Consumers Association of Penang president S.M. Mohamed Idris fields the 10 questions posed to him by our readers.
Would you agree that many times, your concrete suggestions for the betterment of Malaysian Society is taken as criticisms of and by the people in power? Kumar, Rawang
Politicians and bureaucrats are only interested in short-term solutions to problems which could have serious consequences to society in the long term. For example, faced with traffic jams, the solution is more roads, flyovers, bridges, tolls but not public transport, cycling, walking, and de-urbanisation. The impact of traffic jams on the environment, people’s health, climate change, resource depletion is of no immediate concern to them.
Also, in almost every country, governments are businessmen-driven and therefore issues concerning ecological and social justice are of little concern. They are focused on economic growth and profits even when they go against the larger interests of society.
Many Malaysians appreciate the time and energy that you spend on matters of consumer interest. But what motivates and inspires you to do this? Bulbir Singh, Seremban
There is so much unnecessary suffering and injustices in the world. Anyone who feels for his fellow human being will be compelled to do something. It is just this simple desire to do something for the betterment of humankind that drives me. We cannot be bystanders and let bad things or deeds continue. It is a basic human instinct in us. As parents, we protect our children. But if we can extend this action to the whole of humanity, I believe the world will be a much better place.
The problem with a lot of people is that they have been desensitised. Others are too caught up with themselves in their chase for a so-called better life. Yet others feel helpless. All deeds start small or are started by an individual or small group of people. All of us can do our bit.
As Gandhi says, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”. In the end, if we help others, we will help ourselves become better and happier persons.
You have been tirelessly and consistently fighting for all Malaysians, and despite attempts to derail your voice, you have never backed down. Where do you get so much energy? Ananda Jagadev, Seremban
I believe that CAP is an organisation that looks into the interest of every level of society, especially the weak and vulnerable, the voiceless and the oppressed. It is our commitment to society to safeguard and protect the public’s interest. We alert the public and the authorities on problems and issues affecting consumers and try to create public awareness on these issues. The fact that CAP has helped resolve the problems encountered by Malaysian consumers, whether minor or major ones, is a motivating force for me.
You have done a great service to Malaysian consumers and have international recognition for doing so. You must agree that if you are residing in the United States or UK, you would be a hero. Harban Singh, Johor Baru
Firstly, I do not seek any acknowledgment or praise for the work. It is a cause for bringing about change and improvement in society which should not be limited by one’s own desire for fame or self-glorification.
The interest and receptiveness of the Malaysian public of CAP’s work and its contributions are good enough for me. That indicates that the issues raised by us are getting across to many Malaysian consumers.
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 Finkelstein. Both of them have been marginalised and ostracised in the US 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.
What are CAP’s biggest successes in protecting consumers? Ratnavellu Shanmugam, KL
We may have had more failures than successes, but we don’t allow that to be our obstacle. Failures can become the building blocks for success. Among our notable successes was the formation of the Department of Environment in 1975. It was CAP’s pressure and work on environmental issues that was instrumental to its formation. The Penang Hill project which was cancelled in 1991 following the rejection of its Environmental Impact Assessment by the Department of Environment was another success which helped protect the watershed areas of Penang.
We also successfully fought for the banning of some toxic drugs, the labelling of expiry dates on foods, and a ban on cigarette advertisements. Improved benefits for workers in Socso and EPF and improved protection for tenants and housebuyers were other successes.
But we consider raising awareness among Malaysians on both consumer, environmental and developmental issues to be our biggest achievement. Malaysians who are aware of their rights and problems will go a long way in helping to create a healthy, just and green Malaysia.
Who are you mentoring to follow in your footsteps? Bernard KH Lim, Penang.
There are people in CAP and other sister organisations like Third World Network and Sahabat Alam Malaysia who are being trained to continue and expand the consumer movement. We have also trained many groups around the world on how to build consumer groups and movements in their own countries. They have come from China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries.
What disturbs you the most about local manufacturers? Tabitha CC Boi, Penang.
Manufacturers are in the business of making profits. CAP is not anti-business but we are against bad business practices. These include businesses which cheat and exploit consumers, those which sell or make unsafe products, or those which displace local communities or pollute our environment.
When their guiding principle is to make as much profit as possible, there needs to be stringent controls and enforcement against unfair trade or contracts and business malpractices.
The problem is not whether the manufacturers are local or foreign. The problem is the lack of adequate laws and enforcement to protect consumers. For example, our food labels have very inadequate health, nutrition and ingredient information. This has partly to do with the strong business lobby here. We have found both foreign and local manufacturers who make different local and export versions of a similar product, the local ones being inferior because the law here allow them to be so. This applies to foods, vehicles and a whole range of other products.
Over the years I have heard comments from people that if we were to follow everything that the Consumer Association of Penang says, then we cannot consume anything! What are your comments on this? Pastor Philip Emmanuel, Seremban
We hear the comment often enough and we are glad that you are one of those who take our information seriously. There are consumers who refuse to read our information or have already made up their minds even without reading our articles. We always ask these detractors whether they have read our side of the story before coming to a conclusion and the answer is often a “no”.
We cannot force people to read our stuff or follow our advice. But we will offer it to those who care to read them and there are many such people out there who take our message very seriously. We have a doctor asking us about whether the catheters they use are made from PVC and there was a parent who threw away all the carbonated drinks in his fridge after reading our booklet on soft drinks. And it is the many calls like these that keep us going. Change in personal behaviour and attitude is a very difficult task and there are many of us who live in denial.
Since its establishment, CAP has never joined the consumer umbrella organisation Fomca. Any reasons for this? How does CAP feel about consumer protection activities carried out by Fomca and the Domestic Trade, Consumer Affairs and Cooperatives Ministry to date. Ratnavellu Shanmugam, KL
The ministry has stated that despite 20 years (it was set up in 1990), consumer awareness among consumers is only about 50%.
Since its formative years, CAP has taken up issues that are extremely far and wide. It is not merely concerned over issues related to the complaints or consumption of products.
Our concerns and interests are much more than that – on consumer culture and lifestyle, wasteful consumption, basic needs, environmental degradation, unsafe products, occupational safety and financial prudence and literacy.
In Malaysia there has never been a need to have to work within an umbrella body to get your voice heard on public interest matters. Having said that Fomca has certainly been voicing the concerns of the public and has been constructive in its role as an umbrella consumer body. Although awareness of consumer issues might not be up to our expectations we have to nevertheless keep soldiering on since we are against powerful profit-driven forces which often act against consumer interests.
Consumerism in any nation will depend on the level of education, maturity and a laissez faire political and consumer environment. Do you agree? Harban Singh, Johor Baru
On the contrary. With a laissez-faire political and consumer environment, the consumer movement may have a tougher time.
Market forces and powerful corporate interests together with their advertising machinery would carry the day if consumers are not aware or organised.
And consumer issues are becoming more obscured and difficult to understand or articulate with the advent of modern technologies in the fields of food, health, communications or medicine. For example, nanotechnology, stem-cell research, genetically engineered foods and organisms, electro-magnetic radiation, etc. Authorities around the world are facing problems in regulating these new technologies. And corporations are pushing these new frontiers touting only the benefits, with little regard to safety, health or environmental issues.
In the end, those with financial clout (and with it, political muscle) would be able to weigh down on issues, risking the failure of protecting the interests of society as a whole.
As for consumerism being dependent on the level of education and maturity, that alone would not improve on awareness of consumer-related issues. Despite having high education levels, many are still vulnerable to the various problems such as financial scams, defective products, misleading advertising, environmental problems.