Megadam Project Galvanizes Native Opposition in Malaysia

by Gan Pei Ling in Long Lama, Malaysia / February 27, 2013 © National Geographic News

Most villages along the Baram River in Malaysia cannot count on round-the-clock electricity. Diesel generators hum at night near longhouses in the northwestern corner of the island of Borneo. Mobile and Internet coverage are almost nonexistent.

A plan to dam the Baram River would generate power far in excess of current demand in the rain forest state: At 1,000 megawatts, the hydropower project would be large enough to power 750,000 homes in the United States.

Yet the promise of power rings hollow for many who live here.

Natives from the tribes of Penan, Kenyah, and Kayan have taken to their traditional longboats, traveling downstream to the town of Long Lama to voice opposition to the plan.

Baram is one of seven big hydropower projects that Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak, is building in a bid to lure aluminum smelters, steelmakers, and other energy-intensive heavy industry with the promise of cheap power. Together, the dams mapped out in the state government’s sprawling $105 billion Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan would harness nearly as much river power as the largest generating station in the world, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China.

The Sarawak project is changing landscape and lives. The dam across the sinuous Baram River will submerge 159 square miles (412 square kilometers) of rain forest, displacing some 20,000 indigenous people.

Open acts of defiance are rare in Sarawak after three decades of authoritarian rule under the state’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has long battled charges that he has amassed personal wealth by selling off swaths of the rain forest in corrupt deals with timber industry. But protests have become increasingly bold among indigenous people opposed to the megahydro plan. Last September, native tribes set up a blockade to protest the Murum River dam project in western Sarawak. And in January, the longboat protest came to Long Lama, with shouts of “Stop Baram Dam” in indigenous languages reverberating through the normally quiet town.

“I don’t care if I’m not reappointed” as the village chief by the government, said Panai Erang, 55, an ethnic Penan, one of several chiefs openly against the state-backed project. “I have to speak out for my people.”

Power Transformation

Baram Dam is part of a grand economic-development vision for Sarawak, which along with Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the northern coast of Borneo (map), along the South China Sea. Borneo, shared with Indonesia and Brunei, is one of the largest islands in the world, and home to one of its oldest rain forests.

Endangered species such as Hose’s civet, the Borneo gibbon, and six different species of hornbills rely on the habitat. The Bornean bay cat, one of the most elusive cats in the world, was sighted near the upper Baram River last November. Sarawak boasts more than 8,000 unique types of flora and 20,000 species of fauna, including one of the world’s largest butterflies, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, and one of the most extensive cave systems on Earth.

Despite its natural resources, Sarawak’s economy has lagged behind the rest of Malaysia. An ever-widening economic gap, as well as a sea, separates Sarawak from the fast-growing states and bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula. But Sarawak’s SCORE plan aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020.”

A government spokesperson close to Mahmud said Sarawak has to tap the hydro potential of its numerous rivers to power the state’s industrial development.

“The people affected [by the dams] will be those who are living in small settlements scattered over remote areas,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named, in an email. “They are still living in poverty.

“To build a dam, not just to generate reasonably priced energy, is also to involve the affected people in meaningful development,” he said. “Otherwise, they will be left out.”

The spokesperson added that Sarawak will also be exploiting its one to two billion tons of coal reserve for power. One of the coal plants is already operating in the developing township of Mukah. Malaysia’s first aluminum smelter was opened here in 2009.

Sarawak’s plan is to grow its economy by a factor of five, increase jobs, and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.


But during the January protest at Long Lama, village chief Panai Erang said he and his people have little confidence that they will benefit from the new industrial development. Erang has visited the town of Sungai Asap, in central Sarawak, where 10,000 indigenous people already displaced by the first megadam project, Bakun Dam, were relocated. The forced exodus began in the late 1990s, and construction continued for more than a decade. With a capacity of 2,400 megawatts, Bakun, which opened in 2011, is currently Asia’s largest hydroelectric dam outside China.

Erang said the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland. Some have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

The community leader is fearful for the future of his villagers. Many do not possess a MyKad—the Malaysian national identification card—because of government policies making it difficult for them to prove citizenship. As a result, they cannot vote and would be unlikely to find employment if they were forced out of their ancestral homes into towns and cities.

“This is not the development that we want,” said Salomon Gau, 48, an ethnic Kenyah from the village of Long Ikang, located downstream off the Baram River. “We don’t need big dams. We want micro-hydro dams, [which are] more affordable and environmentally friendly.”

Energy and Development

The concerns of the indigenous tribes are echoed by academics and activists from Malaysia and around the world. They worry about SCORE’s potential social and environmental impact.

Benjamin Sovacool, founding manager of Vermont Law School’s Energy Security and Justice Program, studied the SCORE project extensively. He and development consultant L.C. Bulan traveled the corridor and interviewed dozens of Sarawak planners and stakeholders to catalog the drivers and risks of the project. Their research, conducted at the National University of Singapore, was published last year in the journal Renewable Energy.

Government officials told the researchers that SCORE would improve prospects for those now living in villages, especially the young people: “They want gadgets, cars, nice clothes, and need to learn to survive in the modern economy,” one project planner told Sovacool and Bulan. “They are not interested in picking some fruit in the forest, collecting bananas, hunting pigs.”

And yet when the researchers visited the Sungai Asap resettlement community, they found people scraping for both water and food, oppressed by heat and rampant disease, with limited transportation options. “We had trouble sleeping at night due to coughing from a tuberculosis epidemic, malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing around our beds, and the smell of urine, since the longhouse lacked basic sanitation,” they wrote.  Many community members had fled.

The squalor stands in marked contrast to the portrait of Sarawak that the SCORE project seeks to paint in its bid to attract new industry, a region of “world-class infrastructure, multimodal interconnectivity and competitive incentives,” strategically located near potential fast-growing markets of India, China, and Indonesia.

Sovacool and Bulan noted that SCORE had encountered difficulties in finding investors and financiers, and flawed environmental impact assessments and questionable procurement practices would further hamper those efforts. (At least one major aluminum smelter plan was scrapped last year over a dispute over finances.) The authors concluded that SCORE might undermine Sarawak’s greatest assets: “[I]t is taking what is special to Sarawak, its biodiversity and cultural heritage and destroying and converting it into electricity, a commodity available in almost every country on the planet.”

And yet, Sovacool and Bulan wrote that such projects may become increasingly common globally, as governments seek to build energy systems and spur development at the same time.

Kayans from the village of Na’ah, nearest to the dam site, are staunchly against the Baram Dam. They have chased surveyors away and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.

Daniel Kammen, founder of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratoryat the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked extensively on alternative energy solutions in Malaysia, thinks Sarawak should explore other renewable energy options before implementing SCORE’s power projects.

“The political and infrastructure challenges are immense, and the ecological and cultural impacts have barely been evaluated,” he told National Geographic Newsvia email.

He said careful evaluation and planning in cooperation with communities could yield better solutions; Kammen’s team’s work was pivotal in the 2011 decision by neighboring state Sabah to scrap plans for a 300-megawatt coal plant in an ecologically sensitive habitat, and provide energy instead with natural gas.

“What is vital to the long-term social and economic development of [Sarawak], and of Borneo, is to explore the full range of options that are available to this resource-rich state, recognizing that community, cultural, and environmental resources have tremendous value that could be lost if the SCORE project goes ahead without a full analysis of the options that exist in the region,” he said.

Mounting Resistance

The natives of Sarawak, including those from Baram, have already lost thousands of hectares of customary land to logging companies and oil palm plantation companies over the past few decades. The state government often cuts land lease deals with companies without consulting natives. Consequently, there are now more than 200 land-dispute court cases pending in Sarawak.

The Penans, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe, have suffered more than the Kenyah and Kayan agricultural tribes as they are entirely dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, and are well-known for their blockades against loggers.

But the dam development has united different tribes traditionally divided by their disparate interests. Unlike previous upheavals due to logging, the hydro projects will force tribes out of their ancestral land completely. Adding to anger is the appearance of nepotism in several of the deals; for example, Hamed Abdul Sepawi, chairperson of the state utility company Sarawak Energy Bhd, which is building the Murum Dam, is the cousin of chief minister Mahmud.

The tribes struggle to have their concerns heard. The opposition party that organized the longboat protest in January at Baram, The People’s Justice Party, collected more than 7,000 signatures but the government-appointed regional chief refused to see the protestors.

In some cases, the opponents have received a better reception abroad. Peter Kallang, an ethnic Kenyah and chairperson of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network, and other local indigenous activists traveled to Australia late last year to draw attention to their plight. “Development isn’t just about economic growth,” said Kallang. “Will these mega projects really raise the standard of living among our indigenous communities?” With support of Australian green groups, the activists pressured dam operator and consultant Hydro Tasmania to withdraw from Sarawak’s hydropower projects.  Reports say Hydro Tasmania told the campaigners it plans to leave Sarawak after it fulfills its current contractual obligations, but the company has maintained it has been a small player in the SCORE program.

In any event, the indigenous activists plan to step up their campaign against the dam in the coming weeks in anticipation of upcoming national elections. Sarawak and Sabah traditionally have been viewed as a stronghold for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim now views the rural states on Borneo as key to his bid to unseat the long-standing regime, due to the support he has garnered among increasingly organized indigenous tribes.

In uniting Sarawak’s native peoples, the project to alter its rivers may, in the end, change the course of Malaysia.

Posted: May 27th, 2013
Categories: NatGeo
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The hushed riot of Sabah

News reports of the riot

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

DID you know there was a riot in Sabah in 1986? Fish bombs were detonated at cities and towns. Buildings burned. Cars flipped over. Five people died. However, no one was held responsible and the instigators got away.

“I want people to know that it happened,” local filmmaker-writer Nadira Ilana, who wasn’t even born when the incident took place, told Selangor Times in an exclusive interview on Sept 7.

The 25-year-old Sino-Dusun from Kota Kinabalu only found out about the riot from her father last year. It inspired her to research the mayhem and subsequently submit a proposal to Pusat Komas to turn it into a documentary.

“The riot only happened in Sabah but the story is relevant to the entire country. It shows what could happen after the fall of a political regime,” she said.

Nadira’s 30-minute film “The Silent Riot”, also known as “Rusuhan Tersembunyi” in Bahasa Malaysia, will be shown at the PJ Live Arts Theatre, Jaya One next Saturday in conjunction with the Freedom Arts Fest.

She shares some information about the cause of the riot, the politicians and civilians who lived through it and how she feels about this black episode in Sabah’s history.

Can you give us some background about the riot, how did it happen?

It started in 1985 when PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, then an opposition party) first came to power. The previous ruling party, Parti Berjaya, had became increasingly unpopular among Sabahans. So [Tan Sri] Joseph Pairin Kitingan, then Berjaya’s deputy president, left the party to form PBS.

PBS was registered 47 days before the state elections in 1985. It formed a secret coalition with Usno (United Sabah National Organisation), which was headed by Tun Mustapha [Harun], to topple Berjaya.

Berjaya had swept 44 out of 48 seats in the 1981 elections so they were confident. But when the election results were announced on the midnight of April 22, 1985, PBS had won 25 seats, Usno 16 and Berjaya only had six.

Usno tried to contact PBS but there was a communication breakdown. In a panic, Usno called up Berjaya to form a coalition straight away. They then raced to the Istana to swear in Tun Mustapha as the Chief Minister. He was sworn in at 4am but was removed on the same day as the appointment was illegal. Pairin was sworn in as the rightful Chief Minister at 8pm the same night.

Did the riot begin then?

Not yet. Tun Mustapha filed an injunction against the State Governor. As far as Usno and Berjaya were concerned, he was still the Chief Minister. They didn’t want fresh elections. They were afraid PBS would win again. The riots didn’t happen until March 1986 just as the court verdict was to be announced.

Fish bombs did start going off in Kota Kinabalu and the other towns from May 29, 1985 but the incidents were sparse. These bombs were meant to shock people, not to kill or harm. But if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get hurt.

What happened in March 1986?

On the first day of demonstrations, about 1,000 Usno supporters gathered in front of the Kota Kinabalu High Court. That’s when several fish bombs started going off throughout town. A curfew was imposed for 39 days. There were other smaller demonstrations and arson attacks in Sandakan and Tawau too.

The demonstrators, led by Usno and Berjaya leaders, took to the streets of Kota Kinabalu to protest Pairin’s appointment because he was Christian. The anomaly was that a majority of the demonstrators were Filipino Muslims – many undocumented and legally unable to vote.

Many Sabahan Muslims didn’t have a problem with Pairin and supported him.

The demonstrators were given food, money and they stayed at the state mosque with their wives and children for a week. They were being used. These people were incredibly impoverished. Many of them were political or economic refugees from the Philippines. They fled to Sabah in the 1970s to escape the conflict in Mindanao. Tun Mustapha, being a Muslim Bajau-Suluk, was the first to open Sabah’s gates to them. (He served as the Chief Minister from 1967 to 1975.) So a lot of them felt indebted to Tun Mustapha and were demonstrating on his behalf.

Tun Mustapha led the demonstrations at the mosque?

Not himself although he did address them personally at the mosque. It was mostly Usno leaders who led the demonstrations in Kota Kinabalu. The smaller ones outside of town were led by Berjaya members.

So the riot started on March 13, 1986?

Burnt vehicles in KK

Several bombs went off in a span of two hours that day. Parents panicked and went to fetch their children from schools. There was tear gas from the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) who was trying to contain the situation. Cars were being flipped over by demonstrators. They were also throwing rocks into shop windows.

People were terrified. By 10.30am the city was empty.

My father told me he was walking from his office to visit a friend when a bomb went off a few yards away from him at an Esso station. The roof collapsed and the windows shattered. He ran down the street and another bomb went off under his colleague’s car.

That must have been scary.

I was taken aback by how casual my dad was when he spoke about it. I was like “What?!” and he was like “It’s just a little bomb.” It’s scary to think that he could have been hurt. When I asked if people could die from the bombs, he said “Yeah, I guess but we didn’t die.”

After that I asked a lot of people about it and I think most of them have forgotten that it was a big deal. The newspapers weren’t censored. Their reporting was actually quite detailed. But the people who experienced it…They no longer talked about it. Maybe they don’t want to think about it. I don’t know how they came to terms with what happened.

Some people denied there was a riot. They told me “it was just a demonstration”. Someone even told me “yeah there were bombs but it’s Sabah, not Bosnia.” I thought: “Wow, these people are tough.”

Most of the people from my generation don’t know anything about the riot.

Five people died right? Was anyone caught and held responsible for the bombs and arson attacks?

img_2014It was estimated that 1,763 people were arrested during that period but they were all released after about a month. A newspaper vendor, fisherman, carpenter and two unnamed women died but who will stand up for them?

People suspect that the riot was manufactured to create a state of emergency so that the federal government can come in but that never happened. (The federal government had previously stepped in and proclaimed emergency in response to political turmoils in Sarawak in 1966 and Kelantan in 1977.)

Instead, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed a peace formula whereby PBS, Usno and Berjaya should form a coalition but this never came to fruition. Pairin dissolved the state assembly and Sabah underwent another election in 1986.

It was quite commendable that PBS kept their cool and kept the locals out of the riot.

Who did you interview for your film?

A mixture of politicians and civilians. People who were there, especially petrol station operators. A lot of petrol stations were attacked.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Who were the politicians?

Tan Sri Herman Luping who was the adviser to PBS at that time. Datuk Yahya Lampong, a former Usno member. And Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor from Berjaya. He was state Finance Minister in Sabah.

What were the challenges you faced in making the documentary?

It’s the first time I’m doing a documentary. I’m more accustomed to narrative films. I only have 30 minutes but I wish I had more time. There’s so much to this story.

What were some of the things you wish you could have included in the film?

I wanted to include why Berjaya lost in the 1985 elections, add more interviews with civilians. When Usno first lost to Berjaya in the 1976 elections, there were fish bombs too, but not to the scale of in 1986.

I also had to cut out one of the interviews I did with a friend who was in school on that day. Demonstrators were marching past her school. Students were frantically trying to get home. The demonstrators surrounded her school van and rocked it. They were holding rocks, pieces of wood and chanting loudly. She was only 14.

They managed to get away. She thinks it’s funny now but back then she said she thought she was going to die that day.

So what do you think about the entire episode after making the documentary?

I will never join politics! (Laughs) I think my job as a filmmaker is hard enough. As a storyteller, I can’t control how people will react to my story. It will take a life of its own once I put it out there. But I hope people will respond by having constructive discussions rather than reactive ones.

I’m not interested in pointing fingers but I do want people to know what happened and acknowledge this incident as part of Malaysia’s history.

I feel that the best way for us to move forward as a society is to be honest with ourselves, about our past no matter how dark. It’s part of who we are and we grow from these collective experiences. That’s why we value history.

Posted: December 14th, 2012
Categories: Interviews, Selangor Times
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Slow death by aluminium smelters?

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 June 2012 © The Nut Graph

WHILE green activists in Peninsular Malaysia are protesting the rare earth refinery that has yet to begin operations in Gebeng, Pahang, villagers living near an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Mukah, Sarawak, have been suffering in silence.

Documentary filmmaker and former TV2 producer Chou Z Nam has highlighted the Iban villagers’ plight in four short videos, all available on YouTube, and a report after a field visit in February 2012. Chou is well-known for his documentaries on the Bakun Dam and its impact on local communities. His Bakun Dam documentaries were axed by RTM and he was sacked after disclosing the self-censorship.

How is the aluminium smelting plant affecting the lives of local communities in Balingian? Should we be alarmed at plans for new plants?

The aluminium smelting plant in Mukah (Source:

Declining health and dying crops

In Chou’s first short video released on 22 March 2012, villager Sandy Dancan, 18, complained of skin irritation and rashes which she has had since 2010. Dancan lives 300m away from the plant owned by Press Metal Sarawak Sdn Bhd.

Another villager, Cynthia Unau, 25, worked as a cleaner at the smelter for six months in 2011. She claimed she fell sick while working there in Chou’s second video released on 24 March 2012.

A simple health survey conducted by Chou and local activist Matek Geram found that villagers from three longhouses located 300m to 2.5km from the factory reported symptoms of breathing difficulties, coughing and dizziness, among others. The affected families say they spend RM150 up to RM500 a month for medical treatment.

It was also observed that plants growing 50m to 200m from the factory including nipah, coconut, sago, banana, oil palm and ferns, were dying.

Farmers living within 12km of the smelter have claimed loss of livelihood as their crops cannot bear fruit, while fisherfolk at Batang Balingian alleged that their catch has dwindled, possibly due to acid rain pollution.

Chou’s documentary also records an unidentified former employee accusing the smelter of only using one out of its three compressors to treat air pollutants including hydrogen fluorideand sulphur dioxide in order to save energy costs. The informant claimed that although the plant was equipped with the required pollution control facility, it wasn’t fully utilised when he was working there.

Press Metal Sarawak refuted these claims in a Borneo Post report published on 8 May 2012. Its human resources general manager, Soh Siew Ong, said the smelter only released clean gas into the air and that no water is discharged from the plant.

A screenshot of Cynthia Unau’s testimony featured in Chou’s video

More smelters in the pipeline

While villagers in Balingian are still grappling with the health impact of living near an aluminium plant, at least two new larger smelters are expected to be built in Bintulu.

Press Metal Bhd secured a RM350 million loan in May 2012 from two local banks to finance the construction of its second aluminium smelting plant in Bintulu’s Samalaju Industrial Park. The plant is expected to produce 240,000 tonnes of aluminium annually, double the capacity of the existing Balingian plant.

Smelter Asia, a joint venture between Gulf International Investment Group Holdings Sdn Bhd and Aluminium Corp of China, also plans to build a smelter in the same industrial park, with an even larger annual capacity of 370,000 tonnes.

Aluminium smelting involves a chemical process to extract pure aluminium from its oxide called alumina. But the process leaves behind fluoride pollutants, including the pungent and toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

In addition, an aluminium smelting plant is an energy guzzler as a high temperature of 970 Celsius is needed to melt the alumina. For example, while the Mukah district consumes two megawatts of electricity per month, the Balingian smelter alone uses up to 200 megawatts a month, according to Press Metal Sarawak. Smelter Asia is also in talks with Sarawak Energy Bhd to secure over 600 megawatts of power supply.

Heed the warning signs

The process of extracting aluminium is an environmental challenge. Yet, aluminium is highly sought after to make vehicles and for food packaging, and is arguably a necessity in modern life. The aluminium industry is one of the primary forces behind the Brazilian government’s plan to dam rivers in the Amazon to meet the industry’s high energy demand. Sarawak seems to be going down the same path with its grand plan to build 12 mega dams despite growing local opposition.

Unlike the case with Lynas, a detailed environmental impact assessment was done for theBalingian smelter. But given the current complaints, the government authorities need to be more proactive in addressing villagers’ complaints on health problems, pollution and dying plants. These are merely warning signs of a potentially larger underlying problem. If, as Press Metal Sarawak claims, no air pollutants have been released by its smelting plant, then what is the real source of pollution in Balingian? Shouldn’t the authorities be investigating?

Taib Mahmud (Wiki commons)

As Chou recommended in his fact-finding report, a more thorough health study needs to be conducted to ascertain the cause of the villagers’ sicknesses. Rainwater and plant samples ought to be collected by the state Department of Environment to find out if they are contaminated with pollutants from the smelter.

The Balingian smelter is located Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s constituency. Surely he wouldn’t want an environmental and public health scandal in his own backyard.

In addition, the Sarawak government ought to rethink its development strategy. Building more smelters may indeed spur the state’s economic growth, but not at the expense of the health and quality of life of the locals, unless the companies are held to strict environmental standards.

Gan Pei Ling thinks more public attention needs to be given to the health and environmental impact of aluminium smelting plants in Sarawak. They certainly deserve equal, if not more, public scrutiny than Lynas.

Posted: September 18th, 2012
Categories: As If Earth Matters, The Nut Graph
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What’s wrong with a rare earth plant, here?

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 March 2012 © The Nut Graph

THE rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang is arguably now the hottest environmental issue in Peninsular Malaysia. And both the Malaysian government and Lynas Corp, the company that wants to set up the refinery in Pahang, are struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical Malaysian public that the rare earth refinery is safe.

On 20 March 2012, the Dewan Rakyat set up a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to soothe concerns about public health and safety arising from the radioactive waste that will be produced by the rare earth refinery. But Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers have boycotted the PSC while Lynas opponents, Himpunan Hijau, have decried the PSC as a public relations exercise. In a related development, on 20 March 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to explain what Lynas can do with the Temporary Operating License that it granted the Australian company on 30 Jan 2012.

Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally (© Gan Pei Ling)

As tempers rise over the issue, the debate may just boil down to an emotive one where fear and anger cloud reasonable and measured discussion and action about a public interest issue. Is it really such a terrifying thing to set up a rare earth refinery in Malaysia? And if it’s not, what could the government have done better to handle the public’s fear over exposure to radiation? And how can anti-Lynas groups remain true to public interest?

Safe if properly managed

Che Rosli Che Mat (source:

Regardless of whether or not they are familiar with environmental issues, most PR politicians have happily jumped on the growing anti-Lynas bandwagon except PAS lawmaker Dr Che Rosli Che Mat. The nuclear scientist and Hulu Langat parliamentarian says that a rare earth refinery can be safe as long as it is properly monitored.

Indeed, anti-Lynas groups claim that the plant will pollute the Kuantan coast and have warned that the refining process is toxic. But really the most contentious point about Lynas is its waste management plan and if the company can assure the public it has a fail-safe plan, can we still justify opposition to the plant?

The Lynas refinery is located in Gebeng, an industrial zone. Bearing in mind that most industrial zones such as Port Klang and Pasir Gudang are situated near the sea, I don’t see why Lynas shouldn’t be allowed to do the same as long as it treats its wastewater before releasing it.

Nevertheless, the government should have anticipated high public concerns over the plant’s safety and its effect on public health from the painful episodes of the Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah, Perak. It should have publicised the project before approving the refinery’s construction in 2008 and held public briefings to inform the surrounding communities about the plant. The government should have actively disseminated information instead of only releasing it when the public sought it.

In addition, it was also premature for the Pahang government to approve construction without first finding a suitable location for Lynas to store its low-level radioactive waste. Now works on the RM700 million plant are near complete but public opposition is growing by the day. And Lynas is fast becoming a powerful election issue that is likely to affect the Barisan Nasional’s performance.

To the government’s credit, it did invite experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) to inspect the Lynas refinery in June 2011. It also set up the PSC but all these measures have come too late to dispel the refinery opponents’ deep distrust of the authorities.

Viewing the damage at Unit 3 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (© G Webb | IAEA)

Why not in Malaysia?

From using social media, and organising forums and protests relentlessly, to travelling toAustralia to lobby foreign lawmakers, the awareness anti-Lynas groups have generated locally and internationally is phenomenal.

The Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally on 26 Feb 2012 in Kuantan attracted thousands of participants. The organisers have threatened to hold a larger protest to pressure the government to revokeLynas’s temporary operating license.

I admire their efforts to hold the government and a corporation accountable. Hence, I willingly attended the 26 Feb 2012 rally. But I’m afraid I don’t see eye-to-eye with the organisers’ aim to scrap the project entirely.

I agree that Lynas should not be allowed to operate until a permanent waste disposal site is found and the company sufficiently addresses the construction flaws alleged by former contractors. And that’s as far as I would go.

Picture of a phone with the caption "This product contains rare earth elements" (© Gan Pei Ling)

Let’s face it. Rare earth elements are increasingly being used in our consumer products including electronic screens, disk drives, MP3 players and hybrid cars. We need refineries to process the ore in order to manufacture these goods.

So far, the world has left the dirty job of refining rare earths to China. But what does it say about us if we oppose the Gebeng refinery but continue to buy and hence, sustain demand for, the end-products?

Compared to the Chinese, I think Malaysians are in a much better position to scrutinise the government and corporations. Some may argue that Australia is a much more advanced democracy with more stringent environmental regulations. But why can’t we pressure our own government to live up to the same, if not better, standards?

And while the refinery may only create a few hundred jobs for locals near Gebeng, downstream manufacturing companies would be able to source the rare earths directly from Pahang. Is that not an economic benefit to Malaysia?

Trust and credibility

From my observation, much of the opposition against Lynas is based on an irrational fear over radiation pollution from the low-level radioactive waste of thorium and uranium rather than informed opinions on the issue. And fear can be a powerful thing and hence, useful and easy to manipulate.

Some Lynas opponents have capitalised on this fear to gain support. For example, by telling a forum I attended last year that radiation knows no boundaries and that if there is a radiation leak in Gebeng, even people in Kuala Lumpur can be affected.

But where are the facts and context? How much radiation would the low-level radioactive waste from the Lynas plant generate? And how does it compare to the radiation we’re already exposed to in our daily life?

According to some experts, even the fear over the radiation at Fukushima, Japan is overblown. And it is that same fear that is being stoked in Gebeng. For certain, there are risks involved in any industrial activity, be it refining rare earths, processing aluminum or manufacturingfertilisers. The question is, how large are those risks to public health and aren’t there steps Lynas can be compelled to take to minimise them?

If we are to solve this impasse between the government, Lynas and the opponents of the project, all sides including the anti-Lynas groups, must be transparent. That means putting forward arguments that are reasonable, accurate and in-context. It also means not resorting to propaganda just because your opponent is doing that, too.

Gan Pei Ling thinks cultivating uninformed masses gives the government even more justification to act like a patronising Big Brother. She cautions against supporting any cause before learning the facts.

Related post: Lynas: What’s the fuss?

Posted: June 26th, 2012
Categories: As If Earth Matters, The Nut Graph
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Going nuclear: An option?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 February 2012 © Selangor Times

Regardless of public fears and concerns, when rather than if Malaysia goes nuclear seems to be already the case.

In May 2010, Malaysia had announced plans to build two 1GW nuclear power plants. Five potential sites were identified in Johor, Pahang and Terengganu.

But due to public opposition, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was careful to stress in June 2011 that nothing was set in stone and nuclear energy remains an “option” for the country.

Public fear has centred on the dire consequences of a potential nuclear meltdown in Malaysia such as the scale of Fukushima (2011), Chernobyl (1986) and Three Mile Island (1979).

The ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which started last March, had displaced thousands of people and is expected to cost the Japanese government up to US$257 billion (RM670billion) in clean-up and compensation costs.

Countries like Germany and Switzerland had since renounced nuclear energy and would gradually phase out their nuclear plants but major powers like China and India have merely deferred their plans to build new reactors.

Closer to home, Asean countries have been flirting with the idea to go nuclear since the 1960s. The Philippines was the first to build one in 1976 but the project turned into a white elephant after the plant was found to be constructed near major earthquake fault lines.

Tenaga Nasional Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Noh, during a forum at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, argued that nuclear energy was an attractive option.

Why nuclear?

Che Khalib said Peninsular Malaysia was currently highly reliant on fossil fuel sources, particularly local natural gas (45 percent) and imported coal (44 percent), to generate power.

He noted that the country consumed 15,475MW of power at its peak last year and the peak demand is projected to increase 60 percent to 24,770MW by 2030.

But our local gas fields are depleting, he said. TNB has not built any new gas plants since 2003.

Instead, it is expanding and commissioning more coal plants as we become increasingly reliant on coal imported from Australia, Indonesia and South Africa to produce power.

“Nuclear energy can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and (mitigate) global warming,” said Che Khalib, adding that the cost of importing coal would increase in future.

He appealed to the 200-odd audience to set aside their prejudices against nuclear power and re-evaluate the energy option objectively.

However, Indian anti-nuclear activist Praful Bidwai said it was a myth that nuclear power can help to resolve the climate crisis as scientists have warned that global carbon emission must start falling between 2015 and 2020.

“(Nuclear power) is too slow to deploy and too expensive. In comparison, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are safer, cheaper and can be deployed quickly,” said the author of The Politics of Climate Change and Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future.

But Che Khalib argued that the combination of solar, biomass, hydro and other renewable energy sources was insufficient to cater to Malaysia’s rising power demand as a developing country.

He said nuclear power should be part of the country’s energy mix: “Renewable energy sources have their limitations: solar farms require huge amount of land and the installation cost is high, the wind in our country isn’t as strong compared to European countries.

“We’ve also almost fully utilised the hydro potential in Peninsular Malaysia…(We need) nuclear plants to provide us base load power (continuous, non-fluctuating, energy supply),” he said.

Nuclear: Cheap or expensive?

The construction of the two nuclear plants, expected to cost RM21.3 billion, has been identified as one of the Entry Point Projects in Putrajaya’s Economic Transformation Programme.

Set up in January 2011, the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) has completed its preliminary feasibility study on nuclear power last July.

“(But) there is no final decision by the cabinet yet. The government will decide in 2013 or early 2014,” said MNPC chief executive officer Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar.

He said the government wanted to ensure public acceptance of the project.

In addition, Malaysia would have to ratify relevant international treaties, put in place national regulations as well as obtain approvals for the plant sites, including from the local communities.

If everything goes according to plan, the first of the twin units should be up and running in 2021.

Despite the costly capital expenditure, both Zamzam and Che Khalib claimed that nuclear energy was cheap in the long run compared to fossil fuels and renewable energy sources.

While we would have to import uranium, Zamzam said its price was low and has remained stable for the past decade.

However, Australian environmental expert Dr Mark Diesendorf dismissed the claim that nuclear power was cheap compared to renewable sources of energy

The University of New South Wales Institute of Environmental Studies deputy director pointed out the nuclear industry often played down its costs by assuming a low-interest rate loan, ignoring huge government subsidies and insurance costs.

“Without government subsidies, no country would have nuclear energy. It’s not financially viable in a free market,” he said.

Indian activist Bidwai also highlighted that the nuclear industry was notorious for cost overruns and construction delays.

A new generation reactor in Finland, which was supposed to be completed in 2009, has been delayed due to safety issues. Its original price tag of Euro 2.5 billion (RM100billion) is escalating by the year.

“When you factor in the decommissioning and waste storage costs, nuclear power’s capital costs become astronomical. The industry has only survived (over the past few decades) because of state support,” said Bidwai.

What about nuclear meltdown and radioactive waste?

Bidwai added that while the probability of nuclear accidents occurring was low, they are “inevitable” and its consequences catastrophic.

Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster before Fukushima, resulted in the death of 30 workers and fire fighters, and exposed thousands to radiation and cancer-related deaths.

Despite that, Che Khalib argued that Malaysia’s nuclear reactors will be safe and operated in adherence to stringent international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Describing the Fukushima nuclear disaster as an “act of God”, Che Khalib highlighted that nuclear reactors usually have several safety features to prevent catastrophic accidents.

“I’m not a nuclear expert…But I was told (by the experts) that in an aircraft, they’ve 3.5 times (of safety features), if one fails, another would kick in. For nuclear reactors, it’s up to seven times,” he said.

“If you don’t trust local engineers, then stop flying. Our aircrafts are maintained by Malaysian engineers,” he said in response to doubts raised by the audience on the country’s poor maintenance record.

Besides safety concerns of reactors is the contentious issue of disposal of radioactive waste generated from nuclear plants.

Even the TNB chief admitted that “there’s no solution yet to dispose of the waste (permanently)”.

Radioactive waste Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years would have to pass before the element becomes non-radioactive.

Scientists have yet to find a way to safely dispose of this waste that is likely to outlive human civilisations.

Most of the world’s nuclear waste, some 300,000 tonnes, are temporarily sealed and stored next to their reactors.

“Yes, we know there’s no solution yet, but we could contain the problem for the time being…in 100 years’ time, there could be a solution…at least we could defer the problem (now). That’s what we’re good at, anyway,” quipped Che Khalib.

His remark drew a cheeky response from Bidwai.

“Building a nuclear plant without (a permanent waste management plan) is like building a house without a toilet, hoping you’ll never need it,” said the founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in India.

Should Malaysia continue to press forward? Is it ethical for us to harness nuclear energy to fulfil our current needs and leave future generations to find a way to deal with our waste?

Like other countries mulling to go nuclear, these are the questions that need to be answered.

Related post: Renewable energy alternative

Posted: May 24th, 2012
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Who cares about green lungs?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 June 2013 © The Nut Graph

A fight to defend one of the last remaining green lungs in Istanbul sparked nationwide protests in Turkey recently. Despite that, the Turkish government has yet to reconsider its plan to turn Gezi Park into a shopping centre.

The same story occurs in most cities worldwide. When land becomes limited in urban areas, forests and parks are razed to make way for condominiums, malls and offices.

Looking at the Klang Valley, are we not losing our green spaces to commercial development as well? What are the benefits of retaining such spaces, and what can be done to preserve them?



Documented benefits

One of the reasons green spaces tend to be undervalued by town planners may be because scientists have not been able to prove its connection with our well-being until recently.

A study published in the Psychological Science journal in April 2013 found that city dwellers who live near green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Tracking 5,000 households over 17 years, researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School found that respondents living in greener areas reported “less mental distress and higher life satisfaction”. The positive impact is equivalent to about a third of the impact of being married and a tenth of the impact of being employed.

“These kinds of comparisons are important for policymakers when trying to decide how to invest scarce public resources, such as for park development or upkeep, and figuring out what bang they’ll get for their buck,” lead researcher Dr Mathew White said in a press release.

Another new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in March 2013 confirmed that taking a stroll through a park helps to ease brain fatigue far better than walking through shopping or commercial districts.

If those studies weren’t enough, older research has discovered that children with attention deficit problems tend to focus better after walks in a park. “The researchers found that ‘a dose of nature’ worked as well or better than a dose of medication on the child’s ability to concentrate,” The New York Times reported in its health blog in 2008.

Defending green spaces

Kota Damansara forest (Wiki commons)

Kota Damansara forest (Wiki commons)

A new government under the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in Selangor after 2008 saw the Kota Damansara forest and the Ayer Hitam forest in Puchong gazetted as permanent forest reserves in 2010. A plan to develop the Subang Ria Recreational Park – the only open space left in Subang Jaya – was also defeated in 2011.

However, the people of Selangor should not take it for granted that the PR government will always defend green spaces. In the dispute over the Kelana Jaya sports centre, the state administration chose to ignore the Petaling Jaya Local Plan Two, in which the field was classified as an open space. It has refused to direct its state subsidiary to scrap its redevelopment plan.

In our capital city, Kuala Lumpur City Hall has yet to gazette Bukit Kiara as a forest reserve. While the Petaling Jaya side of Bukit Gasing is protected, the Kuala Lumpur side of the forest has been making way for housing projects.

Bukit Gasing residents who protested against a hill slope development project over safety concerns lost their legal battle in October 2012. To add insult to injury, the Kuala Lumpur High Court on 2 May 2013 allowed the developer to seek damages from the residents.

Participatory local governance

It is heartening that there are still citizens who would speak up, join forces and campaign hard to preserve the shrinking forests and parks in the Klang Valley. However, I think citizens need to be more proactive. Get to know your local councillors, state and federal legislator. Ask them about your area’s local plan. Find out what development plans are in store that would affect your neighbourhood.

In other words, build a relationship with your local council’s officers and your elected representatives. Don’t scream at them only when you discover the playground facilities near your taman have been vandalised, or when another high-rise building is coming up in your already congested town centre.



Keep an eye out for public briefings or dialogues held by your local council on development projects that would affect your area. Attend the budget dialogues held by local governments under the PR. Ask them how much they are spending on parks and playgrounds.

Hold political parties accountable. Make sure they appoint development experts, lawyers, economists, environmental experts and NGO representatives as local councillors to provide sound advice to your local government.

For far too long, citizens have left the responsibility of town planning to local councils. What sort of development do you want for your area? How many green spaces do you think should be preserved? What other facilities does your area need?

If our citizens do not invest time and effort to organise themselves and engage with local councils, the policymakers will implement development plans according to what they think the people need and want. But by building an active, working relationship with local governments, the people can keep the politicians and civil servants on their toes. Their voices against controversial projects will also carry more weight in time.

Gan Pei Ling believes an idle citizenry in a democracy breeds authoritarianism and irresponsible governments.

The contest for Selangor

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 April 2013 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR is one of the hot states to watch in this general election. Both the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) hope to regain the country’s richest and most populous state.

Unlike Penang, Selangor has traditionally been a BN stronghold. In 2004, the BN won all of Selangor’s 22 parliamentary constituencies and 54 of the 56 state seats. But in a dramatic turn in 2008, PKR, DAP and PAS jointly secured 36 of the state seats.

Five years on, should the PR be given a second term to administer the state? How do the two coalitions’ manifestos and candidates compare with each other? And what are the likely election outcomes?

The PR’s record

Over the past five years, the first-term PR state administration in Selangor instituted open tenders, enforced the Freedom of Information Enactment, and carried out several legislative reforms to restore its state assembly’s independence.

In 2008, the young coalition appointed four women into its state executive council and made Haniza Talha the first female deputy speaker in Selangor. The state went on to create history and appointed women to lead the Kuala Selangor District Council in 2011 and Petaling Jaya City Council in 2012.

Under the PR, the state government has also tabled balanced budgets except for 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Past Auditor-General Reports have praised the state’s financial management record, which saw Selangor’s reserves hitting a historic high of RM2.6 billion in January 2013.

Under former Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, the administration also carried out several welfare initiatives. Aside from the better-known 20 cubic-metre free water programme, it was the first to moot and implement the idea of affordable housing for the state’s lower middle class.

It is hard to miss the striking similarities between the existing welfare programmes under Khalid’s administration and the promises made in the Selangor BN manifesto. Free water, affordable housing, cash incentives for newborns, free WiFi and free tuition for students are being promised to voters if they help the BN win back the state.

Khalid Ibrahim

The BN also says it would lower assessment taxes – and that’s about where the similarity ends. It remains silent on local government elections, which PR state governments have struggled to reinstate due to restrictons in the federal Local Government Act. Penang has since brought the federal government to court, while Selangor experimented with village chief elections in 2011.

It is also uncertain if the BN will carry on the practice of open tenders and legislative reforms kick-started by the PR. In contrast, the PR in Selangor have pledged to continue improving the state’s governance, including setting up an autonomous legislative service commission that will restore the state assembly’s financial independence.


The BN unveiled its list of candidates on 16 April 2013. It dropped tainted leaders such as former Menteri Besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo and Datuk Mohd Satim Diman, but five of its candidates have since been accused of possessing bogus degrees.

And while the PR’s candidate for menteri besar is quite likely Khalid again if he wins, things on the BN side aren’t so clear. Glomac Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Fateh Iskandar, a high-profile Umno politician who was initially speculated to be the menteri besar-in-waiting, is not competing in the elections. So who will become Selangor’s menteri besar if the BN is voted in? Selangor BN coordinator Datuk Seri Mohd Zin Mohamed told The Star that four candidates had been shortlisted but remained tight-lipped about their identities.

Political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat believes the BN’s lack of a clear menteri besar candidate will hamper its campaign in Selangor.

“Selangor is one the most urbanised states and voters’ expectations are higher. People will ask. The BN needs somebody who can clearly compete with Khalid,” he told The Nut Graph in an interview on 21 April 2013.

Najib’s influence

BN national chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak has appointed himself to lead the campaign in Selangor. But Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL) director Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Redzuan Othman thinks Najib’s influence could be limited.

Mohd Redzuan

According to the centre’s latest survey among 1,407 voters in peninsular Malaysia from 3 to 20 April 2013, Najib is only slightly more popular than PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The BN chief’s overall rating, at 54%, is only eight percentage points higher than Anwar’s 46%.

The study, which Mohd Redzuan presented to the press on 25 April 2013, also found the electorate’s general acceptance of the PR’s manifesto to be higher than BN’s manifesto.

Overall, the difference in support for both coalitions is only between three and five percentage points. Mohd Redzuan declined to reveal the exact figures but said both scored less than 50%. “It could swing both ways (on polling day),” he said.

The UMCEDEL survey did not focus separately on Selangor, but Mohd Redzuan told The Nut Graph that the state differed from other peninsular states with its high internet penetration rate. From previous surveys, the level of support for the PR has tended to be higher among voters who have access to the online media.

In 2008, most seats that fell to the PR were urban or semi-urban, while Umno retained most rural seats.


Wong predicts that the PR has a strong chance of retaining Selangor barring “massive” electoral fraud.

Assuming state-wide Malay Malaysian voters’ support at 35%, Chinese support at 80%, Indian and other ethnicities’ support at 40%, and a similar voter turnout rate as in 2008, Wong calculated that the PR should still be able to win 34 seats.

“That’s a very conservative estimate, taking into account the effect of Najib’s goodies including BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia),” he said. People in Selangor have benefited from Selangor PR’s welfare programmes as well, he added.

A more optimistic picture could see Malay support for the PR at 40%, and combined support from other ethnicities at 50%, thus enabling the PR to win more than 40 seats and secure a two-third majority in Selangor.

Still, some 25 state seats in Selangor are seeing three- to six-cornered fights with a flurry of independents and small parties in the fray. How will that affect the election outcome? Where former party members are contesting as independents, such as former Selangor DAP publicity secretary Jenice Lee and Sepang Umno Youth chief Datuk Suhaimi Mohd Ghazali, Wong said it would hinge on how far the political parties can pacify the disgruntled supporters.

“They may split vote for both sides,” he said. “It depends on the seats contested, but, in the bigger picture, I think they are not a threat (to the BN or PR).”

Posted: July 28th, 2013
Categories: Features, The Nut Graph
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Better deal for Malaysians?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 April 2013 © Selangor Times

MALAYSIANS are finally going to the polls on May 5 after intense speculation for more than a year.

BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged more cash handouts and development projects in a manifesto themed “Aku Janji” unveiled last Saturday.The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is going all out to regain the two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states it lost -in 2008.

Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which aims to unseat the half-a-century-old regime, promises lower petrol, water and electricity prices, to reform public institutions and wipe out corruption in its manifesto titled “Pakatan Harapan Rakyat” released earlier in February.

BN & PR manifestos' cover

The manifestos provide a gauge for our 13.27 million voters the direction BN and PR plan to take our country, particularly for some three million people who will be voting for the first time.

So how do the two coalitions size up against each other? Selangor Times speaks to independent analysts and academics to get their immediate thoughts.

Business-as-usual for BN

Merdeka Centrer for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks BN’s manifesto is an extension and report card of Najib’s attempted reforms.

“It has a lot of explanations about what the (incumbent) government has done and the future projects that they want to put in place,” he said in a phone interview.

Najib took over the premiership from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi exactly four years ago.

Notable reforms implemented during his administration include the abolition of the Internal Security Act, emergency laws and annual licence for newspapers.

He also set up the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) which introduced the “Government Transformation Programme (GTP)” and “Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)” in a bid to overhaul the bloated civil service and national economy.

Yet, Najib’s tenure has also been plagued by corruption scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation, submarine deals and most recently, native customary land grab in Sarawak.

Ibrahim pointed out that as the incumbent government, BN has found it difficult to tackle corruption, cut wastage in the public sector and address other systemic problems in the economy.

“They promised to carry out open tenders but this has not been done,” he noted.

As such, the BN manifesto focuses on giving more cash back for the public and infrastructure development such as building more roads, highways and schools.

In comparison, the independent pollster said PR offers more groundbreaking proposals to promote good governance.

The three-party alliance has vowed to restructure the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, restore its integrity by focusing on big corruption cases as well as reviewing anti-graft laws.

PR leaders have also agreed to abolish the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act after earning brickbats from critics for failing to include it in their manifesto.

Populist policies

However, Ibrahim and political economist Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez think that both manifestos are populist in nature.

While BN pledged to give more cash to low-income earners and increase subsidies, PR said it would lower fuel and utility tariffs, abolish the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and provide free tertiary education.

In addition, both coalitions have promised to raise government servants’ salary.

“They didn’t deal with the issue of how the government is going to pay for it,” said Gomez, an academic from Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration.

He said the country relies on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive economic growth but inadequate attention has been paid to economic reforms needed to spur the growth of SMEs.

To be fair, PR did mention it would set up a RM500 million innovation fund and divert government assistance from large industries to SMEs if it comes into federal power.

And BN has mentioned in its manifesto that it would implement a plan for the “transformation” of SMEs and set up a National Trading Company to promote SMEs’ products in overseas markets.

But Gomez hit out at Najib’s administration for failing to implement significant reforms under the much-touted New Economic Model, ETP and GTP.

“They have identified the problems in our government, economy, education and came out with recommendations.

“But they have had problems instituting the reforms over the past four years. Why should we assume that they will be able to keep their promises (in the manifesto)?” he said.

Responsible promises

Gomez acknowledged that increasing the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia for singles up to RM600 and households to RM1,200 is a highly effective way for BN to garner electorate support among t  e poor.

The cash handout will provide temporary relief to low-income groups.

“But is it sustainable? Will it solve the issue of poverty?” questioned the public intellectual.

He noted that Sabah, Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis remain the poorest states in the country.

And BN has failed to address the widening regional development gap despite being in government for 55 years.

Although a manifesto is a set of election promises to woo voters, it should still be based on sound policies that are feasible and sustainable.

BN & PR key promises

Gomez highlighted that both coalitions have pledged to build more affordable homes without dealing with the core problem of escalating construction cost and property speculation.

Meanwhile, PR also seems to be contradicting itself by vowing to improve public transportation, reduce traffic congestion yet slashing car and fuel prices at the same time.

With cheaper cars and travelling costs, the public will have little incentive to adopt public transport.

“It will likely congest our streets even more (and increase carbon emission). At an age where everyone is concerned about climate change, is it a wise move?” Gomez remarked.

A better Malaysia

Finally, providing quality public education is central to eradicating poverty and nurturing the human resources needed to steer Malaysia towards achieving developed status. But the declining standard of our education system has become a common complaint among parents, teachers and students.

Educationist Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon said the BN’s approach to education has been a failure.

“They talk about creating a world-class education system but I don’t see how they can achieve it,” Toh said in a phone interview.

The retired academic believes under PR, at least there is hope that greater emphasis will be placed on meritocracy in the recruitment and promotion of teachers.

“There’s also hope that there will be greater decentralisation, providing state education departments and district offices more flexibility in the implementation of education policies,” said the soft-spoken Toh.

He said decentralisation in decision-making in the government has helped to raise education standards in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

The former Gerakan politician added that PR is more forthcoming in its pledges to provide equal resources to schools from various language streams.

On top of that, the young coalition vowed to loosen the government’s stranglehold on our tertiary institutions and restore academic freedom by abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Overall, PR seems to offer a bolder manifesto to reform our government, economy and education.

But aside from the manifestos, the quality of candidates put forth by political parties will influence voters’ decision in the polls too.

Come May 5, whichever coalition makes it to Putrajaya, it is up to citizens to hold the political parties accountable to their election promises and ensure the new government implements responsible policies to develop the country.


Sidebar: What’s in it for the women and indigenous people?

WOMEN make up half the population in the country but local political parties have been slow to adopt policies to promote gender equality.

Both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) have pledged to increase women’s participation in decision-making roles in their manifestos.

But are they serious in removing obstacles that hinder female participation in politics and the economy?

In the 12rh General Election, only 23 women were elected to Parliament, making up slightly over a tenth of the 222 seats.

The statistics are even lower in state legislatures, where there were only 27 BN female lawmakers and 21 from PR out of the 576 state seats.

Women’s rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah thinks both coalitions should put forth more women candidates in the upcoming polls if they were committed to their pledge.

“We definitely need more women in Parliament and State Assemblies,” said the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) in an email interview.

She pointed out that both coalitions are more interested in giving out cash to married women in their manifestos.

Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.

“Both are weak in substantive empowerment due to the welfare approach. There’s nothing wrong in giving money but it’s a short-term measure,” said Maria.

The saving grace for BN, she said, is that the coalition claimed it would implement schemes to support women working from home.

“But what about men who choose to work from home? Why are they not encouraged?” questioned the activist.

She said the policy is based on a false, stereotypical assumption that only women work from home.

Furthermore, Maria took the BN regime to task for failing to implement significant gender reforms after 55 years in government.

“Women’s groups have been fighting for the recognition of other forms of rape in our laws such as marital rape and gang rape, the review of Syariah laws that discriminate against Muslim women, the implementation of sex education to reduce sexual violence against women,” she cited as examples.

She added that there has been little effort by the BN regime to address the increase of women affected by HIV and AIDS, human trafficking and review the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

Maria gave PR credit for addressing some of these issues in its Agenda for Women, which was launched separately last year.

It also promised to adopt gender budgeting, which is about breaking down government data to ensure public resources are allocated equally to both sexes.

“It will shift the burden of women’s welfare from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to the Health, Education, Transport and other ministries that also deal with women’s problems,” she explained.

Meanwhile, both BN and PR have promised to uphold the indigenous people’s native customary land rights (NCR).

However, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns director Dr Colin Nicholas said if BN was sincere, its federal and state governments should have withdrawn from court battles over land disputes with the indigenous people.

“Why make free promises now?” questioned the academic-turned-activist.

He highlighted that PR has vowed to gazette 141,000 hectares of Orang Asli land but he said that is less than 20% of their customary land.

“It’s not enough and it’s what the BN government recognises as well,” said Nicholas in a phone interview.

While the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government has tried to gazette Orang Asli reserve over the past five years, the Kelantan government has been embroiled in land disputes with the Orang Asli there.

“It’s very difficult to ask the Orang Asli there to vote for PAS,” he said.

Nicholas said both BN and PR should come forth and support the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement laws to comply with the it if the coalitions are truly for indigenous people.

Posted: July 12th, 2013
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Rumblings from Baram

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 March 2013 © Selangor Times

DURING a recent trip to Miri in January, my flight arrived at the same time as the Sarawak Chief Minister’s.

I watched from my economy seat as Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud stepped down from his jet plane, accompanied by his young Lebanese wife Puan Sri Raghad Kurdi Taib, on a red carpet.

Abdul Taib has ruled Sarawak for more than three decades as the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

He took over the reins of power from his uncle, the third Chief Minister Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yaa’kub, in 1981.

Under his rule, Sarawak, together with Johor and Sabah, is known as the fixed deposit for Barisan Nasional (BN).

At present, DAP only holds two out of 31 federal seats in Sarawak while PKR has none.

The political tsunami, which resulted in a change in five state governments in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008, did not reach Sarawak’s shores.

BN comfortably retained its two-third majority in the 2011 state elections, clinching 55 out of 71 seats.

In the upcoming national polls, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hopes to wrest a third of the parliamentary seats in Sarawak in their quest to oust BN from Putrajaya.

“We’re confident of winning 10 seats (in Sarawak),” said PKR’s Baram parliamentary candidate Roland Engan.

The indigenous lawyer hails from Long Jeeh, one of several Kenyah villages along the main river of Baram.

Apart from urban seats like Kuching, Sibu and Miri, PR is focusing on rural constituencies such as Baram where the indigenous people are increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling government due to land disputes and corruption.

Legendary valley

I had flown to Sarawak at my own expense to cover the indigenous people’s protest against the Baram hydroelectric dam, which will displace about 20,000 natives from their homes and flood 412 sq metres of rainforest.

PKR had initiated the long boat protest, backed by Save Sarawak Rivers Network.

The NGO was set up last year to oppose several mega dams the state government is building. Its chairperson, Peter Kallang, is also a Kenyah born and bred from Long Ikang, Baram.

The Baram valley is home to Malaysia’s second longest river and many legends.

The river runs strong and wide. It serves as the “highway” for the locals here.

The Baram River

Kenyah and Kayan villages can be found along the main river while Penan villages are scattered around its tributaries.

However, the vast Baram basin has been logged intensively since the 1980s.

Once translucent, the river has turned murky over the years due to soil erosion.

An independent candidate, Harrison Ngau Laing, had won the Baram parliamentary seat by capitalising on logging issues in 1990.

The Kayan lawyer has since joined PKR and is now the party’s Baram branch chief.

In the 2011 elections, he competed in Telang Usan, one of two state seats under Baram, and lost narrowly by 845 votes to PBB’s Dennis Ngau.

But in the neighbouring state seat of Marudi, PKR’s candidate was thrashed by BN, which won with a 3,202 majority.

The Baram parliamentary constituency has a total of 29,042 voters according to the Election Commission’s latest statistics in November 2012.

Engan, who helped Harrison campaign in 2011, hopes to ride on the people’s growing opposition against the Baram Dam to garner support in the upcoming polls.

PR has pledged to halt the construction of mega dams.

But would his strategy work? The villagers’ response to the long boat protest organised by PKR could serve as a gauge.

Rural protest

On Jan 16, the organisers met in Long San, a village about six hour drive from Miri, before travelling upstream to the furthest village reachable by boat – Lio Mato, which literally means Hundred Isles in Kenyah.

Twenty-six villages that will be directly affected by the dam were invited to join the long boat convoy travelling downstream from Lio Mato to Long Lama over a period of five days.

Engan, Kallang and local activists visited the villages one-by-one to mobilise the people and collect signatures.

At the first stop on Jan 17 at Long Tungan, some 40 villagers dressed in traditional costume warmly welcomed the convoy with drums. But the same could not be said about subsequent villages like Long Semiang and Long Selaan, where few villagers were around to receive the convoy.

Villagers at Long Tungan received the protest convoy warmly.

Most village chiefs, political appointees who receive RM450 monthly and other perks from the state, are still afraid to be associated with the opposition party and told their villagers to stay away.

Yet, a few village chiefs would openly declare their support for PKR as they pinch their hope on the party to scrap the hydropower project should it come into power.

“We have stayed here all our lives. God gave us this land. We have everything we need here. We don’t want to move,” Long Apu village head Tingang Use told the crowd when met on Jan 18.

Their villagers had lined up along the jetty to greet the protesting convoy.

At villages like Long Anap, Long San and Long Na’ah, the people disregarded their chiefs’ instruction and welcomed the convoy enthusiastically.

Shouts of “Ayen ti dam! Mangna dam! Amai manu dam!”, which means “Stop Baram Dam” in the Kenyah, Kayan and Penan language respectively, rang out as the convoy continued on its journey down the river.

Mobile and Internet coverage were non-existent until we reached Long Na’ah, the village closest to the proposed dam site.

The Kayan villagers had chased the dam surveyors away last year and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.

“We told them they are not welcome here and warned them not to come again,” said Enyie Eng, 67, a subsistence farmer who participated in the long boat protest.

At the end of the journey on Jan 20, over 40 long boats converged at Long Lama.

In addition, some 500 people were gathered at the town to listen to speeches by Engan and Alan Ling, the DAP assemblyperson who defeated former SUPP chief Tan Sri Dr George Chan to win the Piasau seat in Miri in 2011.

Ini kali lah?

Following the January protest, Abdul Taib flew to Long Lama last month and announced the establishment of a new township at Telang Usan.

The Chief Minister’s visit aimed to pacify rising opposition against the dam, apart from to shore up support for incumbent Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan ahead of elections.

Sagan, who is also the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industries, has held the seat since 1994.

But the indigenous people in Baram have lost hectares of their customary land to logging companies over the decades.

The hydropower project, which will force them out of their ancestral homes entirely, may just prove to be the last straw that will break the camel’s back.

Many villagers I met said they tune in to Radio Free Sarawak daily from 6pm to 8pm to listen to the only traditional media outlet that dares critique the Abdul Taib government openly in Sarawak.

The state had threatened to jam the British-based radio station in January as it is fast making inroads into rural areas.

Nevertheless, Sarawak is huge and with its one million voters scattered in remote villages, the task of stopping the radio station has not yet taken place.

Engan has had to dig into his own savings to campaign in the Baram parliamentary constituency, which is as big as Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia.

He said PKR allocates RM3,000 a month to the Baram branch but one trip to the interior could easily cost twice as much.

Despite the wealth of its natural resources, Sarawak’s infrastructure development lags far behind Peninsular Malaysia states.

It is also the third poorest state in Malaysia, after Sabah and Perlis.

A short documentary recently released by international human rights watchdog Global Witness laid bare the systemic corruption in the state and its grave implications.

Titled Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, the 16-minutes film exposed the instruments used by certain parties to evade taxes and profit from land deals at the expense of the natives, who were described as “squatters”.

However, PKR candidates will bring the film to longhouses and broadcast it before their ceramah, as Engan would screen documentaries on Bakun whenever the convoy stops over for the night at villages.

If PKR can bring this message to its targeted constituencies, the coalition may just win enough seats in Sarawak to help them throw BN out of Putrajaya in the upcoming elections.


Sidebar: Grand development plan

THE Baram Dam is but one of four mega hydroelectric dams that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020.

This is on top of the existing Batang Ai Dam, Bakun Dam, the largest outside China, and Murum Dam, expected to be completed this year.

The hydropower projects are part of the state government’s Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy plan, better known as SCORE, to produce cheap electricity to attract energy-intensive industries to the state.

The US$105 billion (RM318.5 billion) plan, which would generate nearly as much power as the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020”.

It is part of a grand development plan to grow the state’s economy by a factor of five, increase jobs and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.

However, the 2,400-megawatt Bakun Dam, located at the Rejang River, had already forced 10,000 indigenous people to be relocated in the 1990s.

The 944-megawatt Murum Dam, also located at the Rejang River, will displace another 1,500 natives from their homes.

Panai Erang, 55, is a Penan village chief who has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the Bakun people are relocated.

The community leader from Kampung Ba Abang, Baram was dismayed to find out that the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland.

Some of the Sungai Asap settlers have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

“All the Penans in Baram are against the dam. We want to remain in our ancestral land,” he said.

Stateless natives

Erang had travelled with the protesting long boat convoy organised by PKR from Jan 16 to Jan 20 for the entire journey.

From village to village, he would urge the Kenyah and Kayan to protest the dams with their votes.

“Many Penans can’t vote because we don’t have ICs, I hope the Kenyah and Kayan people can vote for PKR so that the dam can be cancelled,” he said.

Erang said more than half of his villagers do not have birth certificates nor MyKad and only five people from his village can vote at present.

The difficulty in securing a MyKad is a long-standing sore point among the indigenous people in Sarawak.

At least 40,000 indigenous people in the state are stateless, the deputy federal regional development minister Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun estimated in 2010.

A 27-year-old woman of Kenyah-Kayan descent from Long Pillah, Baram, told me she has travelled to Miri to apply for a MyKad last year but was asked to apply again.

“They want the village chief’s and school principal’s support letters and photos of my five siblings. But I have lost contact with them,” said the mother-of-four who declined to reveal her name.

Her siblings are either married to other villagers or working in towns like Bintulu and Kuching.

Without mobile coverage in her village and their addresses, she said she is practically left in a limbo.

Stateless indigenous youths like her are forced to remain in the village to work as caretakers or farmers.

Those who went to work in urban areas risk being arrested by the police.

Life is likely to get tougher for them if the dams are built.

Without a MyKad, it will be difficult for them to look for jobs in towns and cities.

Posted: June 22nd, 2013
Categories: Features, Selangor Times
Tags: , , , ,
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PR Manifesto: Sustainable?

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 March 2013 © The Nut Graph

THE Pakatan Rakyat (PR) released its manifesto amid much fanfare at its national convention on 25 February 2013. The coalition promises to raise Malaysian household incomes to at least RM4,000 a month, increase the minimum wage to RM1,100 and create one million jobs should it come into power.

On the environmental front, the federal opposition pledges to halt the Lynas rare earth refinery’s operations in Gebeng, Pahang, review a multibillion petrochemical project in Pengerang, Johor, and the mega dams in Sarawak. It targets to reduce traffic congestion in the Klang Valley and other major cities by 50% during its first term via investments in public transport. Furthermore, it says it will reform existing logging laws and activities.

Granted, the manifesto is an improvement from Buku Jingga, the common policy platform the PR unveiled in 2010, which neglected the environment and indigenous rights entirely. But it remains lacking in many areas. What else does the PR need to consider to demonstrate they are able to plan for the future and provide sustainable development if voted into power?

Food security

The PR laid out several measures to reform our economy but completely ignored the agriculture sector in its manifesto. This is problematic as Malaysia has become a net importer of food. The country spent some RM221.8 billion on food imports in the past decade.

We have chosen to specialise in cash crops such as oil palm and rubber at the expense of food crops, according to Professor Dr Fatimah Mohd Arshad from Universiti Putra Malaysia. Nearly 84% of our agricultural land is used for export crops, with oil palm taking the lion’s share of 63.4% in 2005, she pointed out in an article, Global Food Prices: Implication for Food Security in Malaysia, co-written with Anna Awad Abdel Hameed.

Prof Dr Fatimah (Source:

Meanwhile, federal allocation for agriculture plunged from 17% of the annual budget in 1990 to 5.8% in 2005, Fatimah and Anna Awad highlighted in their piece published in the Journal of Consumer Research and Resource Centre in 2009. And while the federal government dished out generous cash subsidies to paddy farmers, it left other food sectors out in the cold to develop with minimal support.

With supermarkets easily available around town, living in the city creates an illusion that food supply remains abundant. But the rate of global population growth has long surpassed the rate of agricultural production, Fatimah and Anna Awad noted.  Global food prices will continue to rise as an unpredictable climate further reduces crop yields. Low-income households, who spend the bulk of their income on food, are the most vulnerable to food price hikes.

What will the PR do to reform our agricultural sector and feed Malaysia’s growing population, which is approaching 30 million people, with nutritious, affordable food? What steps will it take to encourage organic farming and sustainable fishing practices? How much will it invest in agricultural research and development? These are just some of the questions the PR needs to deal with.

Renewable energy

Another important sector neglected by the PR in its manifesto is the power industry. Aside from a pledge to scrap independent power producers’ gas subsidies and divert it to lower electricity tariffs, the coalition makes no further mention of the energy sector.

Despite it being a necessity in modern life, some Malaysians, particularly indigenous people and communities living in remote areas, still do not have access to electricity. What will the PR to do ensure every citizen enjoys reliable, affordable power supply?

Datuk Seri Peter Chin (Source:

Malaysia is expected to become a net oil importer in two years, according to current Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin. Our country relies largely on gas and coal for power. An overdependence on fossil fuel has resulted in renewable energy sources taking a back seat, the minister conceded in 2012.

In the face of depleting local gas resources, what will the PR do to ensure Malaysia’s energy supply? Will it import more coal? Will it consider nuclear as an option? How much will it invest in renewable energy sources such as solar, biomass or other options?

In addition, the level of Malaysia’s energy consumption versus productivity remains low compared to countries like Singapore and Japan. What innovative measures will the PR implement to cut wastage?

Meaningful public participation

The PR also needs to assure the public that it will hold genuine public consultations before approving major projects. Decades of local governments approving “development” projects without taking into account the existing capacity of roads, drains and other infrastructure has resulted in traffic congestion and flash floods becoming the norm. Coupled with the lack of green spaces, the quality of life in most cities is deteriorating.

Proper public consultation and provision of information will help towards gauging the potential environmental and social impact of a proposed project. It is thus surprising that the PR’s manifesto is silent on the abolition of the Official Secrets Act and the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some PR politicians said the manifesto should be read together with the Buku Jingga, which does mention freedom of information. But wasn’t the manifesto built on the Buku Jingga? How is it that the FOIA was excluded?

Comprehensive government

There are many other environmental issues a PR federal government will have to face. For instance, whether controversial projects already in operations, such as the gold mine in Raub and aluminium smelter in Sarawak, will be reviewed; and what to do about the increasing occurrence of flash floods and how to work with our regional neighbours to avoid the yearly haze.

The aluminium smelting plant in Mukah, Sarawak (Source:

The young coalition has been commended by economists for advocating for a clean government. And some may feel that if the PR can implement what’s in their manifesto, it will already be an improvement from the existing Barisan Nasional government. But responsible governance is not just about outdoing your predecessor. It is about governing comprehensively, and thinking long-term. This encompasses what we will eat and how we power our homes.

Should it come into power in the upcoming elections, the PR needs to address these elephants in the room if it is serious about delivering the best to Malaysians.

There are about 100 Green Parties worldwide. Gan Pei Ling recommends that the PR look into their manifestos for bold ideas and inspirations to improve their own.