Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Farewell to S.M. Mohamed Idris, A Man of Principle


S.M. Mohamed Idris stands out in the memory of most Malaysians not merely because he was at the forefront of two leading grassroots organizations, namely, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), but because he is a man of principle who never put personal interest before the environment, workers’ rights, and consumer rights. This is unusual indeed in a society where politicians and activists can be bought and sold like so many commodities, and where campaigns often descend into a tangle of personal attacks. 

I was first introduced to the noble work of S.M. Mohamed Idris as a child in the 1980s through Utusan Konsumer, the official newsletter of CAP, of which my father was a subscriber. I read the newsletter diligently, and it cultivated in me an awareness of local environmental issues, consumer rights, and workers’ rights. I never failed to observe how S.M. Mohamed Idris backed up his assertions with solid facts and figures, rebutted arguments objectively and fairly, and stayed the course in relation to the issues he was championing regardless of criticisms and setbacks. He never wavered, and never apologised for putting the environment and human rights first. 

I remember the role S.M. Mohamed Idris played in the evolution of Malaysia’s tobacco control laws, which eventually resulted in the banning of tobacco advertising, including the sponsorship of competitions and sporting events. Although as a teenager I was disappointed that I could no longer watch tobacco-sponsored telecasts of NFL and NBA games, I came to appreciate that stringent prohibitions against tobacco advertising and marketing are essential to protecting public health and creating a cleaner, healthier future for all, and this objective must come before our personal comfort and convenience. 

Although I never had the privilege of meeting S.M. Mohamed Idris in person, I learned from those who have worked with him that he is an incorruptible, honourable man – steadfast in his principles and contemptuous of the “close one eye” mindset of many Malaysian enforcement bodies. He spoke up courageously and impartially for the environment, consumer rights, labour rights and good governance, regardless of who is in power, or who the government of the day is. His mind remained sharp and his reasoning sound until the very end, speaking up against all forms of harm and injustice, from monoculture plantations to extravagant infrastructure projects that did not benefit the people. S.M. Mohamed Idris was not against development, only against corruption, wastage, and the irresponsible use of public funds. He was not against harmless fun, but illuminated how advertising could manipulate impressionable minds. 

S.M. Mohamed Idris could have capitalised on his perspicacity and eloquence to become a very rich man, but chose to devote his life to protecting the vulnerable, whether it is the environment, consumers, or workers. He was wealthy in knowledge and spirit and lived an ethical life. Through his example, I learned, as I am sure many other activists and volunteers did, not merely to serve and contribute until we have exhausted all our resources, but to try to change the status quo, to try to reform the laws and systems that perpetuate social and legal injustice and environmental destruction. For his efforts in educating the public on their rights, he has done more for democracy and nation-building than many politicians and self-proclaimed patriots. 

It would be a fitting tribute to this great man if more Malaysians were to take up the cause of environmental and social justice, to protest corruption and abuses of power, to call out governmental authorities on destructive and wasteful development and infrastructure projects, and to educate the disenfranchised on their rights and options. He dedicated his life to educating us on our rights that we may carry on his work of creating a better Malaysia and better world. 

S.M. Mohamed Idris lives on in the lives he has changed, including mine.