Adieu, white knight of the consumer and the poor

NV Subbarow still cannot believe that his boss SM Mohd Idris is dead. “I feel as though he is still here,” the Consumers Association of Penang education officer tells me. I suppose he is not the only one for whom the reality has yet to sink in.

Malaysia’s Father of the Consumer Movement is gone. He died on May 18 aged 92. And if anyone knows Idris well, it is Subbarow who has been with CAP for 40 years. He was one of the five persons present in the hospital ward when Idris breathed his last.

“I suppose I will only feel his absence when I go to office tomorrow,” says Subbarow who, as far as I am aware, was the man Idris most relied upon when he wanted plans executed. He liked Subbarow because he got things done on the ground and the programmes Subbarow worked on – with squatters, farmers, estate workers, the poor – showed results.

It was through Subbarow that I came to know Idris a little better. If he knew that I was at the CAP office to see Subbarow, he would call me in or Subbarow would insist that I see him. And every time we met, Idris would sing the same refrain: “Kathirasen, you have the power as a newsmen to change people’s behaviour. Use it. Tell them to live sensibly and healthily, and without destroying Nature.” Or, “Kathirasen, look at what is happening? Write something to goad the government into action. You have the power as a newsman, so use it.”

He was one of the few people who called me by my full name.

He didn’t like to talk about himself. Once when I asked him to tell me about his days in politics and his time as a Penang municipal councillor, he said that was old news and told me instead to write about the dangers of smoking and samsu.

But he did complain to me a few times – in the 1980s and 1990s when I was working in Penang – about government departments not replying to CAP’s letters and about many government officials forgetting that they were government servants.

Every time I met him he was always in his trademark white vesti, white jippa and black songkok. He would even attend official functions wearing this attire and nobody would mind – because this was Idris.

The only time I saw him without the vesti and jippa was when he received the inaugural Ibn Khaldun Award for Global Social Transformation on behalf of CAP in November 2018 from the International Islamic University Malaysia.

Once when I asked him about it, he replied with a smile: “This is our cultural attire. Why should we follow the West in everything? And this suits our weather better.”

The simple white attire certainly suited him as he was setting an example for others: live a simple life, live prudently, and have a heart for others.

If today there are many laws and regulations governing a gamut of areas, especially health and environment, it is in no small measure due to CAP. The Department of Environment was set up due to pressure from CAP. In fact it was a resolution passed at one of CAP’s conferences in the mid-1970s. And CAP’s influence. among other things, resulted in the establishment of Consumer Law as a subject at University Malaya.

Several prominent men have worked with CAP, including former Penang chief minister Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who was once CAP treasurer, and former minister and MIC president G Palanivel, who was a staff there before becoming a journalist, Penang State Executive Councillor Chong Eng who worked with CAP’s Chinese section, and the late Irene Fernandez who was a rural community officer for CAP in Kedah decades ago.

While I appreciated the work done by CAP, I could not understand why it never invited me or other newsmen to its annual general meetings. It was always a hush-hush affair. I wondered then if this was to ensure the same group would remain in office. It struck me as strange that even Idris did not invite me for the meetings, although he was very friendly towards me.

Idris was soft-spoken and gentle, and he always spoke to me in Tamil. He was, after all, born in a village in Tamil Nadu, India, and followed his father here. I suppose that is why he had an affinity for farming and villagers. He would push his staff to visit fishermen, padi planters, estate workers and such to educate them on health, financial prudence and farming without using chemicals.

In fact, CAP regularly organised trips to India for farmers of all races to learn how to farm at reduced cost while producing higher yields, and to also learn about vermiculture.

He even got his officers to speak to a Malay magazine publisher in Malaysia to come out with a magazine for farmers but the company was not too keen as it didn’t expect to make a profit.

The village life of his childhood must have had an impact on him for he loved trees. He insisted that when he looked out of his room, he must see trees. And so it was that both at his house and his office, when he stood at his window, he would see trees.

According to Subbarow, Idris would always be pushing him and other staff to encourage people to plant trees and vegetables in their house compounds. He would often call Subbarow to his house, even when he was sick, to discuss how they could improve the lives of people.

About three weeks before his death, Idris went to the office only off and on. He would call Subbarow over to the house to find out how programmes were progressing and give him more ideas on what could be done. He told Subbarow and several officials in charge of the Malay section to get the message across to Muslims this Ramadan that they should reduce food wastage.

In fact, he got Subbarow to go to two schools with hostels to speak to officials to cook only what was needed. And Idris told Subbarow not to ever stop the programmes and campaigns that CAP had started, especially those against smoking and alcohol consumption.

Idris was an avid reader of newspapers and news magazines. If you entered his office, you could not but notice this. He read local and foreign newspapers, including the New York Times; he read the Economist and New Scientist; and he especially read magazines such as India Today and Outlook and Tamil news magazines from India.

Initially I thought he was reading all these for the knowledge it would give him but Subbarow enlightened me that it was to get ideas as to what CAP could do. Idris would cut out some of these articles and give it to the staff to see how they could adapt and implement locally what was in these articles. He would also tell staff to photostat some articles and send them to the ministry concerned with a note advising it to see how this idea could be implemented here.

Subbarow tells me that over the last two years, many government officials had come to see him following receipt of CAP’s complaint letters. Well, that would have pleased Idris. I suppose the officials would also have been pleased that now Idris would leave them alone. No way. Subbarow tells me that as soon as they left, Idris would call in his staff and tell them to send letters to remind the officials of the problem or their promises. And to keep sending them reminders.

According to Subbarow it was difficult to satisfy Idris as he was always wanting to do something to create better consumers or get the government to ensure justice.

In the past, when I met him, Idris would ask: “Are you still vegetarian?” When I replied in the affirmative, he would smile and say, “That is healthy”. And I just learned from Subbarow that Idris had been taking only vegetarian food over the last three years.

Perhaps Subbarow has the last word on Idris when he says: “He didn’t live for himself, he lived for others.”

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.