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?

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.

Sources:
FOI Enactment (Selangor)
www.cijmalaysia.org
www.righttoinformation.org

Related post: Greater transparency with Selangor sunshine law

Let’s talk about sex, please

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 July 2010 © The Nut Graph

(Chalkboard image by ilco / sxc.hu)

(Chalkboard image by ilco / sxc.hu)

TO its credit, the government is trying to introduce sex education in schools. From mid-2009 till end of 2011, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Education Ministry are implementing a pilot project targeting 16- and 17-year-olds in five schools.

“The ministry hopes to use the outcome from the project to advocate for the inclusion of social and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools,” Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil tells The Nut Graph. Indeed, with increased reports of baby dumping and teenage pregnancies, having sex education is clearly an imperative.

The pilot project is called I’m In Control, and Shahrizat explains that the module educates teenagers on how to identify and avoid high-risk situations, including assertive techniques to avoid premarital sex.

If the government is eventually successful in implementing sex education in schools, how should a comprehensive sex education look like? Additionally, what obstacles stand in the way of sex education?

Sexual beings

P.S. The Children‘s training and education director Nooreen Preusser says that everyone, regardless of their age, is a sexual being. “Even babies are curious about their bodies and play with their genitals; it’s a healthy curiosity,” she says in a phone interview with The Nut Graph.

Hence, she argues, sex and sexuality education should begin from pre-school, in an age-appropriate way.

Preusser (Courtesy of Nooreen Preusser)

“We could start by teaching children the correct names of their private body parts as we teach them the names of their other body parts,” she says, adding that that this signals there is no shame or mystery associated with private body parts.

Preusser says that in Germany, eight- and nine-year-olds are taught the basic facts about heterosexual sex and conception.

“The children are not shocked as it is done in an appropriate and matter-of-fact way,” she says, stressing that children also need to be taught to differentiate between a safe and unsafe touch.

Preusser adds that in countries like Finland and Netherlands, where sex education starts at pre-school, the rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies and teenagers infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are much lower.

Access to information

Malaysian youths are also not helped by their alarmingly low awareness about contraception, according to a survey released in 2009. Additionally, contraception is not offered by the public health sector to unmarried people, Low Wah Yun from Universiti Malaya‘s Faculty of Medicine points out in a 2009 research paper.

Youths only have access to contraceptive services by private and non-governmental organisations. However, low awareness on the availability of such services and social stigma prevent most youth from accessing these services.

(Pic by zts / Dreamstime)

“Teenagers have the right to accurate sexual and reproductive health information so that they can make responsible and informed sexual choices,” says Wong Li Leng from the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM).

She says her association promotes abstinence, but “we have to accept the reality that some teenagers are engaging in premarital sex, and they need to have information to protect themselves and their partners from HIV/AIDS, STIs, unplanned pregnancies, etc.”

Teaching equality

Activist and writer Marina Mahathir says gender is a key component that should be included in sex education.

“We have to educate teenagers about negative gender stereotypes; for example, how boys are expected to be macho all the time and girls are expected to be submissive in relationships under social norms,” the 3R executive producer says. The TV programme 3R tackles issues on sexuality and women’s rights.

Wong agrees with Marina: “[W]ithout knowing the assumptions made to boys and girls, and recognising how gender stereotyping affects their choices and relationships in their lives, teenagers will not be able to apply the skills [in negotiating sexual relationships] in their daily lives.”

Wong adds that in FRHAM’s module, they also educate adolescents on their rights and values, and what to do when their rights are violated. “[F]or example, if they are sexually harassed or abused, we educate them on why it happens, what to do, and where to go.”

Wong (Pic courtesy of Cheah Shu Yi)

“We [also] explore issues on peer pressure, and the techniques of saying ‘no’,” Wong tells The Nut Graph.

Marina adds that topics such as dating, commitment in a relationship, as well as the existence of different sexualities should also be discussed in sex education.

In Singapore, sex education starts from upper primary till pre-university level. However, homosexuality is only covered in one lesson in lower secondary school, and students are taught that homosexual acts are illegal. People with other sexualities such as transgender, asexual and intersex are not mentioned in the curriculum at all.

“We can’t pretend that people with different sexualities don’t exist. It only serves to elevate discrimination against them. We need to create more safe spaces for people to talk about these issues,” says Marina.

Wong says FRHAM does provide information on other sexualities in their module.

Political will

If Malaysian youth are to be empowered to make informed and responsible choices on their sexual and reproductive health behaviour, then having comprehensive sex education would help. However, the government’s attempt to introduce sex education, also known as social and reproductive health education or sexuality education, in schools is not new.

In 2005, the Education Ministry announced it planned to introduce sex education to curb sexual crimes, internet pornography, and premarital sex. The government also considered including sex education in the National Service programme in 2008. There have not been any updates on either initiative.

Shahrizat (File pic)

Shahrizat says many parents worry because they misconceive sex education as teaching young people how to have sex, while teachers say they are not prepared to take on the subject.

“[P]arents worry [this] will lead to early sexual experimentation and promiscuity.

“However, findings of studies carried out by countries that have implemented sex education such as Sweden, Norway and Netherlands have shown that sex education for young people leads to a delay in sexual initiation, promotes abstinence, and prevents STIs and unwanted pregnancies,” Shahrizat says.