The Citizen As Consumer

The 1993 Tun Hussein Onn* Memorial Lecture by Encik Anwar Fazal delivered in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia on the 16th of October 1993

GAIA (pronounced 'ga-yah') is the Greek word for mother earth, a living complex sphere.

GAIA we are told is 4,600 million years' old.

If we condense this mind-boggling figure into something we can understand, and assume that GAIA is 46 years of age, we are told:

  • Nothing is known to us about the first seven years of GAIA's life;
  • Nothing much is known about GAIA as a teenager or young adult;
  • Only at age 42, did GAIA begin to flower;
  • Dinosaurs and the great reptiles appeared only a year ago when GAIA was 45;
  • The ice age enveloped GAIA only last weekend;
  • Modern humankind has been around for four hours;
  • During the last hour, we discovered agriculture; and
  • The industrial revolution began one minute ago.

During that minute, those sixty seconds, we have ransacked the planet in the name of development, sometimes for need, very often for greed!

We have caused the extinction of some 500 species of animals. We have accumulated such deadly weapons that can kill us many times over.

We have also generated much happiness, creativity , beauty.

But it is a constant struggle.

It is as if GAIA, mother earth. Is itself suffering from AIDS. Her immune systems are being devastated as:

  • her circulation systems, the water, and air, are being poisoned.
  • the lungs, the forests, are being wantonly destroyed.
  • her skin, the ozone layer and soil, are being seared and scraped.

All this devastation may go down paths from which there is no return.

Can we do something to reverse this madness? Can we create a new paradigm of development and happiness that enables peace with ourselves, peace with other people, and peace with mother earth?

As citizens, as consumers, we can and we must!

There is now a worldwide revolution by consumers, of consumers, for consumers. I would like to share with you the essence of this revolution.

And I hope that in the sharing, you too will join the struggle for a better world through a better lifestyle.

Some history

The consumer struggle is not new.

Some 3,500 years ago, the Hittites, in Anotolia, now in Turkey, had two very simple but powerful laws.

The first stated, "Thou shalt not poison thy neighbour's oil (ie. There should be no unsafe products).

The second stated, "Thou shalt not bewitch thy neighbour's oil (ie. Don't engage in misleading or manipulative market practices).

The so-called "Middle Ages" saw some tough laws. The French Law of 1481, for example, required that anyone who sold butter containing stones or other foreign bodies (to fraudulently increase the weight would be put in a pillory and the offending butter placed on the seller's head until entirely melted by the sun. In addition, dogs were allowed to come and feast off the butter, and people allowed to insult the seller.

The battle for safe products and responsible market practices has continued over the centuries. The continued exploitation of the consumer saw the birth of the organized consumer movement and in 1960, a world body, the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU) was founded.

The movement grew from strength and on April 9, 1985, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a worldwide charter on consumer protection. Its official title was the "United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection."

This decision bestowed a universal legitimacy on the decades of efforts by consumer advocates, and highlighted the importance that consumer protection had on economic and social development.

These guidelines addressed six "legitimate needs" of consumers:

  1. The protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety;
  2. The promotion and protection of the economic interests of consumers;
  3. Access of consumers to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices according to individual wishes and needs;
  4. Consumer education;
  5. Availability of effective consumer redress;
  6. freedom to form consumer and other relevant groups or organizations and the opportunity of such organizations to present their views in decision-making processes affecting them.
    1. These guidelines provide a challenge to consumers, to business and to government. They provide the framework for assertive, socially responsible production, marketing and consumption of goods and services.

      What is the consumer movement really about?

      However, the consumer movement has suffered from taking a very narrow view- it talked too much about "value for money". It did not talk enough about "value for mother earth".

      I would like to share with you a new vision of the movement, a vision that not only requires us to be micro-sensible but also to be macro-responsible.

      The consumer movement is about 5 important things.

      Firstly, the consumer movement is about PEOPLE. People who are about society from a very special perspective, a perspective that concerns every single human being, man, woman and child, the hawker, the doctor, even the lawyer and politician. This perspective is about ourselves as consumers about the food we eat, the drink we take, the medicines we use, the products and service we get or don't get. It is also about those who try because the put profits before health, to manipulate our behaviours against our self interest, through advertising and through the power they have to impose deprivations on us.

      Secondly, the consumer movement is also about POWER power of the ordinary people to organize themselves collectively to serve as a countervailing force to promote and protect our interests as consumers to help us fight the violence, waste and manipulation that characterize so many of our societies.

      Thirdly, the consumer movement is also about HUMAN RIGHTS -

      • the right to a decent life with dignity
      • the right to organize ourselves as consumers

      In particular, the consumer movement is about eight specific consumer rights. They are:

      • The right to basic needs which means the right to basic goods and services which guarantee survival. It includes adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.
      • The right to safety which means the right to be protected against products, production processes and services which are hazardous to health or life. It includes concerns for consumers' long-term interests as well as their immediate requirements.
      • The right to be informed which means the right to make an informed choice or decision. Consumers must be provided with adequate information enabling them to act wisely and responsibly. They must also be protected from misleading or inaccurate publicity material, whether included in advertising, labeling, packaging or by other means.
      • The right to choose which means the right to have access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices, and in the case of monopolies, to have an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at a fair price.
      • The right to be heard which means the right to advocate consumers' interests with a view to their receiving full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation and execution of economic and other policies. It includes the right of representation in governmental and other policy-making bodies well as in the development of products and services before they are produced or set up.
      • The right to redress which means the right to a fair settlement of just claims. It includes the right to receive compensation for misrepresentation of shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services and the availability of acceptable forms of legal aid or redress for small claims, where necessary.
      • The right to consumer education which means the right to acquire the knowledge and skills to be an informed consumer throughout life. The right to consumer education incorporates he right to the knowledge and skills needed for taking action to influence factors which affect consumer decisions.
      • The right to a healthy environment which means the right to a physical environment that will enhance the quality of life. It includes protection against environmental dangers over which the individual has no control. It acknowledges the need to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.

      Fourthly, the consumer movement in also about the ENVIRONMENT about a sustainable earth. We cannot just be concerned serving and protecting the insides of our bodies, our "inner limits", but we also have to equally to be concerned with the "outer limits" of mother-spaceship earth, a powerful complex and yet so fragile, an exploitable structure that gives us the opportunity or a good life but which can be destroyed not by people's needs but by people's greed, ignorance and carelessness.

      Fifthly, and lastly, the consumer movement is also about JUSTICE about the way in which our political, legal and economic systems are organized to bring about a fair, a just and equitable and rational basis to promote and protect the public interest.

      These five pillars, I believe, are the basis on which to judge the relevancy, the competence and the success of a consumer movement. These five pillars have become an integral part of the work and many consumer groups. In particular, in Malaysia the Consumers Association of Penang has led in integrity, social responsibility demonstrating this humanistic and ecological approach to the consumer movement as few groups in the world have done. It has made the consumer movement relevant and it has shown that it can make a difference.

      To many groups in the Third World for whom just survival is victory, Malaysia is a precious model of what can be done. A critical, constructive, humanistic and ecological approach can be a constant source of guidance and inspiration for the rest of the world, guidance and inspiration so badly needed in many countries where corrupt governments in league with greedy business interests do not like to see a strong consumer movement (unless, of course, they can run it themselves).

      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 organize 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 critical, informed, active citizenry that is rooted in strong, clear, humanistic and ecological principles that can provide a unifying bond for our pluralistic society. We need to be active, to be informed, to be critical. The late Tun Hussein Onn embodied these qualities and as long as there are more such people, we can hope for a more caring and just society.

      Towards a caring and just society

      We live in a world that is dominated by three terrible technologies:

      • The technology of violence both of the structural kind that, through neglect of provision of essential services, causes death and misery, and technological kind emanating fro products, processes and wastes that maim and kill. An example is the irresponsible use of pesticides which are associated with over one million deaths in the third world.
      • The technology of manipulation both from the machines of bureaucratic propaganda and behaviour control exercised by unbridled advertising techniques. These can prevent the free and informed expression of people's participation. Victorious forms of hidden advertising like "product placement" in feature moves and children's programmes that are designed to create a consumer craving to buy and buy are becoming more rampant.
      • The technology of waste garbage has become a good measure of mal-development. Greenpeace estimates that some 3.2 million tons of wastes are exported to developing countries which are playing a role as the world's garbage dumps. About 1.2 billion of the worlds 5.5 billion people are "over consumers" and are responsible for 70% of the damage to the environment.

      The world is fast moving to becoming a global supermarket as well as a superdump. We do not want to end up as its dustbin, as its prisoner, as its victim.

      Towards a new vision

      We should seek a new vision which embodies these three caring cultures:

      • A culture of balance and harmony, representing the cycles and systems so well established by the laws of nature.
      • A culture of trusteeship and stewardship, as we are only guardians of this earth.
      • A culture of accountability, not only in the political sense but also to the future, and to God Almighty.

      Six ways to spend US$25 billion

      One of the best examples of the perverted state of global priorities was stated powerfully in a recent United Nations report.

      The 1993 "State of the World Children's Report" by UNICEF states that US$25 billion extra a year is what it would take to meet the most basic needs of all the world's children by the end of this decade, and yet what goes on instead:

      • Smoke and rink: US$25 billion is less than what America spends on cigarettes every six months and what Western Europe spends on alcohol every three months.
      • Aid for Russia: US425 billion is a little more then the 1992 support package for Russia agreed by the "group of 7" rich nations.
      • An airport for Hong Kong: US$25 billion is a little more than the estimated cost of Hong Kong's new airport.
      • Wages of war: US$25 billion is about as much as the developing world spends every six months to pay the wages of its soldiers.
      • A new road for Japan: US$25 billion is less than what the government of Japan has allocated, in 1992, to building of a new road from Tokyo to Kobe.

      It makes you think about so-called "development!"

      The consumer movement in Malaysia

      An occasion like this cannot be allowed to pass without some specific comments on the consumer movement in Malaysia.

      Malaysia fortunately, has much to be proud of:

      Firstly, we are one of the few countries to have a fully fledged Ministry dealing with consumer affairs. The Malaysian government clearly takes consumer protection seriously.

      Secondly, the framework for national, state and local consumer councils is also quite rare. The vision of making consumer protection decentralized and participatory is very good. It's a good new idea so it will take time to root but it is in the right direction.

      Thirdly, consumer groups are uneven in their size and ability but we have a lively scene. The Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP) is a world class citizens' movement and there are several others that do very creditable work, particularly the consumer associations in Selangor, Pahang and ERA Consumer in Ipoh. FOMCA, the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association, does the difficult job of liaison and coordination and if you look around the third world countries and view its activities in that context, even FOMCA is quote an achievement. Its recent selection as the NGO Research Centre, with the support of the United Nations development Programme, gives it new opportunities and challenges.

      Fourthly, the school system is beginning to incorporate consumer education. We need more books, more activity ideas, more teachers who know how to develop this but an important beginning has been made.

      Fifthly, the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (IOCU) has its Asia Pacific office in Malaysia. It has provided training and documentation services for many countries. We are also, therefore, a regional leader and can build on this role with advantage.

      I believe the stage has been set for substantial improvements. We can of course, do more in schools, in the media, in improving laws but that is an ongoing process and we have that process in place. The rest is getting good people and ensuring good implementation. I am optimistic we can have both.

      I particularly like to see the universities doing more active research. A Malaysian Institute of Consumer Studies is urgently needed to provide 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. This institution could identify research needs, trends, legal gaps, develop policy materials and more textbooks. It could serve as an intellectual blood bank for the consumer movement, the government and even responsible business. It could be financed from such creative sources as a cess on the sales tax or advertising.

      The responsibilities of consumers

      I talked a great deal about consumer rights. For the future, even more important are going to be consumer responsibilities. Rights are the trunks and branches, responsibilities are the roots and the soil.

      I like to share with you 5 principles which I found useful which provides a framework for action as responsible consumers. We can call them the "panchasila" for consumers or the "RUKUN PENGGUNA"

      • Critical Awareness we must be awakened to be more questioning about the goods and services we consume. "Why" should we consume should be as important as "what" and "which".
      • Involvement Or Action we must assert ourselves and act to ensure that we get a fair deal. We can start with ourselves then with those around us and move on to the community and the nation.
      • Social Responsibility we must act with social responsibility, with concern, sensitivity to the impact of our actions on their community. Purchasing power is real power and the power to boycott is a powerful weapon. By voting with your purchasing power, you can for example, reinforce racist or repressive regimes or you can through selective purchases, and non-purchases, help to bring not just better products but a better world.
      • Ecological Responsibility there must the heightened sensitivity to the impact of consumer decisions on the physical environment, which must be developed to a harmonious way promoting conservation. We must fight against the degradation of the environment if we are to see improvements in the real quality of life for the present and the future.
      • Solidarity the best and most effective action is through cooperative efforts through the formation of citizens groups who together can have the strength and influence to ensure that adequate attention is given to the consumer interest.

      You can start with these principles yourselves. You can learn from this saying:

      "If the people are asleep awaken them If the people fear to act, give the courage by taking yourself the first step."


      And you must take the first step quickly.

      In one city, not far from here, the umbilical cords of some two dozen babies born on one day in a leading hospital were tested for lead. Every one of the tests showed lead levels higher than those safely acceptable. Those babies were being born poisoned, retarded. In that same city, an international team studied air quality and found the air so unhealthy they refused, for their own health, to return to that city for a follow-up monitoring exercise.

      The city, recently won notoriety was the world's most polluted city. It also happens to be a favourite destination for many Malaysians.

      If we are not careful, our cities can end up with that kind of future, with poisoned wombs and poisoned babies.

      In conclusion, let me share with you a poem that reminds us about GAIA, about mother earth, about being responsible consumers.

      "Harm not the land, nor the sea, nor the trees
      For the earth is the mother of all
      And we who abuse her
      And poison her now,
      By abuse and poison will fall.

      Harm not that land, nor the sea, nor the trees,
      For water is more
      Precious than gold,
      And our sisters the oceans
      That bring is new life
      Till the warmth of the sun grows cold.

      Harm not the land, nor the sea, nor the trees
      For the leaves of the
      Forests bring rain
      And our brothers the trees are the cradle of life
      To destroy them will mark
      Us with deep pain.

      Harm not the land, nor the sea, nor the trees
      Through fortunes are to be made,
      But a fortune is false
      If the soul of the land
      Is the price that will
      Have to be paid.

      Harm not the land, nor the sea, nor the trees,
      For they are not yours or mine,
      They belong to the children
      Of children unborn
      For now till
      The end of time."

      Thank you.

      * Tun Hussein Onn was Malaysia's third Prime Minister, leading the country from 1976 to 1981. For his efforts in promoting goodwill among the various communities, Tun Hussein Onn is remembered as the Father of Unity.

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