The Birth of CETDEM

IT WAS the 1980s. Malaysia had an economic growth of around 8 per cent a year. The nation was one of Southeast Asia’s bright stars, its economy driven by a promising industrial future. But the country was already paying for the ‘sins’ of industrialisation since the late 1960s. There was rampant logging in Sabah and Sarawak. The pollution in Sungai Juru and Sungai Klang were exposed. Pesticide residues in food and chemicals affecting occupational health were being reported.

But not everything was bad news. Things were beginning to stir.

During that period of growth in the 1960s and early 70s, a number of environmental protection laws had been enacted. There was the Land Conservation Act (1960) and the Environmental Quality Act in 1974.

When the EQA was gazetted, the establishment of an enforcement agency followed. The Environment Division was set up, a division that would later be renamed the Department of Environment — DOE (Jabatan Alam Sekitar) in 1983.

Only in the 1970s did pollution and the issues associated with the destruction of natural resources start gaining some attention. The government enacted the Environmental Quality Act, and Malaysia saw the formation of environmental groups like the Environmental Protection Society, Malaysia (EPSM) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM).

These developments came as pollution and the destruction of natural resources became more rampant. Green would also get another boost in 1976 when it came to the country’s Third Five-Year Plan. In it the government would proclaim that:

“It is vital that the objectives of development and environmental conservation be kept in balance, so that the benefits of development are not negated by the costs of environmental damage.”

And what about civil society forces?
The voices for our nature and the environment at the time were non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the Malaysian Nature Society (founded in 1940) and the Consumers Association of Penang (set up in 1969). With the advent of environmental awareness, organisations like WWF-Malaysia (1972), the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (1974) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (1977) soon joined in.

Against this backdrop of available environmental watchdogs, another organisation, the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (CETDEM) would enter the fray. But why the need for another organisation? And why the focus on development and technology, the seemingly ‘evil’ adversaries of nature?

The Start of CETDEM

Founded in 1985, CETDEM was established as an independent, non-profit, training, research, consultancy, referral, and development organisation. Its goals were reflected in its name — CETDEM would be committed to improving environmental quality through the appropriate use of technology and sustainable development.

With its founding members, led by engineer and environmentalist Gurmit Singh, the organisation would begin its mission, undertaking studies and research to promote sustainable development in the country. Gurmit would become the organisation’s executive director, with his peer and fellow environmentalist Mano Maniam becoming CETDEM’s first chairman.

Founding Members

Edda de Silva -editor

Gurmit Singh - engineer/environmentalist

Mano Maniam -actor/activist

Loh Lean Kang - environment, health & safety engineer

Dr Salleh Mohd Nor - forester/conservationist

Lee Khek Mui - mechanical engineer/consultant

Dr Sham Sani - scholar/environmentalist

Tan Siok Khim -chemist

At the Start

from the perspective of Mano Maniam

Over the decades Mano Maniam has not only been an actor, writer, director, scholar and drama teacher, but he has also been a keen environmentalist. He has been a long-time member of the Environmental Protection Society and was CETDEM chairman from 1985 to 1994. Here, he explains the circumstances behind the organisation’s birth, and how it differed from other green NGOs.

Malaysia’s environmental vanguard

We were a whole new generation, with a whole new way of thinking. Most of us were born during and after the Second World War, and we grew up when the country was being formed. These were the first seeds of coalescence and identity. And so we were part of that vanguard, idealistic and hopeful dreamers.

At that time, there was the first consciousness of being global, with the United Nations being very instrumental in that. One of the first things they did besides dealing with war, depravation and economic reconstruction was issues dealing with the world, our planet.

There was one thing people could talk about without saying “This is yours or mine, and let’s fight for it”, and that was the environment. The UN organised the first Earth Summit (also known as the Stockholm Earth Summit or UN conference on the Human Environment) in 1972. It fired the imagination of new governments and emerging nations in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

It was a whole new world and we became very conscious about one thing — that we all breathed the same air, drank the same water and were affected by the same planet.

Many of us were at that wild imaginative age, going to university when our parents never did. We were a whole new breed of educated, well-informed post-war youths who just backpacked and turned up at Stockholm.

That summit would become a watershed in consciousness of people who grew up after the war. I remember that was the first time people were talking about acid rain, and how “things that affected you affected me too”. During that time after 1972, it was clear that Malaysia was one of the handful of countries which really responded to Stockholm. There was the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) and Council (EQC) set up in 1974.

This was the time the EPSM was formed, and Gurmit became the founding president. He would later also become the first representative of civil society in the EQC.

What is interesting was that it was not just a government initiative, a parallel civil society initiative blossomed as well.

Beyond the noise

When I completed my Masters in 1977, I teamed up with Gurmit and supported him in whatever he was doing. Universiti Pertanian (now Universiti Putra Malaysia) had started a four-year degree programme on environmental studies, and other universities joined in the fray with degree courses. You had the government, civil society and media moving, but the private sector remained silent.

We felt the government had established the Environment Division but without giving it the clout or budget, and that the environment became mere lip service. Things started to become divergent and advocacy groups could not stand a chance. They were going into very large areas at the same time, from the Tembeling Dam to Bakun, and from water issues to forestry and to wildlife.

So that brought up very fundamental questions. We had to do something more than just point out what was happening and making noise about it. I think Gurmit was eventually fed up when he was asked, “Yes, you make a lot of noise but what are you doing about it yourself?”

When he said he spoke up so that the government would listen and do something about it, inevitably the response was that “Well yes, I have heard you speak already”. It was like a door slamming into your face.

Why CETDEM? Why Development and Technology?

And so Gurmit decided we should establish an organisation which would complement EPSM. It was registered under the Companies Act to receive money and conduct research surveys and projects, unlike being under the Registrar of Societies, which had limitations.

As we would be dealing with money and paid staff, we needed to have strategic plans and expertise. That is why we had members who were professionals and academics in their own right.

We represented the first generation where things were not patently imported, but we needed concepts and technology. The environment was directly related to technology, as technology is not just engineered instrumentation but systematic thinking.

Gurmit said that everyone was looking at development in the country, using technology to get there, but at the expense of the environment. But all three are important, so that is how the name came about and CETDEM aimed at becoming a point of reference as to how we could merge these three elements.

So CETDEM was not anti-government or anti-development, but was going for a holistic concept towards building a future.

Setting up goals

CETDEM was established as a non-profit organisation by this group of concerned citizens who were deeply passionate about the environment. They wanted to see the use of appropriate technology in development so that there would be the least adverse impacts on the environment.

It was registered as a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital, with a membership ceiling of 50 people who would join by invitation.

What direction would the nascent organisation take? How did it plan to achieve its goals? In those early days, its Board decided that CETDEM would:

  1. Offer training courses on topics such as environmental management and environmental legislation to occupational health and technology transfers.
  2. Hold seminars on technology and the environment, eco-development, pollution treatment options and transportation for a clean environment, among many others.
  3. Offer monitoring and analytical services, as well as collate and document all relevant Malaysian and international information on environment, technology and development.
  4. Investigate appropriate alternative energy systems and evaluate possibilities and practicability in the Malaysian context.
  5. Provide scientific and technology consultancy services on a demand basis.
  6. Conduct specific research projects and produce relevant publications

The founding members were committed to the idea that CETDEM would be performing these multiple functions, and that they would try their best to get results. This was not just an organisation concentrating on advocacy and looking through the newspapers to see if their press statements were published, it would be one to reach out, educate, train and influence.

The brown issues

It was clear from the start that CETDEM would not be like other green organisations. Indeed, Gurmit and his peers said they were more focused on ‘the brown issues’, but what exactly did that entail?

People would probably imagine beautiful scenes of lush forests or adorable pandas and wild tigers when they think of the word ‘environment’. The ozone hole in sky may also come to mind, or the decrease in turtles and marine life in our magnificent oceans. But what if we made the imagery a little more gritty, and a whole lot more real?

The ugly realities of environmental degradation and pollution were brown, grey or black — images of sewage, rubbish dumps, clogged up drains or treeless townships. Some environmental organisations would take up the fight to protect and conserve wildlife and other ecological issues, while others concentrated on consumer-based topics such as health safety and recycling.

But CETDEM wanted to concentrate on researching and bringing the spotlight on such brown issues. Gurmit has said that even now, the media shies away from the brown issues, preferring to focus on the “greener, softer issues”.

“The brown and hard issues are things like pollution, the haze, energy wastage and other challenging issues. I’ve found that it is very hard to engage the government or private sector when it comes to these compared to the others,” he said.

This did not mean that CETDEM would not be involved in issues like logging or the wildlife. The organisation just wanted to have its main focus on several key topics, some of which included:

Water and waste pollution

Energy and renewable energy

Organic farming

Transportation solutions

Climate change

Toxic wastes/Pesticides

With their goals set and target issues determined, CETDEM would begin its mission as the newest organisation on the environmental front. It would eventually become one of the most respected in the field, but it was still years before the recognition and long before the plaudits. There was plenty of hard work CETDEM needed to pull off as a fledgling organisation.