Environmental Caring in Malaysia : When public consciousness is not enough!

In case you missed it due to the coronavirus pandemic, the one-week celebration of Malaysia’s National Environment Day from 21-27 October has closed its curtain last week. Environmental Caring in Malaysia when public consciousness is not enough!.

The authorities made the right decision to select ‘Environment: Our Shared Responsibility’ as the theme of the celebration.

It does take everyone to play their role in taking care of  Mother Earth – not only the people but also the authorities. Yes, we deliberately put it the other way around. Why? Because for any environmental effort, the policies matter first before and over public awareness!

Anyone or any group can organise an awareness campaign which may even lead to the formulation of  appropriate policies. But the harsh truth is  the authorities with the executive power can actually change the appropriate policies.

The authorities highlighted four main activities for this year’s celebrations, namely the e-waste collection program, Avoid Single-use Plastic campaign, greening the earth and tree planting ‘MYpokokchallenge’ campaign, and National River Trail program.

There were also public contests: montage production, infographic production, photography, 3-minute thesis challenge, dikir barat and recycling innovation.

It is great to have the authorities spending a large budget in promoting all those public awareness campaigns. But it is more important that the public does not lose sight of outstanding Environmental Caring management issues that people had fought for but only to be u-turned by the powers that be.

We are referring to the case of  the Lynas rare-earth mining  to highlight the inconsistency (read: betrayal) between public awareness/consciousness and the action of the authorities.

1.  Teach one thing implement another

This controversial rare earth mining project took people by storm since it was first announced in 2011. There was no need for Lynas to bring their unrefined materials to Malaysia in the first place. However, the authorities themselves invited Lynas in, presumably as an economic move to put Malaysia in the global rare-earth game. 

The mining and processing of rare earth elements, particularly their waste, are claimed to bring harm to the environment – something that is ironic since the product itself is a key element in sustainable green technology today.

So, what made the people so concerned? They didn’t want to repeat the same mistake twice. Back then in the 1980s, Asia Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) at Bukit Merah, Perak was blamed for the nearby residents’ and staffs’ exposure to radiation and environmental pollution due to poor waste management.

Even then, the authorities assured that ARE was safe and not to be worried about. The then Prime Minister vouched that the government had taken every precaution to ensure safety. Also, the environment minister stressed that the disposal site was safe since it was built under strict regulations. 

Yet, the effect on the people proved otherwise. Both the independent and authorities-initiated experts assessing ARE facilities had declared that the area was unsafe for the public. The radiation level was reported to be 88 times higher than allowed. Yet, ironically, the authorities still decided to let ARE continue their operation.

Why is that? Of all the investment opportunities, why did the authorities go for the ones that could risk the environment (and hence, the people)? How mind-boggling it is when public awareness campaigns are conducted to educate the public to care for the environment, but the policies made and actions taken by the authorities speak otherwise!

2. Playing around with words to manufacture consent

Through years of tug of wars between the pro-Lynas and anti-Lynas, multiple excuses were given by the authorities to justify the green light given to Lynas to continue their operation.

Among them were “the authorities didn’t expect that the waste would be a problem”, “not in the election manifesto”, “Australia and all other countries refused to accept the waste, so we cannot just throw in the sea or the fish will die”, “600 local workers would lose their jobs”, “difficult for the government to go by popular opinion”, “we are going to lose a very big investment from Australia”, and “maintaining a business-friendly image to the foreign investors after reviewing overpriced mega-projects by the previous government.”

In all sorts of public awareness campaigns organised by either the environmental activists or the authorities, people are taught to put the environmental interest first before anything else. Yet, when push came to shove economic interests seemed to triumph over environmental interests. The crucial question then is whose economic interest is really  being served under the guise ‘we’?

One can’t help but wonder what force that was so irresistible driving the u-turn? Was there some other parties’ interest ( eg: cronies) pressuring from behind the scene? 

3. Ruling top political will gets to determine the final outcome of public environmental consciousness

The change of national government in 2018 shone new light for those against Lynas, for the political figures and activists standing by them were finally in power and got to shift from public awareness to making actual change.

However, things turned out to be indifferent: the authorities decided to have Lynas remained – although with stricter regulations – since Australia refused to have the waste back. Even worse, non-bilateral sides could be seen among the ministries, with one side pledging to pressure Australia to have their waste back, while the other superior side having no similar political willpower and preferred for Lynas to stay (while even bashed the former one although they are in the same Cabinet!).

The truth is, in the Lynas case, the honest environmental friendly politicians engaging with the people on the ground were not the final decision makers in the Lynas issue. They didn’t get to implement their promises to the people concerned. It’s the premier leadership that got to determine the final political will to implement or not those promises. And it deliberately decided to betray those promises.

Now, people are also looking at the possibility of another flip-flopping regarding the research and development of the radioactive residue for agricultural use.

When things evolve like this, can people rely on environmental political activists to be at their side if they end up powerless when being in power? And how great will the impact be if the authorities are deemed less concerned about the environmental cause remains a burning question for the society

So, what’s in this Lynas issue for the youths?

First, understand the original basic question again : Why did Australia, the original place of the hazardous waste fight tooth and nail to prevent the return of their own waste? Obviously because they do not want their land and people to suffer. So, is it okay for Malaysians to let their land and people suffer instead? Is it okay because they pay lucrative sums for the Malaysian suffering?  

Second, understand that it is the political will of the country that determines the outcome and the fate of a clear cut public environmental consciousness. Too many politicians everywhere are less than altruistic. When given power in their hands to decide between their private interests and those of the people they pledged to serve theirs often win.

Third, when the authorities use platitudes such as ‘national interests’ learn to go beyond the cliche. The authorities are trying to manufacture public consent to serve certain vested interests. More often than not those interests are private, not public. Learn to follow the money behind that betrayal. You will find that classic ‘private profits before people’ complicity again.

Finally, have the moral courage to expose the lies and take action against them. Why shouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you? It’s your future that they are messing with. Your very own future.

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