SM Idris Leaves Behind a Potent Legacy for Penang

CAP and SAM president SM Mohamed Idris.

May 17, 2019 saw the passing of activism stalwart SM Mohamed Idris at the age of 92. As the founding president of the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and a handful of other organisations, Idris lay the groundwork for action-based activism that always had one aim – preserving the world and making it a better place.

But before a lifelong journey of activism began, he was first a son and a brother.

The third of five siblings, Idris was born in India in a Muslim village called Thinaikulam, near the Ramanathapuram District, in December 1926. His mother was an extraordinary matriarch who instilled in her children a thirst for knowledge, while his father operated a stevedoring business which saw him frequently crossing the Indian Ocean to Penang.

In 1915 S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther & Co. was established, named after Idris’ father, and both Mohamed Yusoff and Idris’ elder brother ran the business until they were both killed in Japanese bombings in Penang during the Second World War.

With his education disrupted by the fighting, Idris sailed to Penang after the war to take over the family company. The business, in fact, still operates on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

“Not many people know this, but Idris ran the company until just before his death and went to the office every morning before he came to CAP,” says CAP officer Uma Ramaswamy.

Uma, who has worked side-by-side with Idris for the last three decades, says Idris also paved the way for his brother – CAP vice-president and acting president Mohideen Abdul Kader – to join him in Penang.

Mohideen, who is 10 years younger than Idris, says that with their father gone, Idris stepped into the role of caregiver. “He had no choice but to go into the family business. But he gave me choices,” says Mohideen, who first obtained electrical engineering credentials before going through law school to become a successful civil litigator. Mohideen joined Idris at CAP in a formal capacity about a decade ago.

Representing the Community

Idris’ close friend Datuk Anwar Fazal, who would later spark in him a lifelong passion for consumer activism, says Idris’ upbringing during India’s fierce struggle for independence had made a lasting impression.

“He grew up in a time of huge anti-colonial movements – during the period of Gandhi and India’s independence – and at a young age, was exposed to very diverse views. You can see how his life was very much put in the context of rebellion and fighting injustice,” Anwar, 78, says.

SM Mohamed Idris (seated far left) listening to the grievances of the Thean Teik Estate community in the early 1980s.

Environment Minister Datuk Amar Stephen Yong visiting CAP in 1982 in recognition of the association's role in lobbying for the setting up of an Environment Ministry.

SM Mohamed Idris, with extra-large cigarette boxes, warning the public against the dangers of smoking at a CAP press conference.

SM Mohamed Idris armed with examples at a press conference at the CAP office.

In the early 1900s Indian Muslim businesses were growing steadily on Penang Island and represented one of, if not the largest, trade community in the state. Eventually, Anwar says, they felt their needs needed to be communicated at higher levels, which saw the birth of lobbying groups like the Penang Muslim League. “MIC was growing with the support of a large number of Hindu Tamils but the Indian Muslims here felt that the community interest of the Chulias needed to be represented,” he says.

Eager to be involved and bring about change, Idris became the secretary of the Muslim League of Malaya and vice-president of the Penang Muslim League. Siding with the Alliance Party (which would later change its name to Barisan Nasional), Idris stood for election for the George Town Municipal Commission, now the Penang Island City Council.

He won a seat in 1956 and again in 1961, holding office until local government elections were suspended in 1965.

CAP’s Beginnings

Around the same time, the consumer movement was gaining interest worldwide, beginning in the US. Anwar says the University of Malaya graduates’ society in Penang, of which he was a committee member, took note of this and ran three major forums in the state on the topic to positive reception. “We got a lot of interest and I organised the inaugural AGM of a consumer association in November 1969,” he says.

There were suggestions on who should head this new society and Anwar, who was working as assistant city secretary in the city council at the time, suggested Idris.

Idris threw his hat in the ring during the 1969 general election but was defeated in the wave of opposition that saw the Alliance lose Penang to Parti Gerakan Rakyat. Anwar had worked closely with Idris during the second half of the latter’s tenure as a city councillor and witnessed Idris’ disappointment in his political defeat. “Idris was very popular but it was a tsunami against the Alliance at the time. I approached him about chairing a consumer association and his first reaction was: ‘Is it about shopping?’” Anwar laughs.

Armed with literature on the consumer movement, Anwar convinced Idris to take up the role of founding president of the CAP. This he did, and he held the position until his passing.

Idris found the consumer movement to be a platform from which he could deal with every issue facing the world. At CAP, Idris’ passion for activism and change grew, resulting in him establishing separate organisations to focus on different issues.

“Over the years, he expanded his interest in geopolitics, so the Third World Network was born. Idris was always concerned about the environment – in fact, he was known as the ‘Tree Planter’ in his time as a councillor – and that became SAM. His interest in trade and economics and the geopolitics of imperialism and neocolonialism became Citizens International,” Anwar expounds.

Passionate in helping the community, especially those whose voices were often ignored, Idris tackled every kind of issue through CAP – the prices and quality of commodities and services, food and nutrition matters, industrial safety, public transport, water poisoning and environmental destruction, to name just a few.

CAP’s reach and advocacy also extended far beyond everyday issues. From the struggle of the Thean Teik Estate farming community against development, protests against extensive development of Penang Hill, logging in northern Sarawak, radioactive waste dumping in Bukit Merah and industrial pollution of fishing grounds in Kuala Juru, CAP threw its weight behind causes that affected the masses.

Currently, CAP deals with up to 4,000 complaints from the public every year and also organises training for NGOs in countries like China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos while continuing its strong tradition of providing impactful education programmes and workshops for the community and schools.

Reaching Out

CAP’s frequent press conferences have always been lively affairs as Idris understood very well the power of visuals and props when trying to get a message across.

SM Mohamed Idris, with brother Mohideen Abdul Kader (far right), at a CAP protest over the felling of trees along Jalan Masjid Negeri in November 2012.

Through campaigns and numerous publications (one recent edition of CAP’s Utusan Konsumer newsletter included an order form that had just under 60 titles one could order), CAP is now one of the most established and respected NGOs in Malaysia.

Never accepting a sen in salary for his entire tenure there, Idris’ reputation also preceded him in international circles. Researchers, academics, writers and generally anyone he had heard or read about whom he believed had interesting ideas, such as Indian environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Claude Alvares, were invited for meetings and collaborations that often led to lifelong relationships.

“He cultivated a lot of people, not only in CAP. A lot of politicians and academics respected him greatly. He would push them to do things that needed to be done and it would grow from there,” says research officer Lim Jee Yuan, who is one of CAP’s longest-serving members.

One of the people Idris connected with back in the mid-1980s was Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon, who would later run for office and serve Penang as state exco member.

“Our favourite meeting place (back then) was the old Majestic Hotel, prior to its renovation. His favourite subject of conversation was on promoting moderate consumption, sustainable energy and resource-saving development. He was never a fan of modern technology. On all these, Idris could be very stubborn and dogmatic,” Toh says.

“He was so passionate and committed to these core beliefs that he got me to design and teach a course on consumer and environmental economics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, where I worked,” Toh fondly recalls.

Admired from both near and afar, Idris also paved the way for younger generations of activists to take up the mantle. Calling him a much-loved “father and grandfather” of many in the local environment movement, heritage advocate and author Khoo Salma Nasution says Idris was a man ahead of his time.

“What we understand now about the climate emergency, global depletion of resources and loss of biodiversity which threatens our planet and human survival – he was warning us about a long time ago. Idris was indefatigable in trying to right the wrongs of the world. The wrong kind of development has led to many of our environmental problems and the growing wealth inequality. He countered this by living simply, and setting an example,” she says.

Continuing the Legacy

Those who have met Idris know firsthand that he practises what he preaches. Reporters would pray that he was in when they dialled his office landline as he refused to own a mobile phone, calling them “weapons of mass distraction”.

He religiously opted for a handkerchief over tissue paper, wore simple clothing – almost always seen in a white dhoti and black songkok – and indulged in extensive reading, including various print media, on a daily basis.

To the outside world, Idris may have appeared somewhat harsh – sometimes cutting off his officers in press conferences or dressing down politicians and academics whose opinions he found unacceptable.

But those who knew him best know that this stemmed not from a place of arrogance, but of increasing worry that issues were not being addressed quickly enough.

“Especially in the later part of his life, he felt like he was getting old and things must get done. And when people did not meet his expectations, he felt very upset. He was never afraid of death but he wanted to see results,” Mohideen says.

As for the future of CAP, there has been little doubt that its doors will continue to remain open for those seeking redress. Though both international and federal funding for the NGO has dwindled over the decades (perhaps a reflection of the slowing down of the consumer movement, volunteerism and activism as a whole), the generations that have been mentored by Idris vow to carry on.

“We have gone on a donation drive and we continue to appeal to the public for assistance,” Uma says. “ We will fight to the end, as we have promised him.”

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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