I was invited to the inaugural meeting of the Third World Network in 1982. When I arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport, the Chinese immigration officer looked at my British passport and then looked puzzlingly at me. After a pause, he told me that he was obliged to send me back to the UK as my passport had expired. This was before the arrival of digital passports and it was easy to make this kind of mistake. The immigration officer then asked me what was the purpose of my visit to Malaysia. I replied that I had been invited by S M Idris to a meeting in Penang. ‘Visiting Uncle Idris, lah!’ he said. He could not send me back, he declared, as Uncle Idris would be offended. He then found a rarely used provision in the law and gave me a temporary entry pass for three days and advised me to get my passport renewed at the British Consulate in Penang. When I visited the Consulate, the consular officer, a Chinese lady, upon hearing the purpose of my visit, rushed to organise a new passport. ‘I respect Uncle Idris’s work very much, lah’, she said.
S M Mohamed Idris, who died in Penang on 17 May 2019, age 92, was a much respected and adored pillar of Malaysian society. Affectionately and universally known as ‘Uncle idris’, he had acquired an international reputation for his work and advocacy on citizens’ rights and environmental conservation. Indeed, such was his stature that the city of Penang is now considering naming a road and a park after him.
Uncle Idris was born in Tamil Nadu, India, where he was educated at an Islamic madrasah. When his family moved to Penang, he attended a local Christian missionary school, and worked with his father, SM Mohamed Yusoff Rawther, who had started a shipping company in 1915. His father died during the Japanese occupation of Malaya (December 1941-February 1942), and Uncle Idris took over the shipping business and a small jewellery shop. Almost immediately he started a union for shipping workers’ rights: Penang Lighters’ Association. It marked the beginning of a life-time of campaigns, advocacy, and struggle for the rights of workers, the homeless, squatters, consumers, and flora and fauna.