Public Citizen News / May-June 2020
By Lori Wallach
This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
Public Citizen mourns the loss of — and owes an immense debt of gratitude to — Martin Khor Kok Peng. Following a several-year battle with cancer, Martin passed away in early April at the age of 68 at home in Penang, Malaysia. He was a truly extraordinary man who will be greatly missed.
Martin’s brilliant intellect and unparalleled knowledge made him a trusted adviser to prime ministers and activists alike and a kind teacher and north star to all of us he informed and activated through his tireless and effective economic, environmental and social justice advocacy.
A Cambridge University-trained economist, Martin led the civil society movement in Malaysia on issues of economic, ecological and health justice, was an unparalleled leader in the international fight against corporate-rigged globalization and trade, and founded and led several key organizations. As secretary of the Consumers Association of Penang, he fought for consumer rights and in 1984 co-founded the internationally renowned Third World Network (TWN), which he headed until 2009. From 2009 to 2015, he led the South Centre, an intergovernmental policy research and analysis institution of developing countries headquartered in Geneva, as its executive director.
I remember first meeting Martin in 1992 at the G-7 summit in Munich. He became a guide and mentor to me from that point on — awakening me to the policy, politics and power dynamics of the developing world and international institutions in the same way that Public Citizen founder Ralph Nader shaped my understanding domestically. (The main difference was that Martin’s guidance came along with show tunes and a list of favorite restaurants in cities worldwide as well as Nader-like witty sarcasm on top of focused seriousness.)
Martin’s vision inspired the International Forum on Globalization and the Our World Is Not for Sale network — and shaped the understanding of innumerable leaders of national campaigns as well as coalitions and organizations worldwide. I can envision him on each battlefront of the fight against corporate-rigged globalization and for a more equitable, democratic alternative during the past 30 years. At times, I joked he had to have a clone, as he was everywhere he was needed, seemingly bending the rules of physics.
But for him, the world would have been blighted with the damage of a massive expansion of the World Trade Organization’s power and scope. Many people helped detail that disaster, but if Martin had not been leading the effort, it would not have succeeded. He was a master of the inside-outside methodology, analyzing technical texts and advising trade negotiators and high-level government officials around the world about the tricks and traps in pro-corporate initiatives they were being pressured to accept. At the same time, his ability to translate arcane legal texts and concepts into memorable allegories and examples of direct harm educated and mobilized activists thanks to his tireless speaking schedule and strategy sessions.
A master translator of vast stacks of technical information into accessible, motivating language, he modeled how to make real change. He was the person who awakened the world to the perils posed by the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a proposed pact that would have vastly expanded the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system that empowers multinational corporations to challenge health, safety and environmental laws and be awarded unlimited taxpayer money. And he helped orchestrate the MAI’s demise.
His influence lives on in the legions he mentored at Third World Network, South Centre and Consumer Association of Penang, in his many powerful books and essays, and with the millions who benefited from hearing from him directly.
May his memory be as a blessing to his dear wife, the wonderful Meena Raman, herself a global environmental and economic justice advocate extraordinaire, and to Martin’s daughter and granddaughter. Public Citizen extends our deepest condolences to them and the entire extended TWN family.
Thank you, Martin. You will never be forgotten.