Malaysia’s general elections on 5 May 2013 saw the existing government being re-elected, much to the chagrin of many who wanted a change in the government, seeking reformation and true democracy.
In the past, Malaysia’s development agenda was primarily driven by economic growth, with the government aiming to be a high-income country. New ministers have been appointed but we foresee that the development policies would remain the same with the Prime Minister pushing for the Economic Transformation Programme, launched on September 2010.
We fear of the price that has to be paid by us and the future generation in Malaysia’s pursuit to become a recognizable, developed nation of international standing. Is this what Malaysians really want? Is material wealth or living in a high-income country what we aim for in life? What about our health and well-being?
Rapid modernization and unsustainable development in the past have led to the exploitation and abuse of the environment in Malaysia. Hazardous industries pollute the air and water sources whilst forests are indiscriminately cleared for development or industrial agriculture, hence leaving the environment devastated.
In most cases, the destruction of the environment affects the livelihood and health of communities. Industrial chemicals, pollutants, pesticides, heavy metals are prevalent in our environment, bodies, food, air and water.
Environmental health problems in Malaysia are mostly attributed to atmospheric pollution, water pollution, climate change, waste management and disposal comprising of solid, toxic and hazardous waste.
Sadly, Malaysia's approaches to environmental management through policy and legal measures had not evolved from a mandate to afford the public with a right to clean air, water and a liveable environment. Rather, they emerge more out of a response to intolerable environmental conditions.
We do have substantial legal and policy initiatives that require proper consideration and action towards protecting the environment. However without a real commitment to strictly enforce laws and properly apply sound principles across the environmental landscape, Malaysia will continue to be at risk to pollution and the loss of its natural identity.
There is also a problem of general lack of transparency in decision-making and frequent high-handedness demonstrated towards the concerns of ordinary folk who dare to question development at the cost of health and the environment.
Although there are parts of the civil service who genuinely understand the practical common sense of integrating environment with development, sadly, the overriding perception among policy makers is that environmental concerns are an impediment to progress. Sometimes they even condemn communities opposing destructive projects as barriers to economic progress. This has forced many affected communities to seek international attention or legal redress.
Our angle of vision needs to shift from skyscrapers to observing what is happening closer to the ground in nature and in the everyday lives of Malaysians struggling with the consequences of development gone awry. At this more humble level await insights which question not just our quality of life but also the quality, nature and meaning of the journey towards modern development.
What is needed is a strong political will to address the issues of environmental health degradation and an environmentally and socially conscious public to push for concrete changes! For our own sake and the sake of our future generations, we must start to act responsibly before the momentum of irreversible changes overwhelms us.
(Partly extracted from paper jointly prepared by Sahabat Alam Malaysia & Consumers' Association of Penang)
Mageswari Sangaralingam currently works as Consultant for Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP). HCWH-Asia partners with both SAM and CAP.