Sustainability: How to refashion Malaysia’s future?
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Sustainability: How to refashion Malaysia’s future?

December 26, 2019


First I’ll start with three misconceptions
about sustainability. I’ll tell you what they are in a minute. Second, because Salma has mentioned, you have
shared the outline of the book, I will say a couple of words about the book itself, and
I will then move straight into some of the recommendations at the end of the book, embedded
in chapter 9, which is ‘Powering the shift’. Misconception number 1: Sustainability is mainly about the environment. Hence, it is only remotely relevant to other
public policy issues such as growth, trade, employment, well-being and justice. So, people in the mainstream… I worked for a think tank, a public policy
and security, international affairs think tank for five years, and we have a section
on environment, technology, innovation and sustainability, but we are seen mainly, in
the security language, as a non-traditional security sector – it’s not mainstream,
but it is getting traction in the last few years. But in other countries, sustainability is
no longer an environmental policy. It has moved, it has also embraced energy
policy, pension policy, welfare policy, etc, etc. So, it’s just here that we are still struggling
with something very fundamental. Why, because we see sustainability mainly
as an environmental problem because this is a classical way of looking at environmental
issue. This is a photo of Tasik Chini. Around 2011, 2010, it was the only UNESCO
Biosphere Reserve, but somehow the state government gave the licence to a company from China to
mine the iron ore because the price of iron ore spiked up that year. And we can see here, this is what I call legal
but lethal. It is legal because the forest is under state
land and you can see that it is only ten metres from the water body perhaps. It is only natural to think along this way
because we are here in the tropics and we are a biodiversity hotspot. If you look at some of the earliest colonial
records, in the 1800, 90% or about that of Peninsular Malaysia was covered by forests. But over the years, the latest one we have
gone down to about 44.4 % and that’s why I think this issue of green, forest issue,
biodiversity issue won’t go away and we will continue to look at this forest or green
issue as an environment issue. And what is this methodology, was it Shakespeare
who said ‘there’s method in this madness’? The way how these issues are framed is that,
first there will be an analysis of the environmental issue and then we will try, civil society
will sort of drum up the issue, and then raise awareness and mobilise actions and there will
be perhaps three or four possibilities of how things will turn out eventually: whether
development will be stopped, and then it will follow eco-principles, which is something
desirable. Or it will be business as usual, government
or powers-that-be can just ignore civil societies’ comment. Or there will be a tactical decision on the
part of powers-that-be, okay we are doing some studies now, we will look into this,
but once people forget about the issue, then it’s gone. So, this is one of the strategies of the first
generation of environmental movement which has been very successful in establishing laws
and regulations all over the world. But as we move towards sustainability as a
new public policy goal, while this is still important, we need to think about a lot more
than that. Even in the green issue, like you saw just
now, in Tasik Chini, there is a strong social justice issue as well. So, it’s not just an environmental issue. An environmental issue can also be a social
justice issue as well. And in sustainability, at least in the literature,
we can see that there are at least four components of sustainability. First, of course, there is nature protection
and ecological services. Secondly, equally important, is controlling
pollution and waste because of the process of industrialisation. And then resource depletion and degradation
and of course society as I mentioned just now. This is Makcik Seripah from Tasik Chini. At the time, around 2012 and we did a little
booklet on Tasik Chini, A Lake at the Edge of Ecological Collapse. She was 70 years old and she was very articulate
in saying that, ‘We are trapped. We turn left, we face palm oil plantations,
we turn right, we see logging. Behind us we see iron ore mines. And facing the lake, we can see that it is
dying.’ And this brings us to the definition of sustainable
development, which is very much often quoted by almost everyone. The Brundtland definition: development that
meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs. I mean, this is very well known. But, deeper than that is that the sustainability
model … we are only at the stage of bringing together all different knowledge or scholarship
and areas of work together and we are hoping that sustainability can become a model, an
alternative model to neo-liberal economic development. So, it seeks to reconcile ecological, social,
economic and also environmental dimensions nationally. I mentioned about social justice, the idea
of limits is very central to the sustainability issue. And in the first chapter of this book, I have
presented this sort of framework, to think about how you draw a distinction between environment
and sustainable development, or environment and sustainability. So, there is environment on this side and
sustainable development on the right hand side. So, we all know, from the 1960s and 70s, there
have been streams of numerous policies and legislation to control pollution and to establish
national parks or wildlife parks, that have been established all over the world. Malaysia was one of those frontrunner countries
in developing countries, because we came out with our pollution control act in 1974, the
EQA, the Environmental Quality Act. So, from 1960s to 1980s, the mainstream concept,
there are four listed there. Conserving the environment was the mainstream
idea about the environment and we are still at that ‘environment’ mode. Whereas when we move towards late 1980s, then
this is a time when we begin to graduate into looking at environment with development. Or merging environment development became
the main concept and you had international landmark reports, like ‘Our Common Future’,
and then we had the Rio Summit in 1992, and then the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, so it began
to be discussed at a strategic level internationally, and some countries began to translate that
onto national the policy landscape. And then, next came the next mainstream concept
which is combating climate change. And the IPCC – the intergovernmental panel
on climate change – the fourth assessment report was very instrumental in launching
the idea that climate change is by then recognised as anthropogenic in its origin, it’s caused
by human activities, and that has put a lot of attention, or pushed for global attention
on climate change in many countries, including Malaysia. And then in 2009, while we were having fun
with climate change internationally, we were hit by financial crisis. But then, it was sort of ingrained in the
heads of policy community internationally that we can’t ignore climate change. It’s too big to be ignored. But at the same time, how do you deal with
this flowing of global economy? Hence, I think about the same time the concept
of green economy or building a green economy emerged internationally. And these are the main framework or the mainstream
concept and underneath that you have constituent issues and policies. For instance, in the first – in the environment
phase – conserving the environment would include of course nature protection, nature
preservation, pollution control and wildlife conservation. Whereas by 1992, we began to hear about Agenda
21, biodiversity, climate change, the two conventions that were launched at the Rio
Summit, and then by 2006 onwards, climate change mitigation, carbon dioxide mitigation,
climate adaptation, low carbon development began to be addressed internationally. And then by 2009, 2010, international agencies
like UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme, launched many terms into the policy world,
green growth, green technology, green financing. So, as a student of public policy I was looking
at the distinction between what is an environmental problem and a sustainability problem. Environmental problems, you can just deal
with this and you’re fine, but when it comes to sustainable development, it’s a lot broader. Your scale of response will require integration
across sectors and this is very difficult. This is why we need to broaden our thinking,
that it’s not just about environment anymore, now. It’s a lot broader than that. The second misconception is when I was with
ISIS I was working closely with Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s department,
so when there is time for Malaysia to report to the international community, we always
say that we have enough agencies dealing with these issues, and we are on track when it
comes to sustainable development. Because there are some measures, or indicators,
that you can always show that you are doing fine, without telling the other indicators
or the other set of indicators. So, I argue that, at least we have been thinking
about environment and sustainability here in Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, I mean in
this region, for at least 100 years. We have established institutions, or green
institutions. I mentioned the pollution control department
came into being around 1970s, but the forest management, the small forestry department
was established under Straits Settlement’s Director of Gardens in 1883! The forestry department in Peninsular Malaysia
was established in 1901. Of course, they were dealing with environmental
issues, but we have had these institutions in place for a long time. And then on wildlife management, the first
wildlife park was (Dr Saiful is here) was in Chior, Perak. Well, over the years, we have established
this monster, a very complex landscape of institutions dealing with different portfolios
that deal with environment, from management to energy to climate change, minerals, transportation. They are everywhere, and everybody can say
that they are doing something about sustainability, conveniently. Whether they are addressing it or not, this
is what I was trying to address in my book. In addition to the agencies, we have numerous
councils that are chaired by prime minister, deputy prime minister, all these important
ministers. But has there been any evaluation of their
performance over the years? I would love to do that but they won’t allow
me to do it. So, the landscape is pretty complex, but I
think it’s there – you don’t have to start from scratch, so it needs a little bit
tweaking but someone has got to do the work. And here is a study we did for Green Technology
Corporation under a special purpose agency, under the Ministry of Water, Green Technology
and Energy. They had this Malaysian Green Technology Corporation
to mainstream the idea of green technology and green economy. But we have to look at the political economy
of this transition. Sometimes an agency or a set up by government
would have… this is a power–interest matrix, you have power there, and you have interest
there. Sometimes, the agency is powerful but they
are not interested in the topic. Sometimes, you have a powerful agency, not
interested, and how do you get them to be interested? And these are the questions and ideally we
have all these players… the ideal is to move everyone to quadrant B, to get everyone
to be interested or powerful enough to change for sustainability. But that requires us to understand, who are
the winners and losers? How do you incentivise the winners over the
losers or the other way round. So these are the hard questions we have to
ask when we have to talk about an institution for sustainability. If you agree with me that sustainability requires
the convergence of economic, social and ecological pillars, then we can pick three proxy indicators,
and we trace it over the years from 1960s – this is history of Malaysia’s development. Poverty rate went down spectacularly from
over 40% in the 1960s down to, is it 1.2% now or 1.6 %, the latest figure from EPU. And this figure also includes that we have
almost eradicated hardcore poverty and that it went down to only 400 households. Then similarly, if we look at GDP per capita
as a proxy measure for the economy, economic achievement, we’ve done wonders as well. Of course, it has been slowing down for the
past couple of years, because of so many things, but the target now is for us to achieve 15,000
USD per capita per year and somehow the government is still confident that we can reach that. But the problem is the ecological footprint
of the country has also moved up concomitantly, or in tandem, with GDP per capita, so this
is not desirable. So what we need to do is to decouple economic
growth with environmental impact and this will cover a set of policy measures to disentangle
the ecological footprint with the GDP per capita. And this is a challenge for the sustainability
shift. But this is a study we did for Economic Planning
Unit and UNDP Malaysia in preparation for the SDG, or Sustainable Development Goals,
the launch of Sustainable Development Goals last year, so this is in comparison with OECD
figure, we are doing, sometimes our average is as good as the OECD average sometimes we
are lower. SDGs or sustainable development goal, the
set of 17 goals, 169 targets, now about almost 200 indicators. We will require strong efforts in meeting
the higher order goals. We have achieved for instance, poverty rate
I mentioned is very low, but if we take relative poverty with half of the median income, we
can go up to 20% and this is still a major challenge for the country. So these are the higher aspirational goals
that we have to grapple with in the next 15 years if we were to meet SDG targets. Misconception no 3: It is quite related to
number 2. We are doing fine, our policy goals are exemplary
and the so-called implementation deficit is just a mere exaggeration. Of course if you look at the policy statements
in various policy documents from town country planning department, department of environment,
Economic Planning Unit, all the Malaysia Plans, we can see that the policy statements have
been sort of incorporated along the way and there have been a number of legislation along
the way as well. So, we can say, we can report to the international
community that we are doing, we are responding to this goal. And by the way they are not-binding requirements,
legally binding, so we don’t have to worry too much. And even in the 11th Malaysia Plan which was
launched last year in 2015, I think there’s a reason for us to rejoice here that pursuing
green growth for sustainability and resilience is earmarked as one of the six strategic thrusts
of the country as we move forward from 2016 to 2020. And green economy or green growth is also
considered one of the game changers, the word Prof Nordin used just now. We had a series of consultations at a national
level when we were preparing for the sustainable development goal assessment and these were
issues or values highlighted by the different participants. So, it’s a lot broader than environment
and we are very far from reaching some of these ideals or values that we are aiming
for. Also, UNDP did an online survey. About 600 people responded in 2014 and it
is very interesting if you look at the responses by – well we assume that these are the younger
generations who have access, or probably urban based they have access to electricity, good
internet access, and they can fill in the form online. So if you look at this, I was very pleased
to see that at least three environmental issues, of course, the rest will qualify as sustainability
issues broadly. Of course, everybody wants an honest and responsive
government but number five is protecting forests, rivers and oceans. So, the younger generation feels that we should
deal with this issue in a more concrete manner. And then, access to clean water and sanitation
and action taken on climate change. And if you look at the policies, we did a
fun thing, we listed down all the policies for the social dimension, for the environmental
dimension and we get the officials from different government agencies to sit and ask them what
they didn’t know about this policy and that policy. So even policies in their own sector, some
of them find they have not heard about this. So we have this feast of policies around,
policy statements, motherhood statements but we still lack a common vision, the sustainable
development vision. The pricing of natural resources, I think
this is one of our weakest points. Of course, Singaporeans, they have enough
money to pay MYR 3.80 per 1000 litre for the first 35,000 litre. But even Jakarta, the folks in Jakarta are
paying more MYR 1.80. Tokyo, of course, is a developed country. Even in Manila. But in Penang, this is an old figure, a few
years ago, we are paying only 30 cents. I’m trying to argue that sustainability
is a lot broader than just environmental issue. I think we need to re-frame them as this triple
challenge of one is scarcity, resource scarcity. Second is distribution and third is unity
and in, that’s why I have a chapter on sustainable society, because I think we need to graduate
to being a sustainable society which works on the basis of environmental or sustainability
citizenship so our identity should be defined. Of course this is ambitious, I know, a pipe
dream, but this is something that we have to work towards in the next decade. And, because we have to deal with cross-cutting
issues. The issue, the challenge of dengue is not
just a problem for the Ministry of Health it’s also a question of land use. Many of us don’t know that one of the most
badly hit areas, dengue areas is actually Putrajaya, because of the way it was planned. So, the book has 9 chapters and there are,
in the middle there are chapter 2, 3 and 4 there are nature protection, pollution control
and resource nexus. These are the classical environmental problems
if you like, but embedded within them are those social justice issues, economic issues
that need to be grappled with within the forthcoming years. And, in addition to that, there are cross
cutting-challenges, institutions, chapter 9, climate crisis, sustainable society and
green economy. I didn’t say much about green economy but
to me this is a pragmatic decision that we have to embrace. Of course, some environmentalists are not
very happy, saying that look, we are still with green economy, our ambition is still
to produce more goods, even though its greener goods and services, but I think that’s a
step in the right direction. I feel green economy has somehow managed to
get the leaders or head of states to be interested in the issue of sustainability because there
is money to be made from greening the economy or by embracing green growth. Back to this idea. If you look at my 3 set of ideas or misconceptions,
they are actually related to this. The shift from environment to sustainability,
the shift from organisation to institutions and the need to move away in a serious way,
moving from just articulating policy statement to actually thinking about how to implement
policies and this is where I think we still have a lot of room for improvement. The book closes with a set of policy recommendations
not just for policymakers but also for society. I use these three terminologies here: institutional
hardware, institutional software, and also heartware. Just to share with you, this is the report
of the Federation of Malaysia’s constitutional Commission, this is the Reid report. Before we came out with the idea to come out
with a federal system. And interestingly, and this was written in
1957, so the series of meetings that the commission, the series of meetings that took place before
this report was launched was probably few years before that as well. I was struck when I saw this, way back when
in 1954, 9.5 million hectares forests are still around so when the commissionaires went
around on their boat perhaps as I imagine, this is what they say: ‘We could not help
but notice during the course of our travel in the federation that a considerable amount
of erosion of the soil had taken place, this was, they went on describing it.’ But in the paragraphs that follow, they sort
of said that they are not very sure whether the federal system can deal with future issues,
future environmental issues, even way back then. They are not sure if you give the power to
the states to manage natural resources – as they have a lot of power to manage natural
resources – whether they can deal with this in a convincing way or a credible way. And this is a question of institutional hardware,
the property rights. Who should be governing this? And in the book there are, I mentioned, institutional
hardware, institutional software is in red, hardware is in blue, and green is the two
ideas on institutional hardware: the question of values and also of strengthening our education
system, which would be key as we march towards 2030 and 2050. A serious look at our education system, how
do you mainstream this idea to get everyone to embrace this idea that we need to move
towards sustainable consumption and production. We need to think beyond silos, and a lot of
work has to be done here, this is the ambition of this book, that we try to water down the
language with the help of Salma and friends, so that more people can access some of the
key tenets of sustainability. In terms of organisation, law and property
rights, embedding within culture, maybe we want to reposition the Department of Environment. It’s been in place since 1970s; now, they
have over 1,400 people and they started with only five people. They managed to come up with so many legislation. What about we reposition them from being in
the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Natural Resources Department to be part of prime minister’s
department, or something, we can discuss, we should have a national discussion on this
topic, because they have the capacity to do so, at least the human resource capacity. Because, we always say in civil society that
to mainstream sustainable development, the EPU should be made the focal point, the Economic
Planning Unit in the Prime Ministers Department should be made the focal point. That’s why, I think we need a different
way of looking at this. We need perhaps to think about revamping the
coordination mechanism across agencies. PEMANDU, or I don’t know – some of you may
not be a fan of PEMANDU – but it is a brilliant system, a brilliant set up that sort of provides
that short circuit – it can short circuit the system in trying to get things done. I think we need a similar kind of mechanism
for the sustainability domain as well. Common vision, as I mentioned, is still lacking. Policy, we need to think more about policies,
not just about articulating or formulating policies, but how do you deliver them. Friends in Thailand were making this joke
last time I was there that they don’t do the five-year planning they do, they don’t do
the five-year planning anymore now because what they need to do now is just copy what
Malaysia says and we implement them. So, I didn’t take that in a light manner. But we need to go back into thinking what
makes a good public policy. From formulation, to implementation, to evaluation
– the whole policy cycle has to be looked into. Of course you need measures, you need indicators. I mentioned earlier that the core values underlying
sustainable society, we should really build this. Of course, we have had pioneers like Dato’
Anwar Fazal and Gurmeet Singh and the first generation of environmental movement in pushing
some of these ideas. I don’t think there would be, of course
this is counterfactual, there would be an Environment Quality Act without civil society
pushing for it back in those days. But we need a stronger civil society to deal
with this broader issue that I mentioned just now and you can’t do that without strengthening
the education system, the research and development system in the country. Of course, there have been massive cuts for
universities now. I don’t know how we are going to deal with
this in the forthcoming years. But these are the challenges. We have the Institute for Environment and
Development – LESTARI, established in 1994, Prof Nordin, and then in 2009, the Centre
for Global Sustainability Studies was established in USM, so I think this is a great move in
getting scholars together, scientists together, and also in churning out PhD thesis and masters
thesis on the topic. But beyond that, we also need to think about
secondary education, primary education. The subject of geography is now not mandatory
anymore in secondary school. How do you teach without giving the appreciation
of space? Time and space is very essential in education. So, this is the kind of thing. It’s broad, ambitious, but I don’t think
we can move forward without stringing them together. What’s perhaps missing in my talk today
is where’s politics in all this? Let me end by saying that, by quoting the
chief sustainability officer of AECOM, perhaps the largest engineering company in the world. When he came to speak at ISIS, he said sustainability
is a political question with technical attributes. We think about indicators, we think about
policies, what will be the right word to go into policies, but at the heart of it is actually
the question of who gets what, how and when. So, look forward to the discussion, thank
you very much.

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