S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago. He was the last of his kind: kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared. Oh, yes, there was something else about him: it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.
Though born in India, Idris spent by far the greater portion of his nearly 93 years in Malaysia, most of them in Penang. He arrived in the Straits Settlement in 1938, but, as far as I can recall from our conversations, he did not finish his education owing to the turmoil induced by World War II. We did not speak very much about his past; in fact, he cared to speak little about himself, not only viewing that as a form of self-indulgence but as something that distracted from the urgency of the moment. I first met him in February 2002 when he hosted a meeting in Penang, organized both at his initiative and at the behest of our mutual friend Claude Alvares, of a group that came to be known as Multiversity. His sponsorship and mentorship of Multiversity tells us a good deal about him: though Idris was not a man of strictly academic disposition, and was (some would say) impatient for results, he was not at all among those activists who had disdain for the academic world. Multiversity may be described as an intellectual endeavor aimed at both the decolonization of the modern university and liberation from the intellectual dominance of the modern West. Through a series of meetings in Penang, the last of which I attended in 2011, Idris continued to retain a vibrant interest in Multiversity and the projects that grew out of it.
However, to Penang and the rest of Malaysia, Idris was the supreme builder of institutions who gave birth to the consumer rights’ movement in the country and whose name also became synonymous with struggles intended to provide the common people of Penang, and Malaysia more widely, with clean air and water, sensible mass transportation systems, and accurate information on the toxins that people are increasingly putting into their bodies, the perils of climate change, the problems of soil erosion, the desirability of forest cover, and so on. The organization with which his name was indelibly linked for nearly five decades, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), was founded by Idris and some friends and soulmates in 1970 and it became renowned throughout the world among consumer rights’ advocates. However, it is critical to understand that CAP was never merely a successful “consumer’s association” in the narrow sense of the term, advocating for the rights of the public as consumers and ensuring that corporations and manufacturers abide by the highest standards and state regulations in the matter of consumer goods. To be sure, if CAP determined that a product was defective and deserved to be recalled, the organization made known the facts to the public and prevailed upon corporations to do their bit. But Idris was, as all right thinking people are, inherently suspicious of corporations and I doubt he was ever deceived into thinking that these behemoths could shed their intrinsic nature to be engaged in the unchecked pursuit of profit. He might have thought that “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) was a shade better than corporations acting with total disregard of their responsibilities to communities, but Idris knew of course that CSR is nothing but a cover which permits corporations to gain credibility and win wider markets.
Since there was nothing by way of a consumer movement in the rest of southeast Asia, CAP’s mandate grew as well. In its initial years, as I have already suggested, it appears to have worked on entirely local issues, rendering advise to the public on consumer-related matters, and drafting public policy documents on land redistribution and tenant rights. This continued to be the most laborious aspect of its work, and consumers were given assistance on how complaints could be filed about faulty goods or services. CAP’s work spread through the rest of Malaysia and into other parts of Southeast Asia. But Idris then took CAP on to another plane of existence, and by the mid-1980s he brought CAP into conversation with other international NGOs, especially with a view to enhancing South-South cooperation; he also sought a platform to make known CAP’s views on such global issues as human rights, sustainable development, global warning, foreign aid, GATT [later superseded by WTO], alternative medicine, South-North relations, and so on.
At a conference on “The Third World: Development or Crisis?” hosted by Idris and CAP in Penang in 1984 attended by over 100 participants from 21 countries, the Third World Network (TWN) was brought into existence with the intention of furnishing southeast Asian countries, in particular, with a forum for addressing the aforementioned issues. Though closely associated with CAP, the Third World Network, with an international secretariat in Penang and offices in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and researchers based in Jakarta, Manila, Delhi, Montevideo, Accra, and elsewhere, had from the outset an independent existence and an extraordinarily wide-ranging publication program. Its main organ, Third World Resurgence, is published monthly in English and Spanish, and has an international reputation; Third World Economics is a fortnightly economics magazine, also published in English and Spanish versions. In addition, TWN furnishes articles to the media every week, and its Geneva offices publish a daily South-North Development Monitor, the SUNS Bulletin.
It was as a consequence of CAP’s efforts and its wide-ranging work in the public sphere that the Malaysian government finally, sometime in the late 1970s, set up a Department of Environment. Idris led Sahabat Alam Malaysia, or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, for 40 years: this organization, founded to combat environmental deterioration, was ahead of most similar organizations in the rest of the world, and Idris himself was attentive to the problem of climate change well before it became a commonplace in certain circles to start referencing it as the gravest challenge to humankind. Throughout, with the various NGOs that Idris had founded, Idris sought to insert itself into the debates raging around intellectual property rights, globalization, the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other facets of the imperial architecture of global trade and finance, the alleviation of poverty in the South, and growing disparities in wealth in, and among, nations. But these grand issues were not the only ones to which he diverted his energy. He was just as passionate, and perhaps more so, about “mundane” issues–alerting the public, for instance, to the growing resistance to antibiotics and our ominous love affair with sugar—or, what has for many become the same thing, death. I don’t think I ever saw him with any drink in his hand except a plain glass of water: in comparatively alcohol-free Malaysia, with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, Idris was mercifully free of the cola addiction.
Idris played as well a key role in the civic and political life of Penang, serving as city councilman and ombudsman. It is no wonder that the “Who’s Who” of Penang turned up at his Georgetown residence after Idris’s passing to offer their respects. One might go in this vein and continue to enumerate the remarkable achievements of S. M. Mohamed Idris. He was a person of indefatigable energy: though his last several months were difficult and he was in and out of the hospital, CAP officer and his long-time assistant, Ms. Uma Ramaswamy, told me during our phone conversation a few days before Idris passed that he was at his office desk the moment that his health permitted him and that, from his hospital bed, he continued to dictate letters and conduct the affairs of CAP. To those who knew him, however extraordinary his achievements, it is his personal qualities that marked out him as a person of absolutely unimpeachable moral probity. He never made any demands on others that he did not first impose on himself and it is entirely characteristic of his utterly self-effacing nature that he rejected nearly all awards. The sickening self-aggrandizement and vulgar performativity of celebrity seekers was entirely foreign to him. He had little use for Twitter and Facebook: the ordinary phone was enough for him.
But even all this cannot capture the peerless character of Uncle Idris. Four images of him resonate with me and will stay with me whenever my thoughts turn to him. He had the most wonderful smile—as guileless as one can imagine. Secondly, I never saw him in anything but his trademark white kurta and sarong, topped off by the songkok: as he aged, the black kopiah and his generous white beard offer a luminous contrast. Then there is the remark he once made to me, after one of the Multiversity meetings: “We want the West off our backs.” Idris fought the foul air and the stench of colonialism and neo-colonialism with equal vigor. And, finally, the image that is indelibly etched into my memory: invited to his home on numerous occasions for dinner, I was positively humbled by the fact that Idris always washed his own plate after the meal. Each member of his family did so. The democratic spirit has to be inculcated at home before we dare to carry it abroad.
Earth, receive an honoured guest.
The Grand Old Man of Penang is laid to rest.
Let the Malaysian skies pour
As Idris travels to another shore
(after Auden, in memory of Yeats)