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.
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.
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.
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).”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.