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OBITUARY: Exemplary peoples’ rights campaigner Uncle S M Idris, passes away

31st May 2019
OBITUARY: Exemplary peoples’ rights campaigner Uncle S M Idris, passes away

Uncle Idris then over 90 years old, in his office promptly on time, surrounded by papers and books. (Photo: M Iqbal Asaria/Muslim News)

S M Mohamed Idris, fondly known as ‘Uncle’ Idris in Malaysia, passed away on May 17 in Penang at the age of 93. He was laid to rest on the morning of May 18 amongst accolades for his work from all sections of Malaysian society and the wider global community who knew him.

A self-made man and proud Muslim, Uncle Idris’s family origins were in Tamil Nadu in India, but he lived and spent most of his life in Penang. Sensitive to the impact of the rapid industrialisation of Malaysia in the early seventies, he found his vocation in championing the rights of the ordinary people and with some close friends founded the Consumer Association of Penang, popularly known as CAP.

Since 1970 when he founded the CAP to champion peoplesrights, Uncle Idris worked tirelessly to promote the cause of the underprivileged. His genuine concern for the people and unique ability to speak truth to power endeared him to the people of Malaysia and beyond.
CAP describes its mission as ‘giving a voice to the little people. It is a not-for-profit, independent organisation established since 1970. CAP’s main concern is ensuring the right of every consumer to food, housing, health care, sanitation facilities, public transport, education and a clean environment.

CAP carries out various research, educational and representational activities, in order to influence policymakers to give priority to basic needs. It handles about 3,000 to 4,000 complaints from the public every year on issues ranging from poor quality products and services to food adulteration and housing. CAP’s campaigning news magazine, Utusan Konsumer has four bimonthly editions each published in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
Soon it became clear that the problems were bigger.

Toxic dumping from the rapidly developing semiconductor industries, raw sewage discharge into the sea by the tourist resorts going up in Penang, and rough riding over people’s rights in housing and infrastructure development, were mounting problems became acute with time. This called for a bigger effort and CAP under Uncle Idris was instrumental in mobilising for the establishment of a Ministry of the Environment in 1975.

It was then time to look internationally for similar experiences and share the best practice. CAP was instrumental in setting up the Third World Network which brought together leading activists and thinkers from the global South.

Leading environmentalists like Vandana Shiva and Claude Alvares from India were tapped. Ashish Nandy, one of India’s most fertile brains, was also present. So was Iqbal Ahmed of Pakistan, Fatima Mernissi of Morocco and Roberto Bissio from Uruguay. Many more from Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, Mexico and Indonesia were also invited to join. Soon, this forum became a major focus for the Voice of the Global South. Scandinavian NGOs like NOVIB also joined in the effort.

Ultimately, it also led to the founding of the South Centre in Geneva, which provides a valuable service to the countries of the global South in their deliberations with UNCTAD and WTO in Geneva.

Environmental issues like climate change and pollution, which have become common fare today, were championed by the institutions set up or inspired by Uncle Idris. Those days challenging the received wisdom of the developed world was like heresy. Uncle Idris was just ahead of the curve on these matters.

His final project was to mobilise this network of thinkers and activists to look at decolonising the universities and centres of learning in the South. Idris felt that without this, the new radical insights were not transmitted and old practices were perpetuating the colonisation minds and not allowing them to challenge the status quo. This was very much work in progress and was close to Uncle Idris’s heart to his last breath.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Uncle Idris. I first met him in 1982 when he invited me to Penang on the recommendation of a common friend. Since that fortuitous encounter, Uncle Idris has been a true friend, mentor and inspiration, who opened new vistas for me and changed my thinking forever. After our first couple of meetings, he knew that we had begun to share a common vision, but he was not a man to let go. His constant fatherly admonitions, whenever I showed signs of slackening, were typical of his unique style of getting people to achieve their maximum potential.

We lost a proud and confident Muslim committed to serving humankind to the best of his ability. May Allah (SWT) grant him a place in Heaven inshallah.

M Iqbal Asaria

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