GEORGE TOWN: As the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) celebrates its 50th anniversary today (Jan 11), its laid back office grounds at Kennedy Road off Green Lane appear to be more festive than usual.
Tents have been put up and the leaves have been raked from the organic farm to welcome guests.
But underneath the festive scene, there is a sombre air in the offices of the pioneer civil society group still reeling from the passing of their late president SM Mohamed Idris.
To add to their misery is the lack of funds to keep their activities going – made obvious by a donation box at its reception area.
A CAP researcher said it was the first time in decades a donation box had been put up in the institution that prided itself as the voice of conscience and the voice of the powerless.
However, it is not easy to be a people’s champion when you do not get the support. The researcher pointed to a rack filled with unsold books on the dangers of food, overspending and other subjects.
CAP president Mohideen Abdul Kader said the consumer body used to get grants and funding from many international organisations and overseas foundations who supported their efforts.
But in the past few years, he said, Malaysia had been regarded as a “developed country” and hence CAP was no longer eligible to receive funding reserved for third world countries.
“At the rate we are going, our funds could last us two to three years, at the most,” he told FMT in an interview, saying its 40-odd employees were its best assets as they toiled through consumer complaints despite getting “lower than living wage” with a salary of less than RM2,000 a month.
Mohideen said in the past, CAP also enjoyed good sales from the hundreds of books it published which were mostly on consumer how-tos, health and environmental-related issues.
However, with easy internet accessibility these days, many of the books have remained unsold and plans are underway to digitise them and publish them online for sale.
“We used to sell these books at about RM5 to RM10 each and used to get close to RM100,000 at one point. Today, there is not much interest,” Mohideen said.
He said today, CAP relied mostly on public donations, government agencies’ commissioned research works and one-off, project-based grants to stay afloat. He said these, however, were barely enough.
“Despite this, we continue to carry out our research as usual, with a focus on an ongoing climate emergency, as climate change is no more. With all our might, we will keep fighting for consumer rights and justice.”
Mohideen said CAP’s rise to prominence was in 1970 when a group of fishermen in Kampung Juru near Bukit Mertajam started to notice dead fish surfacing near the coast.
“A fisherman brought us a dead fish and asked us to investigate how it happened. So, we started probing together with Universiti Sains Malaysia academics at the fishing village and found that a factory nearby was spewing chemicals into the sea,” he said.
Mohideen said the press back then had gone to town with the story, which led to the government requiring all factories to clean up effluents before discharging them into the water.
He said CAP also helped to set-up a cooperative to help the Kg Juru fishermen earn an income by rearing cockles, which proved to be a good venture.
Mohideen said over the years, it had exposed the presence of dangerous chemicals, colourings and other preservatives in food. He said the most notable was the use of yellow dyes in tofu and Rhodamine B used in belacan or shrimp paste.
He said Rhodamine B was used as a pink dye for belacan and was a known cancer-causing agent. The dye is used for plastic goods and textiles.
The authorities banned the substance in 1973 following CAP’s expose, but as recent as 2000, it was still found in products such as Chinese “huat kueh” and others.
Mohideen said CAP’s biggest contribution to the country was its efforts which led to the formation of the Environmental Quality Act 1974 and subsequently, a ministry in charge of environmental affairs.
He said this was because Utusan Pengguna, CAP’s own newsletter, had continuously exposed environmental issues over the years.
Mohideen said later, CAP’s late chief Idris set up Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) or Friends of the Earth, which highlighted the 1982 radioactive pollution in Bukit Merah, Perak.
“We were the first to provide lawyers for those affected. It was touted to be the first public litigation case in the country at that time.”
He said another notable achievement by CAP was when the government introduced compulsory licensing for medications for Hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS a few years ago, which lowered the prices of the medications.