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The NI Interview: Martin Khor


Murray MacAdam in Toronto catches up with Martin Khor, a key member of a group of Southern
intellectual activists who are mounting a challenge to the tidal wave of globalist modernization.

Martin Khor The smiles come easily, even at the end of a long day. A sense of warm civility surrounds Martin Khor. Yet it’s evident that here is a tireless campaigner for rewriting the rules of the game in favour of the Third World. I’ve caught up with him during an international forum on globalization.

If there’s one thing that sparks passion out of this gentle Malaysian, it’s the trendy form of colonialism known as globalization. He helped alert activists worldwide to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) when few people knew about it. He rails against global tobacco companies who aggressively market cigarettes in the Third World, at a cost of an expected seven million deaths by the year 2010. ‘If this is not genocide, I don’t know what is,’ he says angrily.

Khor’s militancy is backed up by solid research and analysis, which helped the organization he heads – Third World Network – to win the 1996 Award for South-South Co-operation from the G7 (most industrialized) nations. The Network links groups and individuals to promote the needs of Third World peoples, including fair distribution of the world’s resources, and development which is ecologically sustainable and meets human needs.

His interests stretch far beyond globalization to embrace a gamut of concerns. Indeed, the range of topics written about and advocated by Martin Khor reads like a listing of New Internationalist issue themes: primary health care, North-South dialogue, biopiracy, structural adjustment, genetic engineering, sustainable development.

Environmental protection is first and foremost. ‘Being brought up in Penang, one almost naturally becomes an environmentalist,’ says Khor. ‘It’s a beautiful island, with lovely beaches and hills. When “development” began to pollute the seas and plans for hotels threatened the ambience of the hills, many local people like me became activists.’ Khor is a founding member of Friends of the Earth Malaysia.

That love for nature, coupled with a visceral dislike for ‘the materialistic rat-race’, helped shape Khor’s philosophical vision. Learning about colonialism in university, and how political independence did little to soften economic exploitation, deepened his commitment to social activism. Khor helped form the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), which blended global analysis with practical activities to help consumers, farmers and fisherfolk on local issues. CAP later helped launch the Third World Network, which maintains a blend of local and global concerns in its work.

These days Khor pours much of his talents as a writer, economist and advocate into the globalization issue. ‘We have to strip the myths about globalization being about efficiency and serving consumers’ interests,’ he insists.

‘We should define “efficiency” and “productivity” according to the criteria of our objectives. If these are job creation, environmental protection and social justice, then globalization is a very inefficient instrument. It destroys jobs through corporate downsizing and new technologies, damages the environment and widens inequities.’

Khor knows what he and others fighting global corporate rule are up against. He knows too that the forces behind globalization are powerful, pointing to their success through the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the World Trade Organization and now the MAI. All these initiatives have opened more doors for transnational corporations (TNCs) to walk into Third World countries unhindered. On the other hand, notes Khor, the backlash against globalization is spreading among Third World NGOs, peoples’ movements and local communities. He takes heart from these resistance efforts in the face of corporate power, making clear his own modesty. ‘All these brave, ordinary people are the real heroes of democracy and sustainable development.’

It’s these links with activists and citizens’ groups across the world that have sparked a vision, one that energizes him for the challenges ahead. ‘We need a new kind of citizen politics, including the workers, the women, indigenous people, across nations, that can take control of politics so people can take control of the corporations.’ A renewed forcefulness builds in Khor’s voice. ‘We the people have to create a framework so corporations can meet our needs, and not the other way around. Globalization is not inevitable. It’s not made in heaven or hell.’ But he adds with a mischievous smile, ‘Although I think those who made it should go to hell.’

Beneath the activist passion there’s still a warmth. Despite the fatigue from this late-night event capping a gruelling Canadian itinerary, Khor’s face lights up when a Malaysian student approaches him to thank him for his speech.

Khor admits that it’s tempting to ease off his punishing schedule and lead a less hectic life. ‘But there are so many new crises, like this unexpected financial turmoil in Asia, or horrible new initiatives, such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which if we do not fight now, we will have to work much harder later to overcome. Third World Network’s great hope is that we can get enough groups in the South and North to work together to change public opinion in the North so the political leaders there will give up their present servitude to the TNCs and their aggression towards the South, and our nations can be more democratic and fulfil people’s needs.’

Murray MacAdam is a journalist and NGO worker in Toronto.

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New Internationalist issue 300 magazine cover This article is from the April 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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