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Torchbearers in a world of fear

The New Straits Times, December 30, 2001

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE twilight of the first year of the millennium also marks the closing of the International Year of Volunteers (IYV). Before we move into the new year, perhaps it is useful to always keepin mind the words of United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, when he addressed the IYV opening ceremony on Nov 28, 2000, in New York.

“In intervening not only with their hands and minds, but also with their hearts, volunteers do more than provide services. They bring hope to those they help, and so help them find the strength to overcome their own weakness.”

In other words, volunteers and volunteerism are very much part of today’s wheel of development.

The motivation, as pointed out, is truly the “sharing” of time, skills, talents and, above all, human experience. Yet it is not in any way an attempt to impose values, ideas and agendas, but merely working to make things happen as required in a given situation.

Incidentally, this is what we sought to do through the Poison Control column, since its inception in 1995, to optimise services of the nation’s only Poison Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Seven years hence, the motivation to share has grown, taking various dimensions.

All along we have taken contemporary issues, and volunteered information that could make a difference to our readers. At times it could be controversial, but we are committed to inform and educate without fear or favour.

Now as we end the seventh year of sharing, we, like all the volunteers in the true spirit of volunteerism, hope that the column has made a difference.

A difference in the knowledge of how fragile our society is — local and global; how vulnerable we are as inhabitants of this ailing planet, and how much more precarious it would be if we go on acting and behaving irresponsibly.

More importantly, we have tried to provide knowledge of how to make the world a better and safer place to live in, in our small ways, namely by taking appropriate proactive actions and changing behaviours.

In the last year alone we saw many examples of how these can be done. Though many of us are not fully aware of the issues at hand, we believe, given some new lead in information, everyone can begin to make a difference that collectively and in the long run will culminate in some significant contributions.

But this is not always easy since there are barriers, particularly those fed by arrogance and greed despite well-established facts staring us in the face. This is when the tasks get arduous as facts and information, thus knowledge, continue to be manipulated with the intent to misinform and mislead.

Yet it is precisely for such reasons that we continue to communicate and inform the people at large, for it is they who will eventually make a difference.

A good example is when dealing with the issues related to tobacco where media manipulation is well-documented. The World Health Organisation Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (WHO EMRO) recently analysed tobacco industry documents to illustrate this point.

In summary, it points to the fact that “the tobacco industry realised that simply placing articles in the Press would not be enough to sway the opinion of policy makers. Thus they set out to systematically build relationships with senior editors, journalists and other people in publishing to ensure that news and editorials reflected industry thinking”.

It organised the so-called “voice of reason” campaigns using well-known opinion writers to develop pro-industry articles on issues such as market freedom, economics of the industry, the quality product theme, and public smoking.

A recent case in point is the lawsuit to be filed by Saudi Arabia’s main cancer hospital against the tobacco industry and their agents in the kingdom. Last month, Gulf News (Nov 30) reported that the hospital seeks some US$2.9 billion (RM11.02 billion) over the treatment of smoking-related cases over the last 25 years.

Soon after, more cases will also be filed in the US and Europe. These decisions were taken after negotiations with the industry held in Geneva earlier this year failed to reach an agreement.

Unfortunately for those too meek to act, we will continue to witness this form of violence spread, facilitated by the processes of globalisation. For example, much of the spread of tobacco use in the developing countries today can be traced to liberalised trade.

A book by Cynthia Callard and co-authors dubbed tobacco as a problem of globalisation, and not only a global problem as a result of more active multinational corporations and increased westernisation (see full text at www.smoke-free.ca).

Hence the crime is camouflaged under some pretext of a larger global trade interest.

Generally, the rapid pace of globalisation has generated enormous social tensions that could easily translate into even more violence. Millions are said to be poorer, with increasing indices of inequality between communities and nations leading to the erosion of the social fabric. In other words, violence begets more violence.

But it was not until Sept 11 that this contention became clearer. The raw violence displayed on that fateful day in actual fact had been woven through many other equally unimaginable acts of violence that had killed innocent men, women and children regardless of who and where they were.

Only we choose to call it terrorism today, so that it revolts the public imagination. But any act that kills and maims innocents is an act of violence. The tobacco promotion is a classic example, arguably a form of terrorism, at least in health terms. 

Although terrorism may not be the preferred label it is as heinous a crime as any, sponsored not only by so-called rogue states or groups but also implicates civilised societies and nations. 
Ironically, it is the same violence that invigorates the spirit of volunteerism among those who are truly in the business of making the world better. In the face of dangers and risks to their lives, volunteers all over the world sacrifice themselves selflessly.

Their rewards, said Annan, may be a simple as new lifelong friendships, a new understanding of other people, of other cultures and other countries’ problems and perspectives.

Indeed, they have been involved in an “engagement” of a different type. One that accumulates social capital, that is, “the creation of mutual respect, trust, and effective networks and information flows”, reckoned one expert opinion (Sukarelawan, Jan-Mar 2001).

It is one that helps to build the foundation of social justice, equality and stabilty. 

We are thus back to where we started in our effort to educate and inform as a way to give back to our society. After all, noted by the UN Secretary-General, “the true measure of success in life is not what we gain but what we give back to our fellow men and women”. 

Wishing our readers a Happy and Peaceful New Year, and thanking you for your support.

Recommended  website: www.ivy2001.org  

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