The contest for Selangor

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

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

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

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

The PR’s record

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

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

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

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

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

Khalid Ibrahim

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

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

Candidates

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

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

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

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

Najib’s influence

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

Mohd Redzuan

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

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

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

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

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

Forecast

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.

BN & PR manifestos' cover

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

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

Business-as-usual for BN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Populist policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsible promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

BN & PR key promises

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

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

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

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

A better Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumblings from Baram

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 March 2013 © Selangor Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legendary valley

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

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

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

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

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

The Baram River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PR has pledged to halt the construction of mega dams.

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

Rural protest

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

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

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

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

Villagers at Long Tungan received the protest convoy warmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ini kali lah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Sidebar: Grand development plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stateless natives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megadam Project Galvanizes Native Opposition in Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erang

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

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

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

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

Energy and Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going nuclear: An option?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 February 2012 © Selangor Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why nuclear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear: Cheap or expensive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about nuclear meltdown and radioactive waste?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His remark drew a cheeky response from Bidwai.

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

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

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

Related post: Renewable energy alternative

Renewable energy alternative

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 February 2012 © Selangor Times

Malaysia has been slow to adopt renewable energy options  compared to regional counterparts Thailand and the Philippines.

Putrajaya only implemented the feed-in-tariff system last December in a bid to boost the renewable energy industries in Malaysia.

Pioneered in  Germany, the feed-in tariff scheme allows individuals and companies to sell energy produced from renewable sources such as solar photovoltaic, biogas, biomass and mini-hydro at a higher rate to Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB).

Currently, renewable energy sources contribute less than one per cent to our energy mix, with only 62.3MW capacity in 2010.

Malaysia targets to increase renewable energy sources’ contribution to 5.5 per cent in 2015, 11 per cent in 2020 and 25 per cent by 2050.

However by 2050, advanced countries like Denmark and Germany are aiming to source energy mostly, if not entirely, from renewable sources.

A recent report published in international journal Energy Policy claimed that the world can achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 if proper measures are taken.

Australian environmental expert Dr Mark Diesendorf, speaking at a public forum in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, pointed out that Malaysia has huge potential to develop renewable energy.

“You receive more sunlight than Germany (where solar photovoltaic contributes to 3.5 per cent of its electricity production),” observed the associate professor and deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of New South Wales.

He said Malaysia should hire independent energy experts to conduct a comprehensive study on the country’s renewable energy potential.

TNB chief executive officer Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Noh had told the 200-odd audience earlier that renewable energy options have limitations in Malaysia.

He cited cloud cover and high capital costs for solar energy, sparse location of palm oil mills for biomass, high installation cost for biogas, and remote locations for mini-hydro.

In addition, the energy supply from these sources fluctuates. Therefore, nuclear power is needed to produce stable and constant base-load electricity.

New way of thinking

But Indian activist and author Praful Bidwai argues that the world needs to move away from the model of a centralised electricity production system.

“We need a much more flexible, de-centralised power production system that can adapt according to changing demand,” said Bidwai.

He added that it was more efficient to install independent solar panels or micro-hydro system to supply electricity to remote areas, compared to connecting them to the national grid to receive power produced miles away at a power plant.

His remark was echoed by Diesendorf, who described the concept of base-load power plants as “redundant”.

He said a combination of renewable energy sources can be used to meet electricity demand by the hour, with higher production during the day and lower production at night.

In addition, Diesendorf highlighted that Malaysia could explore its geothermal potential if it wants a base-load power provider to support its renewable energy systems.

Meanwhile, Dr Feroz Kabir Kazi from the University of Nottingham Malaysia also highlighted our country’s biomass potential via his case study.

Our country produces around 18 million tonnes of palm oil per year and oil palm plantations cover 15 per cent of our land – 4.7 million hectares. The empty fruit bunches, tree fronds, trunks, fibres and shell can be burned to generate power.

His 10MW case study showed that biomass is profitable in the long-term with the introduction of the feed-in tariff system.

“Demo projects are essential. Renewable energy has a bright future in Malaysia and its growth provides opportunities for local employment,” said the Associate Professor from the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Department.

Finally, Diesendorf also commented that Malaysia should strengthen its electricity conservation and energy efficiency programmes.

With the use of efficient electrical appliance and mindful consumption habit, Malaysians can reduce our demand for electricity.

TNB’s Che Khalib noted that Malaysians usually take their electricity for granted as it is still subsidised and cheap, for now, but the country must find a way to stabilise power demand as the cost of power production is likely to rise in future.

Related post: Going nuclear: An option?