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.”
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.
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
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by Gan Pei Ling / 27 Dec 2014 © Focus Malaysia
Can my company still send hampers to customers during festive seasons? What about treating a potential client to a free dinner or spa to secure a business deal? What sort of gifts could be considered a bribe to solicit or retain business?
These are just some of the questions an upcoming amendment to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Act 2009 will soon throw up, especially for companies without an explicit anti-corruption policy.
On Dec 9, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low had announced that the Corporate Liability Provision is expected to be tabled in Parliament in March. The provision allows the MACC and Attorney-General’s Chambers to investigate and prosecute not just staff accused of giving or accepting a bribe but also the company’s top executives for their failure to implement measures to prevent bribery.
The Performance and Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) says the draft amendment is not publicly available yet as the government is still finalising it.
However, Pemandu senior manager Lokman Affandy Yahya tells FocusM the Corporate Liability Provision is modelled after the UK’s Bribery Act. As such, companies’ management can safeguard themselves against legal liability as long as they have put in place adequate anti-corruption measures.
In other words, Malaysian companies would have to put in place corporate integrity system, which would include a clear gift policy, whistleblowing procedure and staff training, among others.
The Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS) is one of the companies that began implementing a corporate integrity system in 2012.
The Selangor investment arm estimates it has saved more than RM400 mil over four years since it began practising an open tender system and prohibits direct negotiation.
PKNS integrity manager S Normalis Abdul Samad says the savings were calculated based on the Public Works Department estimation of project cost minus the price quotations of contractors that won the tenders.
“We need to get the best prices, the best value for money without compromising on quality. We’re very stringent now,” Normalis tells FocusM in a phone interview.
She adds that the state-owned company practises a no-gift policy.
“If a contractor sends a hamper to us, we will write a thank you letter but politely ask it to not do so anymore in future. We want to send out a clear signal that if you want to do business with PKNS, there is no need to give tips or hampers,” Normalis explains.
Transparency International Malaysia’s (TIM) consultancy TI BIP Malaysia Sdn Bhd director Mark Lovatt, who worked with PKNS to set up a corporate integrity system, says other government-linked companies such as Telekom Malaysia and Tenaga Nasional Bhd have also begun implementing such a system on their own.
“Telekom Malaysia, for example, no longer allows its staff to accept hampers. The first year it did not decline but directed the hampers to be collected on a stage at its lobby and sent to charity homes,” he says.
The next year, few contractors sent hampers to Telekom’s headquarters as they found out that the hampers would not reach their intended recipients.
Apart from state-linked companies, some private businesses have also started implementing clear integrity policies and procedures to deter corruption.
Home-grown printer Thumbprints United Sdn Bhd chairperson Tam Wah Fiong tells FocusM that 16 years ago, his company spent over RM100,000 in entertainment cost annually to secure business deals.
Now Tam, an executive committee member of TIM, strictly prohibits his staff from bribing authorities. In addition, his company spends only about RM5,000 in entertainment cost per year, yet his business has grown four-fold since then, recording a revenue of RM36 mil last year.
When asked if he lost businesses when his company cut down its entertainment cost, Tam admits he did lose some clients but gained new ones.
“We gained access to the export market, the US and Europe. Reducing entertainment cost means our company competes strictly on price and the quality of our product and service. It forces us to be more competitive internationally,” says Tam.
He adds that bribery among businesses creates an unhealthy culture where companies splurge on lavish dinners, karaoke sessions or spas to “entertain” potential clients to secure business deals.
“[Bribery] inflates the cost of doing business, and allows uncompetitive businesses to get away with providing sub-quality services or products,” Tam notes.
Tam adds that employers need to consider the implications of condoning bribery on their businesses: “If I can bribe my customers, won’t my vendors and suppliers try to do the same with my staff too?”
KPMG Malaysia Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Survey 2013 reported that 71% of respondents believed bribery and corruption was an inevitable cost of doing business.
However, if Malaysia wants to become a technologically-advanced and globally-competitive economy like Germany and the US, Tam believes local companies need to think long term and focus on improving their product or service quality, rather than relying on bribes to stay in business.
While enacting the Corporate Liability Provision is unlikely to completely wipe out corruption, it would perhaps send out the right signal that Malaysian top executives are increasingly intolerant of bribery and anti-competitive behaviour in business.
Posted: March 27th, 2015
Categories: Focus Malaysia
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by Gan Pei Ling / 12 December 2014 © Focus Malaysia
Wisma Rehda received GBI-certified status in March
It’s increasingly common for developers to market their commercial or residential properties as “green” by stating their green building certification rating on advertisements.
But what do these ratings mean to potential buyers? And what happens when developers fail to deliver on property with “green” elements as advertised?
A check by FocusM with Green Building Index (GBI) Sdn Bhd reveals developers are free to advertise their GBI rating as soon as their projects have secured provisional certification.
However, the catch is there is no guarantee a property will be able to maintain its provisional rating after having gone through a completion and verification assessment (CVA) to receive the full award valid for three years.
Indeed, GBI general manager Herman Teo confirms there are cases in which “developers have dropped the rating [after the] CVA” though he declined to specify the number of such incidences.
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by Gan Pei Ling / 29 July 2013 © The Nut Graph
IT’S been more than two years since The New York Times first broke the story on the construction of the Lynas rare earth refinery in Malaysia. Groups like Himpunan Hijau and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas have since organised several rallies and even taken the government and company to court. In response to public uproar, the Malaysian government invited international experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011 and set up a parliamentary select committee in 2012 to review the plant.
(© cumi&ciki | Flickr)
After many road bumps, Lynas Corp finally secured a temporary operating license and began operations in November 2012. The company is also monitoring radioactivity levels at Gebeng which it periodically publicises.
However, there are still many questions about what will happen to the low-level radioactive waste that the plant produces. How will the hazardous by-products of a rare earth refinery be dealt with? And how are the government and anti-Lynas groups responding to these developments?
Recycle? Ship abroad?
Lynas Corp is confident that it can recycle the low-level radioactive residue into commercial products. The company intends to dilute its radioactive water leach purification residue into road base material and recycle its neutralisation underflow residue into fertilisers.
But as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an 11 Dec 2012 report, such technology has yet to be tested. Additionally, it remains to be seen whether Lynas can find buyers to make its recycling proposal commercially viable.
The Atomic Energy Licensing Board and the Department of Environment are also still reviewing the recycling proposal. And even if the proposal is approved, Science, Technology and Innovation Deputy Minister Datuk Dr Abu Bakar Mohamad Diah told Parliament on 19 July 2013 that “these products must leave the country”.
In other words, Lynas must find international buyers for its recycled products. And should the recycling plan fail, the waste must be shipped abroad. But where to?
Australia is unlikely to take back the waste. And one wonders which other country would willingly import such waste and risk its citizen’s ire? At this stage, I think we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario where the waste is stored locally.
Indeed, on 2 July 2013, the Australian company submitted its plan for a permanent disposal facility. However, Dr Abu Bakar has declared that Lynas has no plans to permanently store the waste in Malaysia but that international procedures require the building of a permanent disposal facility. In the meantime, ministers have refused to disclose the plan and the potential locations for such a facility, likely fearing more protests from communities in any of these locations.
The Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr Ewon Ebin said on 5 July 2013 that the government could not reveal identified locations as it was “not finalised”. Six days later, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili was reported to have said the government need not disclose the plan since Lynas might be able to recycle the waste.
What is apparent is that there is no guarantee Lynas will be able to recycle the waste or to ship it out. Indeed, it’s clear that no matter what our political leaders say publicly, the company in consultation with the government seems to have prepared a contingency plan for the waste to be stored in Malaysia permanently.
(© existangst | Flickr)
Learning from past mistakes
It appears that the government has yet to learn from its past mistakes. The Lynas controversy stemmed from the government’s foolish move to approve the construction of the rare earth refinery without public consultation. Most Malaysians were only aware of the plant after the The New York Times report. If the government wants to restore public confidence, it must be transparent in all its future dealings with Lynas and the public.
Even if the final location of the permanent disposal facility has yet to be determined, the government must guarantee that it will consult the relevant state governments and local communities before a location is finalised. The government must assure local communities that they will be treated and included as legitimate stakeholders when the time comes. This is especially so since there are real fears that the community’s livelihood and environment could be affected by a permanent disposal facility in their midst.
Compared to the government, Lynas Corp seems to be doing a better public relations job. On 10 July 2013, it dropped the defamation suit against Save Malaysia Stop Lynas. Apart from that, it’s clear Lynas has a business to run. Hence, it must manage its relationship with stakeholders carefully if it’s to continue running its business.
(© existangst | Flickr)
To keep public attention on Lynas, Himpunan Hijau is running a campaign to collect one million Malaysian signatures to shut down the plant. The petition will start on 24 Aug 2013 and the signatures will be presented to among others, Parliament and the financial institutions that back Lynas. Himpunan Hijau chairperson Wong Tack has also announced that the coalition might take to the streets again in October.
Meanwhile, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas lead campaigner Tan Bun Teet has vowed to continue its international campaign against Lynas. The group has also mobilised local residents to file for judicial reviews in an attempt to revoke Lynas’s temporary operating license. Clearly, the parliamentary select committee and the approval of international experts has not been sufficient to convince skeptics of Lynas’s safety.
What needs to happen next? The government needs to be honest with the public. How feasible is Lynas’s recycling plan? Should it fail, is it really possible for Lynas to ship the waste abroad? If no, will Lynas store the waste locally? Or will it close down the plant after the temporary operating license expires in September 2014?
These are legitimate questions that the public deserve answers to. Will they be forthcoming? Past experience suggests the answer will be “No”. And if past experience is anything to go by, then the government will have to brace itself for more protests and bad press over Lynas.
Gan Pei Ling is going abroad to pursue a one-year master’s degree on the environment. She hopes the government will sort out Lynas’s waste management plan before she returns in September 2014.
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?
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)
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.