in a democratic society the citizen has a much more positive role to play towards making a better life and society for all Malaysians.

The New Concerns

6.       In a rapidly changing society like the kind we have, what are the types of new issues that should concern every citizen?

·         We should be concerned about poverty among our fellow citizens

·         We should be concerned about exploitation of our citizens by business groups, by      employers and by insensitive bureaucrats.

·         We should be concerned that our rivers and waters are being contaminated and our fish are being poisoned.

·         We should be concerned that our towns are becoming choked with cars and public transport is not given the special priority.

·         We should be concerned that our forests are being destroyed, and erosion and floods destroying property and sometimes life.

·         We are concerned that misleading advertisements, rampant short weight and imitation and shoddy goods are being permitted to drain away the already low incomes of our citizens.

·         We are concerned about industrial safety in our workplaces and our workers being maimed and killed.

·         We are concerned that foods and drugs are not subject to the kind of control that is necessary for safe living

·         We are concerned that our road safety record is atrocious.

·         We are concerned about insensitivity of certain governmental agencies to meeting the needs of the people.

7.       It has been said that “democracy comes hard, but goes easy”. To make democracy work, the citizens have to work. People like you, people from all strata of society have to take a new kind of attitude toward their civic duties – they must express their complaints, they must seek redress and they must organize to highlight problems and most important to contribute positively to the solution of those problems.

8.       We need a kind of constructive and responsible activism among our citizens – the kind that emanates from a feeling for righting injustice and from the sensitizing of our conscience.

9.       Too many of our citizens have turned their backs to the many new concerns brought about by a changing society and sought comfort in the many kinds of escapism available in free society. Too few have gone out to speak, to organize in the spirit of true citizenship.

10.   Lack of interest and involvement in civic affairs will only lead to a decay of our society. A “toothless” citizenship will only lead to insensitive government, irresponsible business and a decline in the real quality of our lives.

An Agenda for Concerned Citizens

11.   Education for concerned citizenship has to be developed both in the school and the community.

12.   The teaching of civics in many schools in scandalous – the periods are often used for other subjects and the teaching of which leaves much to be desired. Civics teaching should be an activity oriented and related to the realities of the situation. The teaching of consumer concepts and the environment can form interesting and meaningful subjects. My own view is that the school system keeps the children too much within the four walls of the classroom cramming for examinations or in useless repetitive outdoor activity that does little to contribute to civic qualities for the vast majority of citizens.

13.   As adults and as responsible citizens what can you do:

·         Form, join and support groups that are active in the new concerns like consumerism and environmentalism

·         Fight for a new ethics by the business community – less misleading advertising and less manipulation against consumers’ interests

·         Express concern through the press and by organising talks and newsletters against all forms of pollution

·         Encourage citizens to exercise their rights to complain about shoddy goods and services by both the private and public sectors

·         seek better use of TV for educational purposes

·         encourage the development of a local community spirit and pride by forming a residents' organisation or supporting the community relations councils when they are set up

·         seek better adult education programmes, especially the expansion of public libraries

·         write to the press, your state assemblyman and M.P. when you have complaints and suggestions

·         encourage the development of a local press so that the problems of the local area can be highlighted and discussed. Even a weekly tabloid newspaper provides a local focus.



14.   A recent report classed Johor Baru as an upper 3rd grade urban centre but fast moving to become a 2nd grade urban centre. Like Butterworth in my own state, Johor Baru has had to be in the shadow of a greater metropolitan centre adjoining it and serving as its backyard and poorer residential suburb. Things have changed for Johor Baru (as they have for Butterworth) and you are emerging as a strong urban centre with all the hardware for the community’s economic progress – airport, seaport and industrial estates.

15.   But the real progress in the quality of life here will depend on how the citizens of Johor Baru develop a sense of community and how its citizens understand and fulfill their citizenship obligations. Is Johor Baru going to be a better place as a city to live in, to bring children up and to educate them for the kind of Malaysia we want – a free progressive, democratic and harmonious nation?

We can be proud that we have already achieved a quality of life and a sense of harmony that is the envy of developing nations but it is a constraint struggle to keep this quality. Apathetic and inert citizens can make us slide back. People like you who have vision, a deep commitment to this country, the resources and the energy to work with and lead the community for a better Malaysia have a great responsibility on your conscience.

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