The changing landscape of environmental issues in Malaysia

Malaysia is probably one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity; however, we don’t appreciate it until it begins to disappear.

Chairman of WOU’s George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies (GIOAS) Tan Sri Andrew Sheng stated this hard truth in his opening address during the WOU-GIOAS Conference on Climate Change.

The one-day conference, held at a hotel in Penang on 29 January 2023, was attended by about 40 local and international environmental advocates, key business leaders and academics.

According to Tan Sri Sheng, the conference aimed to “achieve a focused stock-take of where we are at the global and local levels” and to set an agenda for climate action.

“Change is coming so much faster than any of us could have imagined… we really have to address climate change,” he urged.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng delivering his welcome speech as the speakers look on.

In his presentation on ‘Malaysia’s Changing Environmental Issues’, Centre for Environmental, Technology and Development (CETDEM) immediate past chairman Gurmit Singh recalled that his first decade of advocacy was a struggle against hostility and apathy.

“Poor maintenance and patchy enforcement has been the root of environmental issues. Resistance against participatory planning and action was a major problem during the 20 years I headed the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM),” recounted Gurmit.

Gurmit was the founding president of EPSM when it was established in 1974. During his tenure, he led several studies on the pollution of Klang River, land mismanagement in the Klang Valley, and solid waste management in the city.

A decade later in 1985, CETDEM was formed as an alternate to EPSM, providing tangible solutions rather than criticisms for the myriad of environmental problems.

Gurmit highlighted a CETDEM energy efficiency study of 50 urban households conducted in 2006 that showed that much of the energy used is not in the house but in transport – ferrying children and going shopping. He added that it was difficult asking the households to change their driving habits, saying that only 3 out of 5 households ever did so.

Gurmit talks about his journey in environmental advocacy.

Speaking about the persistent problems encountered in his course of work, Gurmit, who has been championing environmental issues in Malaysia for the past five decades, lamented the tendency of civil engineers in Malaysia to “cut and fit” when it comes to developing hilly areas, which has led to major erosion and siltation that is still recurring in the country.

“Much of the development is done along the lines of ‘cut and fit’, not ‘build along contours’. That is why we get floods because all our drainage system have been allowed to clog up,” he said.

In spite of several ‘environmental losses’, as Gurmit put it, all is not lost. He credited the formation of the Department of Environment (DOE) and implementation of the Environment Quality Act, cancellation of the Tembeling dam and Penang Hill development projects, establishment of EPSM and CETDEM and reduction of palm oil effluents in some rivers as positive milestones in Malaysia’s conservation efforts.

He also highlighted several key victories, namely the cessation of logging in the Endau-Rompin National Park, institutionalisation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), inclusion of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the Environmental Quality Council, acceptance of renewable energy (RE) as the fifth fuel and promotion of energy efficiency.

Gurmit noted that climate change awareness is increasing; with biodiversity, climate change and environmental policies in place. He cautioned, however, that “nobody is really monitoring the implementation of these policies. Very often these policies are put on paper but makes no difference on the ground”.

WOU Board of Governors Chairman Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was among those who attended the conference.

One of CETDEM’s recent initiatives was collaborating with other NGOs on improving the public transportation system throughout the nation.

According to Gurmit, emissions have been assessed and like many other countries, were shown to be large. However, he added that “there seems to be little concern from relevant stakeholders to effectively reduce these emissions.”

He further observed that Malaysia has the largest car usage per capita in this part of the world and high fuel consumption by urban households.

Unsurprisingly, rising greenhouse gas emissions and poor public transport remain to be among today’s prevailing environmental concerns. Others, according to Gurmit, include biodiversity loss, pollution of Klang River, increasing solid wastes and illegal dumping of toxic wastes, and energy wastage.

Gurmit added that there is poor implementation of laws, which has been a perennial problem plus unsustainable lifestyles that include littering.

“Even up to today, we have littering going on. We should not have it by now,” he remarked.

While climate change is beginning to receive more NGOs and government attention, issues such as logging and deforestation still lacked action on the ground, he stressed. Plastic waste is getting a higher profile nationwide, and people are talking about zero waste, including food waste, he continued.

Notably, he highlighted the role of social media that has surpassed mass media in getting citizens to reach others and mobilise. He lauded the youth for playing a more active role but called for an increased participation as “there are not enough of them”.

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