Consumers in the New Millennium Back to Basics

Keynote address by Anwar Fazal at the inaugural public lecture on World Consumer Rights Day organised by the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association (FOMCA) at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 15 March 2001.

Brothers and sisters, firstly let me say Assalamualaikum, may peace be upon you. I start with the word ‘salaam’, peace, because more than any other word, it represents the essence of our work, our agenda for human security,  our mission. This “peace” has three dimensions:

  1. Peace with ourselves
  2. Peace with mother earth and the profound and infinite space we call the universe
  3. Peace with all living things, people and others.

Today, unfortunately, we live in a world where “peace” is severely shattered, decimated by the evil forces of violence,  waste and manipulation. We have a global politics dominated by insincerity and double standards. We have a global environment that is under severe critical stress. We have a global economy that is driven by an ideology of greed and selfishness. In many areas, we see the mother of all failures – “bad governance”. The magazine,The Economist once said, “ Of all the ills that kill the poor, none is as central as bad governance.”


Fortunately, there is a worldwide and a magnificent proliferation of citizens movements that are seeking the common good, that are making a difference, that are making waves and making miracles. These movements are increasingly motivated by and driven by a common fire:

  • Ecological Sustainability
  • Economic Productivity
  • Popular Participation
  • Social Justice
  • Cultural Vibrancy.

They are fighting what David Korten has called the “over consumer, and seeking affirmative action for the “marginals” and supporting the “sustainers” who believe in living lightly and responsibly, who are “micro-sensible” and “macro-responsible”, who are engaged in “voluntary simplicity” and even “conspicuous frugality”. The consumer movement must remember its roots - it is about rights and duties but most of all it is about values. For too many people, it is only about “value for money”. It must be just as much, if not more, about “value for people” and “value for the environment”.

Five Natural Laws

My wife, Mahmuda, who is an historian, has shared with me many insights, about the past and from those insights, I have developed five “natural laws” about bad civilisations:

  • Every civilisation that does not make peace with the environment has no future.
  • Every civilisation that does not ensure equity and social justice will suffer its own cruelty.

·         Every civilisation that does not ensure good governance through the full participation of the people will be silenced by its own brutal dictatorship.

  • Every civilisation that does not celebrate its diversity, its cultural and spiritual traditions, will end up with a soulless and purposeless sterility.
  • Every civilisation that does not nurture the concepts of family and community and does not respect and support the special role of women and the needs of the child will be devoured by its own lack of caring and social irresponsibility.

Today is World Consumer Rights Day. Yet in many parts of the world, consumers are not able to exercise their rights or even know they exist. The law should protect and promote these rights and, sometimes even more critical, the right to organise around them. But laws are only a reflection of the state of our society - a violent, corrupt, manipulative society will breed laws that serve it. Laws can pervert and subvert justice and they can become a powerful instrument for systematic repression. Laws do not mean justice nor do they imply automatic action. There must be safeguards and the ultimate safeguard must be a critical, informed, active citizenry that is rooted in strong, clear, humanistic and ecological principles that can provide a unifying bond for our pluralistic societies. We need to be active, informed and critical. Today I will share with you some ideas for this.

Twelve Basic Ideas       

Let me share with you what I think are the 12 fundamental ideas for the consumer movement. These will form the framework for any “back to basics” consumer movement.

1.       ‘We are all consumers’. This powerful expression of our Universality is the basis of both our strength and solidarity. Basic needs are fundamentally common.

2.       ‘Consuming is more than eating’. We consume not just with our mouths but with all our senses. There are eight kinds of consumption’:

·         goods - services

·         private - public

·         direct - indirect

·         voluntary - involuntary

·         free - pay

·         visible - invisible

·         immediate - future

·         necessary - unnecessary (needs and wants).

3.       ‘Not consuming can be as important or even more important than consuming’. Through restraint or boycotts, we can determine economic systems. Voluntary simple living is an important movement for the responsible use of the earth’s resources.

4.       ‘We have important rights and responsibilities and together they give us both a vision and a conscience’. We must both promote and protect these rights and responsibilities.

5.       The rights (eight) are:

·         Access to basic goods and services for survival

·          Fair prices and choice

·         Safety

·         Information

·         Representation

·         Redress

·         Consumer education

·         Healthy environment.

The first and last rights concerning ‘basic needs’ and the environment were articulated and contributed by the Third World, in fact from here in Malaysia.

6.       The five responsibilities are:

·         Critical awareness

·         Action

·         Social responsibility

·         Ecological responsibility

·         Solidarity.

7.       ‘We must overcome the anti-consumer’. The ‘anti-consumer’ manifests itself in the form of:

·         Terrible cultures -violence, manipulation and waste

·         tyrants -ignorant, inefficient and indifferent (or even hostile) bureaucracies.


In the Third World, these cultures and tyrants can be cruel -we have sometimes to fight for our survival and sometimes we have to seek to survive so that we may fight.

8.       ‘Our solidarity and strength will be enhanced enormously if we ‘link and multiply’. We must link seven things:

·         The inner and outer environment

·         ‘Hands’ and ‘heads’

·         Issues and processes

·         ‘Now’ and ‘then’

·         Symptoms and structures

·         ‘Sky’ and ‘grassroots’

·         ‘North’ and ‘South’.

We must multiply four things:

  • Information
  • People/leaders
  • Organisations
  • Networks-using the ‘strength of weak links’.

‘Hitchhiking’ and ‘helicopter vision’ are very helpful.

9.       ‘There are many models for consumer organisations but to best serve the consumers we must always have groups that are of the consumers, by the consumers and for the consumers. Some elements in looking at models include:

Constituency                           Issues

Service orientation                     Test

Advocacy                                 and/or

Empowerment                           Protest

Structure                                 Issues

Private                                      Independence

Government                              and/or

Parastatal                                 income

10.         ‘We are not anti-business or anti-government. We are for good business and good government. We are only against bad business practices and bad government practices.’

11.         ‘Because the world is moving towards a ‘global village’, the consumer movement must also be able to give a countervailing response and develop partnerships for global action’.

12.         ‘We are a force for happiness and let that permeate our work, our organisations and our lives.’


The Seven Challenges

What are some of the grand challenges to the consumer movement that we have to confront now as we head, often out of control, into the new millennium? I would like to suggest seven of them and speak about them briefly. Like the word, ‘Consumer’ and ‘Challenges’, they will begin with the letter ‘C’:

1.       Casino Capitalism -Trillions of currency units now move recklessly across borders with devastating consequences to economics and the social fabric.

2.       Criminality and Corruption -The Gross Criminal Produce (GCP) is among the fastest rising index in the world. Consumers pay the price for this.

3.       Communication and Cyberspace -These are changing relationships of power and perceptions  creating new ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and the great digital divide between the ‘knows’ and the ‘knows-not’.

4.       Cloning -The terrible consequences of genetic engineering and its many uncharted issues resulting in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Terminator’ technologies which are running wild with their ‘agents’ of propaganda descending on us like vultures from a sick planet.

5.       Conservation -The environment challenge will need to be high on our priorities: the ‘endocrine disrupters’ remind us of our sins. The ‘conspicuous frugality’ movement is gaining strength everywhere and you must link with it. ‘Water’ and ‘Waste’ are going to be matters of life and death. Look at the diseases - BSE (mad cow), TSE and foot and mouth disease - arising as a result of terrible farming practices. Organic farming is on the rise - thank God.

6.       Commercialism of everything  - Important basic needs like health get commercialised beyond reason and ethics. Insidious sponsorships and advertisement placements are added so you don’t know what paid advertisements are anymore, e.g. in movies (cigarette adds). “Corporatisation” and “privatisation” of the World Trade Organization (WTO) need to be challenged more effectively.

7.       Colonisation of mind and stomach - when through sheer technology and marketing and brute intrusion, the mind and stomach are ripped out of their natural integrity and balance. The targeting of children and capturing the ‘mindscapes’ central to this phenomenon. They can degenerate into “cyclops” - seeing only in one dimension.

I hope you will roam the seven “C’s” and they will find some place in your work to protect consumers everywhere. It is often fundamental structural issues that are the root. As we learnt in fighting the infant formula industry, it is not enough to save children who are drowning. We have to look upstream and at those who are throwing them into the water! We have to ensure that we are never enveloped by either state tyranny or market tyranny and God forbid, a combination of both.

The Panchasila of Power

What can we do? Let me share with you what I call the “Panchasila of Power Five Principles”: Panchasila means:

The power of “One” - never underestimate the power of a single individual. Through their example and action, Individuals have transformed the world as history shows.

The power of “Many” - networking alliances and partnerships can build your strength - Social movements must link and build on the core values we share.

The power of “Faith” - belief and drawing from spiritual traditions can provide powerful universal and inner as well as external strength.

The power of “Information” - access to research, education programmes and working with the media can provide the outreach we need for transformational change. Links with the United Nations, its resource, information networks and global agreements need to be better developed.

The power of “Success” - every victory, however small, should be shared and celebrated That glow inspires and grows.

Ideas for Action

If five things can happen we should be grateful:

1.       A Centre for Consumer Studies that can contribute systematically to the intellectual and utilitarian aspects of the consumer movement.

2.       An annual "State of the Consumer Report" which is debated annually around World Consumer Rights Day.

3.       A guaranteed income for the Institute of Consumer Studies, the Annual State of the Consumer Report,  consumer groups through a tax on advertising. This will not only reduce it, hopefully, but would also enable you to fight the bad part of it.

4.       Systematic training of consumer professionals.

5.       Every newspaper carrying a consumer complaint page.



Lastly, I want to share with you a poem that I contributed to a book for the next millennium, a poem to remind us that without peace and harmony, we will self-destruct. The poem is called, "Remember, We Are One".

"We all drink from one water

We all breathe from one air

We rise from one ocean

And we live under one sky


We are one

The newborn baby cries the same

The laughter of children is universal

Everyone's blood is red

And our hearts beat the same song


 We are one

We are all brothers and sisters

Only one family, only one earth

Together we live

And together we die


We are one

Peace be on you

Brothers and Sisters

Peace be on you."

Thank you for inviting me to join you this evening and 1 look forward to working with all of you for a better future for all.

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