DATUK Dr Anwar Fazal wears many hats. Besides co-founding and holding positions in many non-governmental organisations including the Consumers Association of Penang, the active grandfather is also the chairman of Think City – a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional.
The United Nations Development Programme former senior regional advisor and former Universiti Sains Malaysia professor added another feather to his cap after successfully spearheading urban regeneration in Penang through Think City. He has always been on the forefront of activism, championing heritage restoration, environmental conservation and humanitarian rights, just to name a few causes.
Recently, he lent his voice to a group of 25 prominent Malays (G25) who stood up against extremism in an open letter published in The Star last month. Hailing from the rainy town of Taiping, the 73-year-old who describes himself as still being “in the youth of old age” is rarely spotted without his trusty umbrella. Sharing how he never gets upset, the ‘Father of Malaysian NGO Movement’ and winner of the Right Livelihood Award (popularly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) speaks to Sunday Star about his burning desire for a more understanding, compassionate and kind Malaysia.
> The G25 open letter has generated many responses, including from young voices. Is this an indication of the nation maturing?
The great thing about G25 is that we created a process of constructive engagement. We want issues that are causing tension to be addressed. We can see a wide spectrum of individuals and associations stepping up and calling for good governance. It’s wonderful. Processes for constructive engagement are necessary in every society from time to time to remind us of our legacy and our universality. We are one.
Islam always reminds us that God made us different so that we can learn to appreciate and live with each other. There is diversity and we all have different views about all kinds of things whether it is alcohol, tobacco or even junk food because there are all kinds of cultures. We drink from one water, we live under one sky, our hearts beat the same song, children’s laughter is universal and we are one. The different skin colours, voices and clothes are things we have to learn about as part of the celebratory process and in the course of respecting other cultures and sensitivities. We hope this will be the legacy of the G25 initiative.
> What does moderation mean to you?
We live in a complex world with all kinds of tension. We must recognise diversity and respect the differences so that we move forward in a good way. Moderation is about having constructive engagements that build on peace, justice, compassion, sustainability, integrity, knowledge and wisdom, so that everyone gives their best. In some cultures, this is called the middle path. Working towards a caring society is the way to go.
> What is your greatest fear for Malaysia?
People who lose logic, respect, and the ability to engage others. Those who slander, abuse and challenge in ways that smack of violence. All these are unacceptable because they indicate a sickness brewing that is causing tension among the people. We have to address this in constructive, structural ways. Tension requires regular engagements and a leadership that’s able to look at the indicators. We are at important crossroads again. We have come to these kinds of crossroads before at different stages of our history and there were many times when we suffered pains but grew even stronger.
> What is your hope for this nation?
The beauty of Malaysia is her multiversity. Former president of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, visited Penang a few years ago and was very taken by the beauty of the diversity and togetherness here. A great scientist and scholar of both Islam and science, he walked along George Town’s ‘Street of Harmony’ (Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling where the historical St George’s Church, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Sri Mahamariamman Temple and Kapitan Keling Mosque are located) and visited every single religious institution there.
He shared with them ideas about the values that originated from their own spiritualities. He talked about the sounds and smells – the call to prayer, the church bells, the drums, the joss sticks and fragrant flowers. It was so special. He said: ‘I heard the song of unity in the streets, the song of harmony in Penang. People of all faiths walked with me with pride and with peace. When I completed my pilgrimage to the Street of Harmony, it presented an integrated culture with a message to the universe – every human being will give and give, and if they do, the best of human society is born.’
It’s messages like these that should be celebrated. I’m a positivist. I look for the rainbows, and the beautiful openings where things can be done. If we all do acts of kindness and become people of compassion, Malaysia will continue to be that wonderful school of multiversity that reflects the diversity of the world. I will work for that and I think many Malaysians will too.
> Do you think that legislation like the Sedition Act and National Harmony Act can keep extremists at bay?
Parliamentary democracies require civic consciousness, engagement and enforcement. You need rules. We have rules that developed in the colonial, authoritarian and democratic periods. We are a young democracy. We have to see how good laws can prevail and bad ones that have become irrelevant or can be abused, are removed. Malaysia has been going through this process of reviewing and moving forward. There should be constant engagement at the highest level so that the essence of our Constitution and all our spiritualities are discussed in a way that allows us to be a model for the world.
> What is the biggest threat to us achieving unity?
Lack of compassion, respect and good governance is the biggest threat because it sets up the perimeters for dialogue in a civil society. We must be vehicles for constructive dialogue at all levels. We must develop this culture of peace. For this to happen, the leadership is critical because fish rots from the head down. Political, civil and spiritual leaders must all have this culture of compassion and engagement. If everyone engages pro-actively and respectfully by listening and choosing our words carefully, we can begin to inquire and learn about each other in ways where we all grow better. If we enter into systems where shaming people, slander, violence, ignorance and stupidity are expressed, the beauty and greatness of Malaysia will go. The future is in our hands.
> Last month, an Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) activist suggested that it was improper for Muslims to wish Christians “Merry Christmas” or to celebrate with them. What’s your view?
Everyone is my brother and sister in humanity, so I wish all the different communities the best during their festivals. I respect them. I recognise and celebrate with them the very special nature of their respective festivals. Take Christmas for example.The most powerful message of Christmas is for peace to prevail on earth. So, I wished (the Christians) ‘Merry Christmas’ and may peace prevail in Malaysia. We must always respect the fact that we all have different ways of doing things, and celebrate the greatness of that diversity. Wishing other communities during Chinese New Year, Thaipusam or Deepavali has never been an issue for me.
> You are actively involved in more than 10 local and international NGOs with causes covering everything from heritage to health. What keeps you going?
It is part of my life. I continue because these issues run deep in me, and I enjoy being busy and engaging because life is for doing good work. Making a difference in somebody’s life and to Mother Earth gives me great pleasure.
> What keeps you busy?
I have four grandkids – eight-year-old twin boys and two girls aged six and three. They are amazing. The third generation gives you a different kind of joy – watching them grow and learn, and the innocence that they have. I take them on adventures to the parks and gardens where they can feel free, engage with nature and see people from all the different communities interact. Watching them gives me so much hope. One of the twins is a very artistic and linguistic person. He doesn’t know Tamil or Chinese, yet he can imitate the words just by listening. This creates a whole new way in which he appreciates all kinds of sounds and even food.
I took the kids for a banana leaf meal once, and they were so excited. We always have
discussions about canned drinks, so we have a coconut every time we go out, and I tell them: ‘With a coconut, you buy a drink and there’s free food inside. Canned drinks are just sugar and chemicals’. They learn and they love it. I also encourage them to write ‘smoking is not good for you and for children’ notes to give to smokers. This teaches them how to communicate. Life starts with how we nurture children. We must manage new technologies so that they don’t end up anonymous nerds spitting out venom (on the Internet).
> How do you spend your free time?
I read a lot. I love walking, taking deep breaths, tucking into diverse street food, celebrating the little things and cherishing our heritage. It always helps me sleep well.
■ G25 member and prominent activist Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal believes that this nation can be a role model for the world if only Malaysians can respect and celebrate their differences. He says good governance is key to diffusing tensions and snuffing out extremism.