Going solar and renewable

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 April 2011 © The Nut Graph

Have you ever wanted to install solar panels at your home, but couldn’t afford the capital cost? Once the Renewable Energy Act comes into force, this dream could become a reality.

Passed by the Dewan Rakyat on 4 April 2011, the Act will allow individuals to sell electricity produced from renewable sources like solar photovoltaic at a higher rate than traditional power producers to Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB).

This incentive is expected to boost renewable energy industries and its current electricity generation share in the country from under one percent to 11% by 2020. But how will this work? Where will the funds come from? And will home-owning Malaysians be willing to be part of the new system?


Following the footsteps of pioneering country Germany and our neighbours Thailand and the Philippines, Malaysia will be implementing the feed-in-tariff (FIT) system.

Solar panels (© Raebo | Wiki Commons)

Electricity produced from four types of sources — solar panels, small hydro, biogas and biomass — will benefit from the FIT mechanism under the Renewable Energy Act.

Among these four, residential homes would benefit most from solar photovoltaic as a renewable energy source.

The other three sources — small hydro, biogas and biomass, would be more suitable for implementation by businesses as the capital expenditure could amount to millions. The table below demonstrates the different costs involved in setting up the different sources.

Solar PV Small Hydro Biomass Biogas
Installed capacity 6kW 10MW 10MW 4MW
Expenditure RM90,000 RM90mil RM90mil RM40mil

Source: Adopted from Malaysia Building Integrated Photovoltaic Technology Application Project leader Ahmad Hadri Haris’s March 2011 presentation


Going solar at home

Breaking down the numbers: How your 4kW system will pay for itself in around 15 years.

A normal household would usually need about 4kW capacity worth of solar panels, which would cost around RM72,000 to install. That’s about the price of a brand new Toyota Vios.

Too expensive to go green? Think again. Your Toyota Vios’s commercial value will be depreciating at a rate of about 10% a year, but not the income that you would be receiving from installing solar panels on your roof.

Under the FIT system, TNB will sign a 21-year agreement with households and pay at least RM1.49 per kWh electricity generated. Assuming production of 400kWh per month, this would amount to a payout of RM596 per month.

If a household’s electricity bill is RM200 a month, there would still be a steady monthly income of RM396 for the next 21 years, which could be used to repay the loan taken to install the solar panels. The 4kW system would pay for itself and start turning a profit within 15 years.

It is also worth highlighting that one will get paid more under the FIT mechanism if locally-manufactured or assembly solar inverters or photovoltaic modules are used, and/or used as part of building materials.

Granted, the scheme doesn’t bring about huge profits all at once, but I think most middle-class families would now be able to afford to install solar panels should they wish to.

However, it should also be noted that there will be an annual degression rate of 8% for the solar photovoltaic system. In other words, the later one joins the FIT scheme, the lower the FIT rate one will receive. This is based on the assumption that the cost of solar panels would go down once more people adopt it.

The degression rate will be reviewed every three years by the soon-to-be-established Sustainable Energy Development Authority to ensure the rates remain reasonable.

Making renewable energy commercially-viable

Residential homes aside, commercial renewable energy producers are the ones who are set to benefit the most from the FIT mechanism and who seem most excited about the new scheme.

Prior to the Act, TNB paid the same rate of RM0.21per kWh for energy whether or not it was produced from environmentally-friendly resources or from fossil fuel.

Under the FIT scheme, biogas and biomass electricity producers will finally be rewarded for their pioneering efforts and get paid at least 28% more than fossil fuel producers, as shown in the table below.

Biogas Basic FIT rate (RM) Biomass Basic FIT rate (RM)
Up to 4MW 0.32 Up to 10MW 0.31
Up to 10MW 0.30 Up to 20MW 0.29
Up to 30MW 0.28 Up to 30MW 0.27

Source: Renewable Energy Bill

They will be signing a 16-year contract with TNB and enjoy the same competitive rates throughout the period.

In addition, those who use locally-manufactured or assembled gas engine or gastification technology will enjoy a bonus of one sen on top of their basic FIT rate.

Biogas electricity producers who use landfill or sewage gas as a fuel source will further enjoy a bonus of eight sen. Biomass players will enjoy an additional 10 sen for using municipal solid waste as their fuel source.

Already, a 26ha renewable energy park is being built on a remediated landfill in Pajam, Nilai, which would consist of a 2MW biogas plant and 8MW solar power facility, and is expected to generate RM12mil gross national income in 2020.

Meanwhile, small hydro producers enjoy less incentive at RM0.23 to RM0.24 per kWh but their contract with TNB will last for 21 years under the FIT mechanism.

Renewable Energy Fund

The government or TNB will not be forking out its own money to pay the higher FIT rates. The funds will come from consumers. There will be a one percent hike in the current electricity tariff, expected in 2012, the revenue of which will be used to finance the Renewable Energy Fund needed to finance the FIT scheme.

In other words, if your electricity bill is RM200, you will be paying an additional RM2 and that amount will go into the Renewable Energy Fund.

However, the FIT mechanism is not meant to last forever.

It is expected that the cost of producing renewable energy will eventually be cheaper than electricity currently produced by fossil fuel producers. This is also given the fact that current energy prices do not reflect the true cost of production due to subsidies for natural gas and the government-controlled electricity tariff.  Once the cost of renewable energy drops below fossil fuel energy, the Renewable Energy Fund will cease to exist.

At that point, TNB would be able to directly purchase power from renewable energy producers as it would be cheaper than electricity produced from fossil fuel like gas and coal.

(© Indymedia | Wiki Commons)

In the meantime, for the FIT mechanism to be implemented successfully, the government will need to widely publicise the new scheme to home owners and commercial producers and for many to participate in it. Only then will Malaysia be able to increase its renewable energy production to meet and hopefully, surpass its target of 11% by 2020. If Malaysia can push its renewable energy industries forward and make them cost-effective, not only would we be reducing our reliance on fossil fuel and carbon emission, we could even drop the idea of going nuclear, too.

Gan Pei Ling is looking forward to installing solar panels in her own home.

Greater transparency with Selangor’s sunshine law

by Gan Pei Ling / 15 April 2011 © Selangor Times

Selangor made history when it became the first state in Malaysia to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Enactment at its state assembly on April 1.

The state now joins more than 90 countries, including our neighbours Thailand and Indonesia, with an FOI law that recognises citizens’ right to information.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has hailed the passing of this law as a “breakthrough” amid an entrenched culture of secrecy among our government bodies backed by the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

Compared to its original draft tabled last July that was heavily criticised by civil societies, the FOI Enactment passed last Friday has seen several improvements.

Greater transparency and accountability

Firstly, civil servants can now be fined up to RM50,000 or sentenced to five years’ jail, or both, if they are convicted of intentionally giving false or misleading information.

It is also considered an offence if civil servants intentionally restrict or deny public access to information, unless that information is specifically exempted under the law. Civil servants were not liable to such a penalty in the original draft of the FOI Bill.

Secondly, the FOI Enactment now covers not only state departments, but local councils and all state-owned or state-controlled bodies as well.

Thirdly, the Appeals Board has been replaced by a more independent State Information Board to review appeals from applicants whose requests for information have been rejected.

Under the law, the State Information Board must be led by former legal practitioners and independent members not holding any political office or position in any political party.

CIJ also pointed out other improvements in the law, such as a narrower list of exemptions and a 20-year time limit for keeping exempted information confidential.

In addition, information officers and civil servants who disclose information in good faith are protected from prosecution, sanctions and suits.

Impact on general public

When asked by Selangor Times how the FOI Enactment would benefit the people, CIJ executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah said the law had far-reaching impacts in very practical ways.

“If there’s a landslide and the state sets up a committee to inquire into it, under the FOI Enactment, one could argue that the public should have access to reports about the proceedings, including statements recorded from those who testify.

“In other words, we don’t have to wait for the Menteri Besar to declassify it,” said Masjaliza.

“If the playground near your house is in a bad state, you can ask the local council for the amount spent on maintenance and find out who built it.

“Of course, all these are just scenarios; the law will need to be tested,” she said.

FOI select committee chairperson Saari Sungib (Hulu Kelang) had told Selangor Times previously that the state expects tremendous requests for information at local councils and land offices once the law is enforced.

One can anticipate concerned residents requesting information on the state and local councils’ expenditure, tenders awarded and land transactions, to name just a few.

Despite that, it should be noted that filing an application and pursuing it would still take time and energy.

Limitations of the FOI Enactment

Nevertheless, Selangor’s FOI Enactment has certain limitations.

Information classified as official secrets under the OSA is beyond the state law’s jurisdiction.

Individuals’ private information or trade secrets obtained by the state in confidence, as well as information that would “severely jeopardise” the state’s policy implementation or development, can also be kept confidential.

However, such information can be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest or if it is for the investigation of an offence or misconduct.

Besides that, a good FOI law should keep the application fees low, but this was not stated in the enactment.

“Costs should be kept low. Otherwise, it can become an administrative obstacle that denies the public affordable access to information,” CIJ pointed out in its April 1 statement.

CIJ also highlighted that the enactment did not specify the appointment process of the State Information Board.

“This must be an open and transparent process where the public can nominate candidates and the shortlist is published. This will strengthen the independence of the board,” CIJ added.

The law also does not mandate the periodic publication of information to make information more accessible to the public.

“Routine publication will help to reduce the administrative burden on information officers and increase transparency across all public bodies,” said CIJ in response to the shortcomings in the law.

The state’s FOI taskforce chief, Elizabeth Wong, said the FOI Enactment is a “dynamic, living legislation” and the legislature can improve the enactment from time to time.

“This is only the beginning of our journey to introduce a culture of openness and transparency in public administration,” said Wong.

Related post: Freedom of Information FAQ

Freedom of Information FAQ

Compiled by Gan Pei Ling / 15 April 2011 © Selangor Times

What is Freedom of Information (FOI) and why do we need laws to ensure it?

As tax- and ratepayers, the public has a right to know how governments use and manage public funds. FOI laws empower the public with access to information, and allow inspection of files and scrutiny of government administration.

In other words, a good FOI law helps promote transparency, accountability and reduce graft.

Does Malaysia has a FOI law?

We do not have a FOI law at the national level, but Selangor passed the FOI Enactment in its state assembly on April 1. It is the first state to do so.

Following Selangor’s footsteps, Penang also tabled its FOI bill in November 2010, but the draft has came under fire from civil societies as lacking in substance.

The Selangor FOI bill also came under severe criticism when it was first tabled in July 2010. However, the legislature appointed a select committee to consult civil societies and civil servants to improve the bill.

An amended version was tabled on March 28 and passed without objection on April 1.

When will Selangor’s FOI Enactment come into force?

Elizabeth Wong, who is leading the Selangor’s FOI taskforce, said it would take around six months for the state to enforce the law.

She said they would need to appoint and train information officers in all relevant bodies to handle information applications, draft the application forms, and set up a fee structure.

Selangor also needs to set up the State Information Board, which would review appeals from applicants whose request for information has been rejected.

Wong, who is also the executive councillor on tourism, consumer affairs and environment, estimated that Selangor would need to allocate RM1 million to enforce the FOI law.

Who will give me information? Is there a fee?

An information officer will be trained and appointed in each department to handle public requests for information. The information officer is required to respond in writing to your application within 30 days from the date of acknowledgement of the application.

Illiterate or people with disabilities may make a verbal request to the information officer, who will then make a written application on behalf of the applicant and provide a copy of it to the applicant.

The fee structure has yet to be ironed out by the state.

What is covered under Selangor’s FOI Enactment?

Once the FOI law comes into force, you can request for information from any state department, local council, or any entity owned or fully controlled by the Selangor government. For example, you can request for information on the state and local councils’ expenditure, tenders awarded, and land transactions.

However, information classified under the federal Official Secrets Act, individuals’ private information, and trade secrets obtained by the state in confidence are exempted under the FOI enactment.

Secrets from states or international organisations may also be kept confidential if its disclosure would affect Selangor’s relations with other states or international organisations.

The information officer may also refuse to disclose information that is likely to severely affect Selangor’s development.

Despite that, information must be provided if there is an overriding public interest that outweighs the risks stated above.

The information officer may also allow access to exempted information if it is required for the investigation of an offence or misconduct.

However, all exemptions lapse after 20 years.

What if my application is rejected, or if I’m not satisfied with the information provided?

You can appeal to the State Information Board, made up of former legal practitioners and independent members, within 21 days after you receive the notice from the information officer.

FOI Enactment (Selangor)

Related post: Greater transparency with Selangor sunshine law

Taking on the MRT

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 March 2011 © The Nut Graph

Click image to view larger version (source:kvmrt.com.my)

Touted as the new “backbone” of public transport in Klang Valley, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) has been the talk of the town since its first line of its overall scheme was revealed on 13 Feb 2011.

An estimated 51km long, the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line will have 35 proposed stations. Total construction cost will only be known in May, Parliament was told on 15 March. But Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) CEO Nur Ismail Kamal has said it could reach RM50bil.

While most people have expressed support for the MRT, those whose lands would be acquired for the rail line are understandably worried and upset. Just as disturbing is the lack of information about the total MRT master plan. Without this, can the public really make an informed assessment about the project, especially for those who stand to lose their properties to make way for the rail line?

Troublemakers or legitimate victims?

“Jika saya tak kena, saya [akan] support [project ini] juga,” a civil servant whose home in Cheras would have to make way for the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line, told me during a MRT briefing in Kajang on 10 March.

Part of his land has already been taken for the Cheras-Kajang Expressway. This time, his entire family will be displaced by the rail line once the alignment is confirmed. The 55 year-old government servant did not want to openly oppose a government project and so declined to be named.

“Put yourself in their shoes. Those who aren’t [directly] affected are of course happy to support the project, but we can’t be that selfish,” Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) residents’ association Hatim Abdullah said in a phone interview.

TTDI, Taman Suntex and Kampung Batu 10 Cheras are some of the “critical areas” that would be affected by land acquisition, according to the detailed environmental impact assessment released on 14 Feb.

But residents from Kampung Sungai Balak, Kajang are probably the most unlucky. The shrinking Malay reserve land is going to be affected by land acquisition for the third time in a little over a decade.

Silk highway (© diablo | Wiki Commons)

They have had to give up some of their land for the Cheras-Kajang Expressway in 2000, the Silk highway six years later, and now for the 25ha MRT depot.

It is uncertain yet how many people in total would be displaced by the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line as the railway’s alignment has yet to be finalised.

Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the planners are trying to minimise land acquisition and cost by building the MRT line mostly along roads and highways utilising existing road reserve lands.

It is also commendable that the government agency supervising the MRT project, SPAD, has been organising dialogues with residents to brief them about the project and to collect feedback.

Lack of information

Despite that, there are still complaints from members of the public that they lack access to information.

As public display of the project plan at the local councils is only available during office hours, those working have to take time off to view it. In addition, the information officers in charge of the public displays are generally not available during lunch time, when most working people would choose to visit.

There are also niggling doubts among those to be affected by land acquisition of their properties, that the government would listen to their feedback and adopt their suggestions for alternative routes.

This is because while the railway’s alignment has yet to be fixed, it has been announced that open tender is expected to be called in April. Land acquisition is scheduled to take place in May and June, and construction starting in July.

Since the public consultation period only ends on May 14, isn’t it too soon to call for open tender in April, acquire land by June, and start construction in July? All this smacks of a rushed job and begs an explanation.

The rush to begin the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line is puzzling to say the least, more so when the 20-year master plan for Greater Kuala Lumpur / Klang Valley public transportation system is only expected to be ready by this September. Why can’t the entire plan be revealed for public feedback before rushing to begin just one rail line?

Holistic planning needed

With declining public transportation usage from 34% in 1985 to a low 18% in 2009, I understand the urgent need to revamp our public transportation system. Indeed, as a “greenie”, nothing is more exciting that seeing a comprehensive transportation plan that would drastically reduce the number of cars on the road.

An LRT station (© two hundred percent | Wiki Commons)

However, we all know that the MRT itself is insufficient to boost public transportation system in the Klang Valley. It needs to be integrated with buses, taxis, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and KTM commuter system.

Really, until that 20-year master plan is unveiled, the public would not be able to scrutinise the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line effectively. Especially since the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line is only the first MRT line, and the public has little idea about how the second and third line would look like and where it would run.

Meanwhile, the least we could do is to make sure that the voices of those affected by land acquisitions are heard and their concerns taken into account.

And when the final alignment of the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line is revealed in May or June, hold the government accountable to see if they have included the workable alternative routes suggested by these communities.

Gan Pei Ling would support any public transportation plan, with the conditions that they are planned properly and executed with care to ensure minimal disruption to the people’s lives during and after construction.

Forests in Selangor under threat

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

THERE was much cause for celebration when Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman announced on 16 Feb 2011 that the plan to build a 30 megawatt coal plant in the state’s pristine east coast had been scrapped.

Instead, the government is now considering gas and other cleaner energy options like biomass. Activists, particularly those from environmental coalition Green Surf, ought to be commended for their tireless campaign, since 2007, against the proposed coal plant.

Postcard protesting the coal plant (© Postcards to PM)

I wish the same were happening for the forests in Selangor. The state has been delaying its decision on a proposal to convert the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest to an oil palm plantation. Additionally, the federal government has been turning a deaf ear to civil societies’ opposition against the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road.

Indecisive Selangor

It was in late 2010 that the Selangor Agriculture Development Corporation proposed to develop the 7,000ha Kuala Langat South forest reserve into oil palm estate. The clearing of the forest could potentially generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Map of Selangor State Park, with permission from Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES).

It is troubling that the Pakatan Rakyat-led state did not reject the proposal immediately. After all, it announced that it would impose a 25-year moratorium on logging when it came into power in 2008.

To the Selangor government’s credit, however, it did commission an audit in December 2010 to assess the forest’s biodiversity value. In addition, it has engaged environmental non-governmental organisations as well as government agencies in its biodiversity audit.

The audit report was expected to be presented to the state in January 2011 but it was postponed to early February. To date, the Selangor government has yet to make an official announcement on the matter.

When asked by reporters recently if a decision was made at the Selangor Economic Action Council’s meeting, executive councillor Elizabeth Wong, who is in charge of the environment portfolio, skirted the issue.

Granted, commissioning an audit to assess a forest’s biodiversity value before clearing it for plantation or other development purposes would be unimaginable under previous state administrations. But the state’s current indecision on the Kuala Langat South forest reserve also seriously raises doubt about whether the state might revoke the status of other forest reserves when there is further pressure for development.

It should be noted that the Kuala Langat South forest reserve can be deemed as the most important peat swamp left in southern Selangor as almost all others have been lost to development.

Putrajaya’s silence

Another lingering threat to Selangor’s forest reserves is the KL Outer Ring Road which would cut through the ecologically-fragile Selangor State Park.

A federal government project, the highway is being proposed to ease traffic congestion on the Middle Ring Road Two. Construction near the Kanching Forest Reserve has already begun but the road alignment that would slice through the Selangor State Park has yet to be confirmed.

Photo of Klang Gates Dam at dawn in 2010 (by Gan Pei Ling)

Gazetted in 2005, the 108,300ha park is an important water catchment area for the Klang Gates Dam and Ampang Intake. Ironically, Putrajaya and Selangor have been wrestling over the construction of the Langat 2 plant to source water from Pahang to avoid potential “water shortage” in the state. Yet, little attention has been given to the highway’s potential impact on Selangor’s water supply.

To date, the federal government has yet to respond to civil societies’ objections against the KL Outer Ring Road.  The Selangor government has said it is not within its power to scrap the highway.

An election issue?

Compared to the proposed coal plant in Sabah, which has been going on for a few years and also attracted international attention, the threats to the Kuala Langat South forest reserve and the Selangor State Park have received much less media attention.

However, if there are some lessons to be learnt from the anti-coal activists, it’s that with persistence and a persuasive campaign strategy, governments may be compelled to listen to civil society after all.

In the end, the people are the boss in a democracy and if the government-of-the-day wants to be re-elected, it had better learn to listen to the people — not just wealthy developers, but environmental groups and concerned citizens, too.

Growing up in the Klang Valley, Gan Pei Ling didn’t know until recently that around 30% of land in Selangor is still forest reserves. She hopes most, if not all, of these reserves will still be around in 2050. Would that be too much to ask?

“Thorough-bred Malaysian”

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

Edmund Bon is a Reformasi-generation lawyer-turned-human-rights-activist. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

Lawyer. Activist. Trainer. LoyarburokkerEdmund Bon wears many hats in his quest to champion human rights.

Bon is currently the Bar Council’s constitutional law committee chairperson. This is the committee that, since 2009, has been running the MyConstitution campaign to popularise the federal constitution among Malaysians. Bon and his contemporaries — Amer Hamzah Arshad, K Shanmuga, Fahri Azzat, Sharmila Sekaran and Edward Saw — also started the LoyarBurok blawg in 2006 which highlights legal issues of public interest. They published their first book, Perak: A State of Crisis, in 2010.

Bon says their next plan is to create a rakyat centre, also called the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, in Bangsar: “We want to have a laman bersantai where people can use the place for free, lepak there, hold events, start and create a culture of discourse.” Their main aim is to mainstream human rights, especially among young people.

In this 19 Dec 2010 interview in Kuala Lumpur, which had to be updated in January 2011 after Bon found out more about his ancestry from his parents, Bon shares stories from his past and future hopes for the country.

TNGWhere and when were you born?

Edmund Bon: I was born in Kuala Lumpur (KL) on 6 June 1974.

Where did you grow up? Are there any childhood stories that you remember till today?

I grew up in Ulu Kelang, near the zoo, then Ampang. I had a boring life then…[but] when I was two or three, a nanny from another house put something like 10 liddy sticks into my ear and injured it.

You can remember this even though you were so young?

My parents had to send me to the hospital and they keep repeating the story.

We’re all pendatang. Can you trace your ancestry?

Bon (second row, first left) in Form 2 at Methodist Boys’ School, KL. (Pic courtesy of Roshan Thiran)

On my father’s side, my grandfather came from Wen Chang City in Hainan, China. He died before I was born but my father told me he came to Malaya in the 1910s.  My grandmother was from Canton and she was his second wife. They had three boys. My father was the second son. He was born during World War II.

When my grandfather went to register my father’s birth at the police pondok in Seremban, there must have been some miscommunication and the constable wrote his surname as “Bon”. Actually a closer English pronunciation of my Chinese surname, which means cloud, should be “Yun” or “Woon”.

All my father’s siblings had different spellings for their surname.

During the Japanese occupation, my grandfather sent my father and his elder brother back to China to be exposed to life in the village and to acquire some Chinese education. But life in the initial years of the communist liberation in China was chaotic. So my grandfather brought them back to Malaya in 1954.

My father became a teacher before joining the Human Resources Ministry as a labour officer. He later left the civil service to join a multi-national petroleum company. He met my mother during a gathering in a friend’s house in the early 70s.

Bon (third from left) and the LoyarBurok futsal team. (Pic courtesy of Seira Sacha)

My mother was born in 1946 in Taiping. She was a music teacher in government schools until she set up a music school in KL. I used to follow her to the private studio and learnt the piano there. My mother was also the principal of Maryvale Good Shepherd kindergarten. Her parents were both teachers.

My grandfather was the first male to be appointed as a headmaster in a girls’ school – Zainal Girls’ School in Kota Baru. He was also very active in sports and one of the rugby pioneers in the country. His mother was a Hokkien Nyonya from northern Penang. She worked very hard, by selling Nyonya kuih, to support his education through to Singapore’s Raffles College.

As for my grandmother’s father, he came from Kwang Tung, China to Penang when he was 16. He had a shoe business and used to travel far and wide on an old bicycle to get business from the Europeans in the estates, sometimes up to 60 to 70 miles on alternate days.

Regardless of my ancestry, I am a thorough-bred Malaysian and have allegiance only to the country of my birth – Malaysia.

What about school? How was it?

I went to Methodist Boys’ School in KL, for primary and secondary [education].

I was a prefect, a boy scout and a member of groups like the Tennis Club, Christian Fellowship and Literature & Dramatic Club, so I was quite with the establishment.

After PMR, I wanted to do arts. I didn’t like science, but my parents didn’t let me.

During Form Four and Five, I became more anti-establishment. We had a very strict headmaster. I remember he was fierce and caned those with long hair and I also got it.

Were you aware about the concept of race then?

Bon celebrating his birthday as a one-year-old between his father (left) and mother. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

I was aware but it wasn’t something I cared about. One of my best friends since Standard Two is this guy called Roshan Thiran – he’s the CEO of Leaderonomics. But we had many Malay [Malaysian] friends, too.

It didn’t matter, as long as we had the same interests.

So you were in science stream. How did you end up becoming a lawyer?

Oh, that was by accident. I didn’t plan to become a lawyer.

During my childhood, the Indiana Jones movies were very popular. Being young and impressionable, I wanted to be an archaeologist. And then when I saw [fire fighters] put out fires, I wanted to be a [fire fighter], too.

And when I was young, my nanny used to tell me I should never become a lawyer because “Lawyers always cheat and lie for money.” We used to call her Ah Che. I was very taken in by her repeated statements so it never crossed my mind [to become a lawyer].

It was not until I did A-Levels that I decided to do law. I was offered a scholarship to do A-Levels at Bellerby’s College in Brighton, UK after SPM. Not knowing what I wanted to study in university, I took economics, English literature and law. Law was the easiest and most interesting subject to me, and many of my college friends were going to do it in university, so I read law, and vowed to prove [my nanny’s impression of lawyers] wrong.

After I became a lawyer I explained to Ah Che and she understood. Her words still ring in my ears every time I get tempted.

Were there any particular events that jolted you to become more socially and politically aware in England?

The education system there changed me. I remember my dad used to ask me to raise my hand and ask at least one question in class each day in school in Malaysia. I was usually shot down. But it was different in the UK. We were encouraged to think, speak up, and ask questions, including stupid ones.

Another major influence was the subjects I read in law. At that time I read a lot about the European Convention on Human Rights, and there was the European Court of Human Rights where governments could be sued for human rights abuses.

We learned about the court cases and the judges were very pro-human rights. It made me very excited about human rights law and I thought it was the same in Malaysia. I didn’t know anything about (Tun) Salleh Abas or the 1988 judicial crisis. I only found out when I came back.

When did you come back? What happened after that?

1997. I have told this story many times already. During Reformasi in 1998/1999, many people were arrested in the street demonstrations. (M) Puravalen, Ragunath (Kesavan), and (R) Sivarasa were leaders at the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre in KL and they asked for help to defend the demonstrators. So that’s where I started.

My employer Chooi Mun Sou encouraged us and still does.

Bon’s maternal side of the family. His sister is seated in between their grandparents. Bon is standing far left in red with his mother sitting next to him and his father standing behind. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

Later, I followed Sivarasa and Christopher Leong, a partner in the law firm I’m with, to Kamunting, for the habeas corpus application of the Reformasi activists detained under the ISA (Internal Security Act).

I was assigned to record Hishammuddin Rais and Tian Chua’s stories. That’s where all the sensitisation about human rights activism really started. Then people like Amer, Shanmuga, Fahri, Edward, Latheefa Koya and I started to move together. There were others from this Reformasi generation of lawyers, too.

If it weren’t for the Reformasi period, people like us would not be doing what we are doing now. If you ask me why am I still doing what I do? It’s because I still believe that there are many human rights problems but with the correct people and strategy we can change things for the better. And it’s fun!

Are there any family stories that stuck with you?

When I just started work, my dad used to tell me about how pervasive the NEP (New Economic Policy) was in Malaysia, including in the multi-national petroleum company he worked in.

Once, his American boss recommended him for a promotion but his department overruled the decision because the post was reserved for Malay [Malaysians]. So my dad was not promoted.

What are the changes you hope to see in Malaysia in future?

I think we should get rid of our obsession with race. We are all Malaysians. Political parties should be based on political ideology, not race.

Bon (left) conducting one of the sessions at a MyConsti workshop at Kolej Yayasan UEM in 2010. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

The current political landscape in Malaysia is extremely polarised. You are either for Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. It has turned into a zero-sum game. More attention is being paid to the parties or political personalities than issues. We may see more racial and religious rhetoric being raised at the next general election at the expense of real issues. Many people don’t realise you can be political, but need not be politically partisan.

I want to see a government that really listens and acts to uphold the rights of every Malaysian particularly those who have been marginalised.

[Also], our education system needs to be run by experts and not politicians. We are not able to compete with the rest of the world.

I would like those who are elected to be scrutinised more on their performance, conduct and pledges. A new social movement combining all the major civil society groups should lead this initiative.

The youth should be mobilised and empowered as part of the “voter bank” to demand and sustain good practices for future elections. A sustained campaign for a number of years will surely lead to positive changes in the way politicians handle elections.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.