Pollution: Heavier penalties or stricter enforcement?

The Minister for the Environment and Water, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, said that he would soon form an Environmental Crime Unit to address pollution issues.

No! He does not need to form another unit and waste valuable resources manning a new group. Although he wants to appear to be doing something, but actually, he is doing nothing.

Tuan Ibrahim just needs to allow the enforcement officers to enforce strictly, without fear or favour, and ensure there is no political interference.

The corporate department director of the Selayang Municipal Council, Mohamad Zin Masoad, said that the factory alleged to be the source of the pollution of Sungai Gong, has been operating illegally since 2014. He also said that it was among 308 factories which were operating illegally under the jurisdiction of Selayang council (MPS).

Most Malaysians will ask, “What were MPS officers doing all this time? When did they find out the factory was illegal and why did the council not prosecute the factory owners earlier?”

Mohamad Zin said that the factory had been built without the permission of the MPS.

Again, Malaysians will be perplexed. The factory cannot be the size of a garden shed and is hidden behind some bushes. Don’t enforcement officers make spot checks?

A signboard needs to be officially endorsed by the MPS before it can be erected. Was the factory not paying business rates? Was the owner not paying any taxes? How are the employees registered with the income tax department, the EPF and SOCSO, if it is illegal? Are the employees employed illegally? What about insurance? Did the owner not have to obtain approval from the fire department?

If anecdotal evidence from my acquaintances who once worked in the Perak state government is to be believed, once plans for a factory or building are submitted, a competent engineer, architect or town planner, may reject the planning application, if he thinks it is unsafe, or fails a required criterion.

When the businessman learns about the rejection, he will become enraged and contact a friend, who is a politician, to enquire why permission was declined. The architect or town planner will then be hauled up and told to approve the plans.

A few years later, if the building, road, bridge or factory collapses, the blame game will start.

In many cases, the person who approved the job, in this case the architect, becomes the scapegoat. Or it could be the engineer who is in charge of building roads. The politician remains blemish-free.

There would not have been a repeat occurrence of the recent pollution of the Sungei Gong, in Selangor, if strict enforcement had been practised.

How many owners of polluting factories have been exposed and punished, for polluting the rivers?

A fine of several thousand ringgit is not a deterrent, especially when the business rakes in scores of millions of ringgit annually. A worker who is only following orders may be jailed, but he is easily replaced.

A polluting factory can be made to stop its operations, but the businessman can then start afresh, on another plot of land elsewhere, ready to pollute another area. A more effective deterrent would be to jail the factory owner.

We have enough laws to prosecute offenders, but they are rarely used because the enforcement agencies are busy pointing fingers at one another.

The problem is that few of us care about our waterways. We take our water for granted and we only express concern, when we cannot take a bath, brush our teeth, do our laundry, water plants or wash our cars.

We live in a tropical country, where it rains several times a month, and many people imagine that there is plenty of water.

If we had no piped water, and had to carry buckets of water from a river or a well, to our homes, we might treasure the water resource.

For most rural folk, the river is a source of water for drinking, and cleaning, as well as a source of food. Even in the interior of East and West Malaysia, timber operators, mining companies and palm oil plantations, have dumped dangerous chemicals into the river and polluted it. They cause much hardship for the indigenous folk and kampung dwellers.

Fish die, children fall ill, people who bathe in the waters become covered in rashes. Clear waters turn cloudy. The timber tycoons and plantation owners are protected by powerful political friends. Few people care about the rural dwellers and their water woes.

Business and factory operators only see the river as a means to make money. Water is needed for cooling, and possibly for transporting the finished product, but more importantly, siting the factory by a river means that it is easy to dispose of the waste products.

We have enough laws, but the irony is that we are too lackadaisical about strict enforcement.

If we adhered to the laws, and fined and jailed the business owners, instead of their junior workers, there would be fewer recurrences of pollution.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.