ANWAR Fazal is no stranger to civil society. The multiple award-winning consumer, health, environment, human rights and social activist is recognised both nationally and internationally.
Anwar, who turns 68 in 2009, is the founder and one of the movers of numerous citizen movements including the Consumers Association of Penang, International Baby Food Action Network, Health Action International, and Pesticide Action Network. He has also acted as consultant to the United Nations.
Additionally, he is the chairperson of the Taiping Peace Initiative and the Malaysian Interfaith Network and is on the board of several organisations.
Among others, Anwar was, in 1982, conferred the Right Livelihood Award, popularly called the “Alternative Nobel Prize” for a lifetime of promoting and protecting public interest. In January 2009, Anwar was appointed director of the Right Livelihood College, located in Universiti Sains Malaysia.
In an 11 Jan 2009 interview in his Penang home, Anwar speaks to The Nut Graph about his memories of growing up in Taiping and Penang, and his joy of being Malaysian.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born in 1941 in a village called Sungei Bayor, near Selama in Perak. It was a house that was next to a river. The home was in a shop house that we shared with a Chinese family who ran a sundry shop. My father ran half a shop lot selling textile.
Where did you grow up?
We moved out (of Sungei Bayor) in 1944 because of the war (World War II). And I grew up in Taiping. We lived on the main road and that was what it was called, Main Road. And my life has always been like that — on the main road [chuckles].
(His family ran a business called Fazal Mohammed Brothers at 112 Main Road, Taiping. It is now at 111 Chulia Street, Penang.)
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?
I’m a first generation Malaysian. My parents were from Jullandar in Punjab, now India because of the Partition.
My father was adventurous. After getting his high school education, he heard from a friend about Malaya and decided that he would come here and start something. With just the name of another community member on a piece of paper, he made this remarkable journey on his own from Jullandar to Calcutta. From Calcutta, he took a boat to Penang and when he arrived, he stayed at a mosque. Unfortunately, he lost the small amount of cash he had.
But when he approached a small-time entrepreneur from the same community in Ah Quee Street, near Kapitan Keling Mosque, that person gave him some money and said, “Pay me when you can.” It’s interesting to note the important role that mosques played as a community centre that connected people.
With that money, my father journeyed to Selama where he began a little business.
What business did he run?
He was a vendor who sold things from village to village on a bicycle. People would order things from him, like a sewing machine. And that’s how he founded half a shop.
Later, when he had more money, he went all the way back to his village and married my mother and then brought her back to Sungei Bayor.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
Taiping was a fascinating town. It’s located between the world’s best example of preserved mangroves and a mountain (Maxwell Hill) so high, it was a joy to climb. And then there was the Lake Gardens. And the town was remarkable for its diversity. Every community was there.
Taiping was also a major garrison town and especially during the Emergency, there were soldiers there from the UK, Fiji, Australia.
All the religions of the world existed on the main street. It was a town that was a microcosm of pluralism that was also reflected in the environment.
It was there and then that I began to feel a certain universality and international-ness. Because of the journey my parents made, the presence of people from all over the world, and Taiping’s diverse natural environment. I was saturated with diversity.
It was a childhood I could relive a thousand times over!
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents/grandparents/uncles?
In Taiping, I studied at the King Edward VII School (before the family moved to Penang in 1958 and he enrolled in the Penang Free School). The school had a meteorological station and at 13, I volunteered to become a little meteorologist.
For a year and a half, I would go in very early in the morning to record the weather measurements. It was an interesting discipline, one that I enjoyed very much, because it cultivated in me this connection between people and climate.
But one day, I woke up late and missed the reading for the day. I felt I had let the world down and wondered what to do. Pretend I took the reading? Who would know?
I talked to my father about it and he advised me to speak to the teacher in charge, to apologise for over-sleeping. So, I did. And the teacher told me, “It’s very important to always be honest.” This lesson from my father and the interaction with my teacher was a very important lesson in integrity for me.
The Yeoh Kongsi in Penang has a hall called The Four Know Hall — “I know, you know, the earth knows and heaven knows.” It’s a wonderful principle about integrity and transparency — the fact that there is a universality and a greater accountability to your conscience, the cosmos and to the Almighty.
How do you connect with these stories and memories you have as a Malaysian?
To me, the very special thing that marked me was our multicultural space. We are a nation whose history has been located in a very special place on earth where civilisations converge. We are where monsoons meet.
So, the history of our country has been a history of convergence, interactions, movement; never static. People came and went, stayed and married.
This multiversity has been the essence of this nation. And I think growing up in Taiping, which captured all these things, was very special for me.
My story in Penang is also a continuation of my Taiping life. I came to Penang in 1958 because my father wanted to expand his business on Chulia Street, which is the centre of the Street of Harmony. It was a living celebration of diversity. There was diversity within each religion, too. For example, Muslims from different parts of India, Indonesia and the Arab world were here. There were also different streams of Buddhism and Christianity.
Growing up with this multiversity, one has to be a universalist. We have one essence — our humanity. I see how things and people are connected to each other.
My parents made Malaya their home and their future. They never looked back. My father was active in the Pakistani mosque community’s activities. Mosques in Penang reflected the diversity of the origins of Muslims in Penang. Hence, my faith is also universal.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian? Gender/age/work/race/religion, etc?
I don’t. I feel very comfortable. I feel at home.
We have so much to celebrate in Malaysia. The fact that Penang and Malacca have been declared as World Heritage Sites, the fact that we are a federation of states, makes us learn about, enjoy and celebrate our differences.
My greatest struggle is against racism and bigotry. As a Muslim, I celebrate the essence of my faith as peace, justice and compassion. I celebrate its universality and its liberating foundations. Yet, we see perversion of these noble values made worse by colonialism and imperialism which devastated many universal values including human rights and responsibilities. Sadly, this continues with the mega hypocrisy of the major powers who have now allowed the Palestinians to become today’s Holocaust victims of racism and bigotry.
It’s most depressing, but I believe in working for positive futures and so choose to address these struggles proactively through my work on peace and interfaith issues. I have written a poem, Remember We are One, which has been published in a book called Liberating Faith — Voices for Justice, Peace and Ecological Wisdom.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
A Malaysia that celebrates multiversity; that is, a creative, joyful nation. A nation that always cares about justice and peace in whatever we do. We must be a remembering and a listening nation so that we can build a caring and compassionate future.