The Star Online|Malaysia 13th General Election

A social transformer to the core

FOUR decades ago, when Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) president S.M. Mohd Idris (pic) stood in his first and last general election as a candidate for the Alliance in 1969, things were much simpler and opponents were respectful of each other.

These days, the word politics evokes a sense of disgust, opines the 86-year-old, one of the country’s most recognisable activists who has been involved in various social and political bodies since the 1950s.

“Our generation didn’t believe in gimmicks, lies or half-truths.

“Although during the month-long campaign period there were whispers that those who voted for me would have to wear sarong, I was not angry because generally, everyone was respectful,” he recalls.

The candidates then may not have had the Internet or even television to reach out to voters, but there sure was no shortage of colourful party flags and banners.

“We really had to work hard to persuade voters.

“These days with modern communications technology, everyone is well-versed in the candidates, parties and manifestos,” Idris says.

When he was a candidate, street rallies in public spaces like Padang Brown were mainly how they campaigned – it was about talking to the people.

“Large crowds would gather, especially when Tunku Abdul Rahman came.

“In the old days, voters were not as demanding as the present generation. Now, people are prejudiced and hostile,” he sighs.

He remembers visiting some 40 villages in Dhoby Ghaut, George Town.

Basic infrastructures like cleanliness, drainage and clean water supply were issues then.

Idris received “some funds” from the party to run his campaign but still had to fork out his own money to feed the supporters and campaign volunteers.

“They worked very hard and valued goodwill,” he says.

With progress come drastic changes.

“Elections were a new phenomenon then.

“Now, the campaign period is shorter. And by the time the elections come around, people already know who they will vote for,” says Idris.

He laments that the new generation of politicians enjoys the power and likes wearing suits and having the title Yang Berhormat.

To him, Tunku remains the best politician and leader the country has seen.

“I may not have agreed with all his policies but he was wonderful, charming and accessible, despite being a royal,” he says.

Idris was the president of the Umno Muslim League and had contested in local council elections. He was first elected councillor in 1954 and served for close to 10 years before contesting in the country’s third general election in 1969 as the Alliance Party candidate for the Dhoby Ghaut state seat.

The ruling Alliance – a coalition comprising Umno, MCA and MIC – held on to power but by a reduced majority.

“I never lobbied to be a candidate but was persuaded to contest against Gerakan’s Khoo Teng Chye.

“I was defeated and after that, it was the end of the Alliance,” he says, adding that the Alliance’s campaign platform then focused on independepence-related issues.

Idris also notes that unlike other countries, which until today, post-Independence, are suffering communal fights, Malaysia has peace.

“People sometimes don’t understand history and the struggle we went through (including granting citizenship to the immigrants), that’s why I see things from a very different perspective.

“Don’t be ‘too clever’ and talk nonsense whether you are the DAP or whoever – this is a nice country and we have a good life here,” he says.

Malaysians today, says Idris, are lucky because up until the 1970s, 70% of the people were living below the poverty line with high unemployment rates.

Gerakan and DAP made major gains in the 1969 elections and in 1973, Barisan Nasional was formed as a successor to the Alliance.

Idris was at the Penang Chinese Girls’ High School, where the ballots were being counted (in 1969) and he remembered being “a little worried” about whether Tunku would be defeated.

“Losing was a blessing in disguise for me,” he admits. That’s because it’s how he ended up helming CAP, the consumers’ interest group of which he has been the president for over 40 years now.

In the 1970s, he left politics and concentrated on working with civil society at the grassroots level on social justice, as well as environmental and cultural issues.

These days, Idris is all about “transformation politics”.

“I don’t need to be a politician to bring change – it’s about transformation, rather than electoral politics to change people’s mindset,” says the octogenarian who remains a mentor to many young politicians formerly involved with CAP.

“Stop imitating the West and look to our own traditions for creating a more just, equitable, and God-conscious society,” he adds.

Idris, who is also the president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), laments that in almost every country, governments are businessmen-driven and therefore issues concerning ecological and social justice are of little concern as they focus on economic growth and profits.

Born in a small village in Southern India on Dec 6, 1926, Idris has always spoken out against issues ranging from consumer to environmental matters even before he headed CAP.

He was among the initiators of the Citizens International (CI), a movement to foster awareness, activism and advocacy on issues that are central to the stability and well-being of humanity.

Idris received his early education from a madrasah and Tamil school in India, before accompanying his father to Penang at a young age.

He attended a Christian missionary school here but was later sent to the primary school attached to Aligarh University in India.

WWII disrupted his schooling in Aligarh and Idris returned to the village, where he was caught up with India’s struggle for independence.

From the age of 15 he was actively taking part in demonstrations and spoke at public rallies.

In early 1947, before India gained independence, Idris left for Malaysia to look after his father’s business.

His father, brother and cousin were killed during the Japanese bombing of Penang and Idris became involved in the Malayan independence movement.