The Consumers of Asia and the Pacific Challenges and Prospects

Speech presented by Anwar Fazal at the 1995 Annual Conference of the Society of Consumers Affairs Professionals (SOCAP), Adelaide, Australia, 1-3 November 1995.

When I was given the formidable task of addressing in 30 minutes the culture and psyche of consumers in this vast area called Asia and the Pacific, I was reminded of a very difficult assignment of a very famous science fiction writer was once given. He had been asked to write a thousand word article on the subject  “Is there life on the Planet Mars?” and to send the article urgently by telegram. He sent the thousand-word article as requested, and it consisted of two words “nobody knows”, repeated five hundred times.

Fortunately for me there are two recent books that share some very penetrating ideas and issues for consumers and those interested in consumers in this region.

Also, we can learn a great deal from a medical technology pioneered in this region by one of our great civilisations, China. This technology, acupuncture, requires three things

i           A map that identified the problem areas and pressure points

ii         Instruments, usually needles, to trigger, change and balance

iii        People skilled to read the maps and use the instruments.


If we take the “map” of the consumer condition in this region using the two important elements indicated in the United Nations Consumer Guidelines, it is clear that

1.       Consumers continue to face an imbalance in economic terms, in education levels, and bargaining power.

2.       The task of providing and promoting just, equitable and sustainable economic and social development for the majority of consumers leaves much to be desired.


The map of Asia-Pacific has also some very distinct characteristics

1.       Its vastness – 31 million sq km or one-quarter of the world land surface and much more of the ocean and air space. We have the continental mass and its shattering into thousand of islands big and small, sometimes very small and very isolated.

2.       The sheer size and diversity of the population, 56 percent the world and many cultures,   languages and different dreams.

3.       Extreme variations in geography and resource utilisation which often cause cruel deprivations and very conceivable kind of environmental stress, often in the form of deadly cocktails. We suffer too often a kind of double jeopardy, from both the poisons of plenty and affluence and the powerlessness of sheer poverty.


The “Anti-consumer” in the region manifests itself in three ways

1.       Through violence both from the sheer lack of access to the essentials to survive, and from products, processes, and waste that maim and kill.

2.       Through manipulation – using the machines of propaganda both to prevent the expression of people’s aspirations for a better quality of life and especially through uncontrolled and rampant advertising to manipulate the fears and desires of innocent and poor people for things they do not need, do not have money for, and which in fact can do them no end of harm, e.g., tobacco advertising, a product that will, just in China alone, lead to the premature death of 50 million of all the children alive today. Yet there are governments and enterprises that are actively fostering “disease, disability and death”.

3.       Through waste – The destruction of our forests, the practice of “driftnet” or “wall of death fishing” in the Pacific, epitomise the rapacious way in which the basis of our lives is eroded.


If we need “signposts” on our maps to remind us of the consumer condition, they could include

·         Bhopal, India – how a whole city was converted into a gas chamber in what was the world’s worst industrial holocaust. Until today there is not justice for the victims.

·         “Toxic terrorism” – the barrels of toxic waste from Koko, Nigeria, were refused landing everywhere but it was somewhere in this region that the deadly cargo “disappeared” Where did it go? Into the sea? Which country was bribed into accepting it?

·         “Sorry, not clean water” – half of this developing region has still no clean drinking water and ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) estimates that half the countries have water withdrawal levels exceeding sustainable, rechargeable capacity. Water pollution is a singularly good index of ill health. Cancer has already become a growth industry


The map has other indicators too, some positive and dynamic.

  • Japan, China (the dragon), Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore (the tigers), India (the elephant) and several other countries in the region are making the Asia-Pacific region a new power in the global market place.
  • There has been a magnificent proliferation of groups acting assertively on consumer issues. Both China and India have thousands of consumer groups. In nearly every country there is a group or individuals acting to protect and promote the consumer interest. The people are rising – they are rising for more access, justice and efficiency in the market place both for goods and services.
  • Governments in the region are showing a new interest in measures for protecting the consumer interest. The comprehensive Consumer Protection Act of India or the new Consumer Council on tiny Macau are examples of this. And in the South Pacific, the Federal Bureau of Consumer Affairs from initiatives led for many years by John Wood and his team have made a difference.


Now the first book.

John Naisbitt, author of Megatrend 2000 has this month launched a new book called “Megatrends Asia”. The insights he provides give us some of the best insight into the excitement that is “The New Asian Drama”

He lists eight Megatrends:

From Nations States                 -           Networks

From Export-led                      -           Consumer-driven

From Western Influence             -           The Asian Way

From Villages                            -           Super cities

From Labour-intensive               -           High Technology

From Male Dominance              -           Emergence of Women

From West                                -           East


These Megatrends are elaborated in Appendix I and are important for us to understand.

John Naisbitt also shares with us the tensions between “Asia” and “American” Values, an issue that will challenge all those who are interested in politics, markets and culture.

The second book also launched this month is called How Corporations Rule the World (San Francisco: Kumarian Press and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993) by Dr. David C. Korten who earlier has written a book called “Getting to the 21st Century”.

He also shares with us views on Democratic Pluralism and how in this region particularly we have to equally concern ourselves with the worst aspects of both state and market tyranny and the importance of active citizenship and a balancing role by “Civil Society” (see Appendix II). He shares with us a map of the world where there are three social-ecological classes - the “over-consumers” (one billion), “the sustainers” (three billion) and the under consumers or “marginals” (one billion people). (See Appendix III).

There is very clearly today a revolution of consumers, by consumers and for consumers. We have to struggle against the “Anti-Consumer”.

The consumer movement must be about life-style that enable us to make peace not war with ourselves, peace not war with other people and peace not war with mother earth.

Today in Asia, there are great tensions between the three classes that David Korten describes, between these values of peaceful consumption.

All of you can play a role in ensuring that the Pacific century, the century of the Dragon, is one that is ecologically sustainable, socially just, ecological sustainable, participatory and culturally vibrant!

The Australia in Asia and the Asia in Australia can be a synergic force for a better world for all.

The consumer movement is not just  “shopping basket issues”, it is also an issue about “value for people” and “value for the Environment”.

I like to end by remembering a great Asian. Last month was the anniversary of the birthday of the Chinese sage, Confucius, I like to share his thoughts from the Record of Rites Book IX - the Commonwealth State.


“When the perfect order prevails, the world is like a home shared by all. Virtuous and worthy persons are elected to public office and capable persons hold posts of gainful employment in society; peace and trust among persons are the maxims of living. All persons love and respect their own parents and children, as well as the parents and children of others. There is caring for the old; there are jobs for the adults; there are nourishment and education for the children. There is a means of support for the widows, and the widowers; for all who find themselves alone in the world; and for the disabled. Every man and woman has an appropriate role to play in the family and society. A sense of sharing displaces the effects of selfishness and materialism. A devotion to public duty leaves no room for idleness. Intrigues and conniving for ill gain are unknown. Villains such as thieves and robbers do not exist. The door to every home need never be locked and bolted by day or night. These are the characteristics of an ideal world and the Commonwealth State”.


Confucius was born in 551 BC some 2,500 years ago. Will the dawn of what has been labeled the Pacific Rim century make this Commonwealth finally possible? Together we can make it happen! You, in your role as the “consumer conscience” in corporations and government, must surely do so.


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