Comment | By Wong Chun Wai

S.M. Idris, the man who stood up for all of us

HE was simply S.M. Mohamed Idris to everyone. He didn’t need to be addressed as Tuan Idris. He didn’t even believe in being titled; he was happy being referred to as just S.M. Idris. In fact, to many, he was Uncle Idris.

The country’s iconic consumer advocate was always seen with his trademark songkok and white beard. I used to tease him about it, asking him if he slept with the headgear on as well.

He was also usually dressed in his traditional Indian dhoti and as far as I know, he was never seen in a suit and tie. If there was one other trait he was known for, it was his consistency. He drank only plain water and never touched coffee or carbonated drinks. He never smoked either. He had a disdain for modern gadgets, including the ubiquitous mobile phone. All calls to me were always made through his secretary via a landline. I have known the country’s greatest consumer advocate for more than 30 years. My relationship with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) president began when I was a junior reporter in Penang.

He was already known to many students then as he had the foresight to set up consumer clubs in schools to plant the seeds of the consumerism movement, at least in Penang.

There was also a special relationship bet­ween The Star, which was born in Penang, and CAP. The editorial staff of Utusan Konsumer, the CAP newsletter, shared our facilities, especially the library, and our paper also printed the newsletter. Mohamed Idris and the staff of CAP treated The Star’s office on Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) as their second office.

CAP had never been a one-man association, although he was the face of the movement. It was a well-staffed organisation and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say it had more workers than some private companies.

His quest was simple – transform mindsets, especially those who chased material things – and indeed, he adopted a simple lifestyle.

“I have never celebrated my birthday but if you ask what my birthday wish will be, it’s for everyone to change the way they think.

“I hope everyone can transform their mindsets. Don’t be enslaved by materialism,” he said in an interview with The Star.

Mohamed Idris, who was born in a village in southern India on Dec 6, 1926, always highlighted everything from consumer to environmental issues, even before becoming president of the association in 1969.

He received his early education at a madrasah and Tamil school in India before accompanying his father to Penang at a young age.

He attended a Christian mission school here, but did not finish his education because of World War II.

A former Penang municipal councillor, Mohamed Idris was a respected NGO activist but said he had been involved in serving society in various political and welfare bodies since the 1950s, adding that the term NGO only became widely used in recent decades.

And long before climate change became a buzzword, he was already warning of the detrimental effects of destroying our forests and robbing our natives of their land rights and homes in Sarawak.

While he was better known as a consumer advocate, he was also a leading light in the country’s environment group Sahabat Alam Malaysia, as well as the Third World Network.

He never sought praise, but CAP’s persistent push led to the formation of the Dep­artment of Environment in 1975. CAP’s pressure and environmental work was also instrumental in getting the Penang Hill project cancelled.

CAP also successfully fought for the ban of select toxic drugs, the use of expiry labels for food and the ban on cigarette advertisements.

The association’s legacy includes advocating living an alternative consumer culture and lifestyle, supporting only basic needs, literacy, financial prudence, occupational safety and thwarting wasteful consumption, environmental degradation and unsafe products.

Part of its contribution includes training consumer groups from China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Viet­nam and many others on building consumer groups and movements in their own countries.

Mostly though, Mohamed Idris will be missed by those of us who are trying to build a new Malaysia, given that his principled stand and personal sacrifices are perfectly worthy of emulation.

He stood up for what he believed in. He fought for Malaysians and never for himself, and he did it in a rational, calm and non-confrontational manner.

“Honours and recognition are not important. Sometimes, they are given for the wrong reasons and people who do excellent work are ostracised instead. Look at the universally respected public intellectual Noam Chomsky and the erudite Professor Norman Finkelstein.

“Both of them have been marginalised and ostracised in the United States by the media and the administration – Chomsky for his trenchant criticism of US foreign policy and Finkelstein, the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, for his brilliant criticism of Zionism, commercialisation of the Holocaust and the state of Israel,” he once said.

Thank you, Uncle Idris, for always standing up for all of us and lending your voice when it was needed, and while we may say farewell here, you and your contributions will never be forgotten.