Let’s face it. Malaysians are hypocrites. They like to pretend they are environmentally conscious, but you only need to look around you and see for yourself. As soon as you land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and see a litter-free environment, you start to think that Malaysians are actually civic minded, at least where rubbish is concerned. The relatively litter-free environment of KLIA, is just a facade, because when you get out of the airport and drive towards the city, the real Malaysia, is revealed.
As soon as you approach Kuala Lumpur, the signs of litter are evident. Styrofoam packages choke the drains and blow about in the wind. If you roll down your window in the wrong place along the highway, the stench of an oil palm refinery makes you gag, and you have to close the window.
The occupant of the car ahead of you, may throw something out of the window, treating the surroundings, like a big rubbish dump.
On your way home, you may decide to stop at a restaurant. You will see that the approach to the restaurant, is littered with plastic bags, empty cigarette boxes and bottles. The drains are clogged, and cigarette butts line the five-foot way and the pots of plants, outside some shops, have been used as ash-trays.
Penang was the first Malaysian state to ban the use of styrofoam packaging, on December 1, 2012. Sibu followed suit on January 1, 2014 and then Malacca on May 15, 2015. Many Malaysians acknowledge that, in Malaysia, trying to encourage Malaysian households to recycle their waste, is a slow process.
Waste control is governed by the three Rs; Re-use, reduce and recycle. In Penang, the state’s efforts to increase environmental consciousness were targeted towards school children, because they could then teach their older relatives about the importance of recycling their waste and educate them on the damaging effects of waste on the environment.
School children were educated about the harm done, by plastic bags, to fish, turtles and dolphins. The white polystyrene food packages may give off carcinogens, when heated. When discarded, these cheap packaging, which is used to “tapau” our food, can block rivers or weirs, and cause localised flooding.
Malaysians have a moral and social obligation to care for their environment but not everyone takes their responsibilities seriously. Companies also have a responsibility to preserve the natural environment, but more often than not, in Malaysia, profits matter more than environmental considerations.
What about the role of government? Whose side do they take?
Just outside Taiping, it was alleged that an oil refinery discharged its waste into a tributary. The villagers noticed scum floating on the river, which killed the ‘udang galah; (freshwater prawns). The pollutant also destroyed the food source of the fireflies in the vicinity.
It was alleged that when the villagers, and forestry official complained, a politician who was closely linked to the factory owners “hushed things up.” In the end, because of this cosy relationship between a politician and his friend, the villagers lost two sources of income; the sale of ‘udang galah’ and the tourist trade, because the fireflies, which were a tourist attraction, were deprived of their food, and simply moved away or perished.
Throughout Malaysia, similar incidents are being experienced by many communities. Some of the effects of large scale environmental damage and marine degradation, are committed by greedy and selfish villagers, and poor or non-existent enforcement by the authorities. One example of this is the illegal bauxite mining in Kuantan, Pahang and also in Terengganu. Mining for bauxite may now, be regulated, but the rivers, beaches and soil have been contaminated by a red sludge, which contains many toxic pollutants including some carcinogenic material. Air pollution is also a problem, because of the transport of bauxite to the port. In other parts of the world, people have died from the effects of unregulated bauxite mining.
Elsewhere, companies clearing the land for oil palm planting, denude the landscape. This leads to flooding and mudslides. Antibiotics and other chemicals from prawn farms, destroy sea creatures and plant-life in the rivers. Refineries, and other industrial projects, at river-mouths or along mangrove swamps, deprive whole communities of work and sources of income.
How much do we, and our government, really care about our environment? The pollution of our air, land, and waterways is proof that we have not done enough, to care for our environment.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.
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