The Early Years – 1985 to 1990

“It was very small and personal. It was a small group of us who were from EPSM that went into CETDEM. There wasn’t much money so we all did our bit to fund the movement. There was no high degree of awareness of environmental issues so it had to be created.

Meetings were informal but to the point. Mano Maniam usually chaired them; he was both dynamic and theatrical, always infusing humour and a sense of fun. Gurmit was the prime mover. He has vision and knew where he wanted to take the movement.”


The meetings may have been small, but the dreams were big. The organisation wanted to look into organic farming, alternative energies as well as Malaysia’s legislation and policies on environmental hazards at the time. CETDEM would, for example, organise a “Toxic and Hazardous Waste Management Course” with minimal support from the Department of Environ-ment, as well as produce publications like Participating in the Malaysian EIA Process and Farming for a Better Environment during this time.

But its main tour de force in these first five years remains one of CETDEM’s pride and joy — the CETDEM Organic Farming Project.

The CETDEM Organic Farming Project

The idea of the community farm was originally proposed by organic farming advocate Tan Siew Luang, who believed that the farm would cultivate a feeling of solidarity and appreciation of farming. It would also allow for the development of ecologically sound agricultural practices.

“The overriding objective,” according to an initial proposal, was to “contribute to-wards the development of a wholesome human being, who is humane, caring, peace-loving, and a harmonious component of society.”

But the farm would not just be about people coming together, it would be a platform for them to learn to accept each other’s differences and beliefs. It would also be a learning centre, an informal educative environment for people from all walks of life, including children, who could discover more about themselves through farming and community activities. It was consistent with its objectives, and the project was able to show that farming could be done without the use of agro-chemicals, which were be-ing overused. Vegetable farmers in Malaysia were large users of synthethic chemicals, and those in Cameron Highlands were particularly notorious. The board approved the setting up of the farm in June 1986.

With RM3,000 in donations from the Buddhist Society and the Japanese Women’s Group from Japan as well as CETDEM’s support, Siew went on to set up Malaysia’s first organic community farm. She started out on a small plot of land in Subang New Village on 3 Sept 1986, with three volunteers from SCI Penang joining her in October.

The first crop consisted of sweet corn, bayam, okra, sawi, peria, petola, long beans, tomatoes, French beans and tapioca. The farm would also receive 102 layer chicks from the Subang Breeding Farm. Spirits were high and sales from the first harvest began in November.

However, by the end of December, the number of volunteers had been reduced to one. Siew, who was farm coordinator, was left to tend the farm by herself until the farm was relocated to Sungai Buloh.

CETDEM was also looking for another site as there was no written assurance from the owner that it could use the site for a long term. In addition to that, other plots around the farm were heavy users of ag-rochemicals, which drifted into the farm and contaminated the irrigation water.

Transporting the produce to custom-ers was also a problem. Initially the vegetables had to be lugged by Siew in big sacks for a kilometre to the bus terminals. The committee began its search for a cheap and reliable vehicle since a German grant they had received to cover certain farm costs (organising work camps, tools and volunteers’ allowances) did not include this. Sceptics were doubtful of the farm’s economic viability.

The farm, however, continued to receive visits by children, especially those from orphanages who enjoyed getting their hands soiled, harvesting vegetable, catch-ing insects and handicraft activities related to organic farming.

In 1987, however, CETDEM founding member Datuk (now Tan Sri) Dr Salleh Mohd Nor made an offer: the organic farm could shift to his land at Kampung Paya Jaras Dalam in Sungai Buloh. As such the farm relocated to a new home, and work continued enthusiastically in full force. They also received partial funding from the international movement Bread For The World to help with the running of the farm from 1989–1992.

The farm was also garnering enough success to attract the attention of the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) and the Agriculture Department. In 1990, both parties would show an interest in organic farming, with the former particularly interested in the organic way of cultivating rice.

In years to come Siew was farming as well as conducting educational talks and camps on-site, introducing different groups of all ages to the joys of farming organically. But all of this added to her workload. This was compounded by the fact that it was hard to recruit additional staff. Other NGOs were also approached, but showed little interest.

Siew had hoped that the farm would serve a bigger purpose as a community development platform, but with the focus on production and logistics, this could not take off because it was too new a concept to the public. With other organic farms slowly starting to blossom in other areas, Siew felt that it was now time to take things to the next level with kitchen gardening, organic farming/gardening training courses, exhibitions, public forums, public talks and seminars to increase public awareness. CETDEM thus started the Kitchen Gardening Group (KGG), the Farmer’s Groups (FG) and the Friends of CETDEM Organic Farming Project (FCOFP), which saw it engaging the public and encouraging them to compost and start their own organic vegetable gardens in their backyards. It also provided advice to those who wanted to set up organic farms and shops.

With these re-evaluations and developments, CETDEM decided to close the farm in Sept, 1996, which was a very “difficult decision to make,” Siew said.The end of the farm, however, did not mean the end of CETDEM’s organic farming efforts in the slightest. There were numerous activities and events organised by Siew, who remained committed to the idea of the community coming together through farming and gardening.

In 1999, CETDEM went on to organise its first national exhibition and seminar on organic and natural produce and products, paving the way for more of such public events in the following years.

It also ended up working with the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and other stakeholders to come up with a national standard and certification scheme for organically produced foods.

Siew and CETDEM were getting duly recog-nised for their great work in pioneering organic farming. She was nominated by the then International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Asia for the Saika Award in 2001. Bestowed by the Japan Technological Institute Foundation, she was honoured for “her contribution and service to improve the environment through the promotion of organic production system in Asia”.

CETDEM eventually stepped up its efforts to promote organic farming, kitchen gardening, organic waste recycling and the joys of slow food. In 2007, the organisation set up the Organic Farming Community Centre (OFCC) in Section 19, Petaling Jaya. It became a hub of pride for the community, demonstrating the viability of urban or-ganic gardening with vegetables and fruit trees.

It is a long way from when she started farming in 1986, but Siew, with the support of CETDEM Board members, CETDEM Organic Farming Project members and volunteers, continues to promote organic farming through seminars, courses, exhibitions and Hari Organik. In the next section, Siew gives us a brief account of what it was like setting up the farm of her dreams.

In touch with the earth

from the perspective of TAN SIEW LUANG

She was a long term volunteer with the Service Civil International in the 70s serving in some of its peace missions in India and Northern Ireland, as well as back in Malaysia. In the 80s she also set up a SCI Group in Kuala Lumpur and a children’s playgroup in squatter areas in Sentul Pasar. But Siew would be getting much closer to earth in more ways than one.

She had enrolled in an 11-month organic farming course in Japan in 1984, where she learnt how to farm organically and mobilise the community to work towards the goal of self-sufficiency in food production. Upon her return to Malaysia, her first attempt was to get the by-then new SCI group to adopt the organic farming project. However she had to finally withdraw the project proposal as she realised that the new group could not comprehend her vision of setting up the organic farm.

“I approached other organisations about the possibility of an organic farm but somehow people got frightened with the idea of a “community farm” because they associated that kind of thing with communism. And then I met Gurmit and he would later approach the CETDEM board with the idea. That is how it all began,” she said.

It was difficult initially because I did not come from an agricultural background, although I had some training and experience from my time in Japan. I did not know where to begin but fortunately I had a friend in MARDI although he was rather skeptical about organic farming.

There were many challenges, such as a lack of funds, the initial transportation concerns, and when volunteers could not comprehend our concept and vision. People would also try to discourage us, and that was quite frustrating.

In the beginning we had adopted the direct home delivery system, and many of our regulars would not place orders during school holidays and festivals. People were more likely to eat out. I had no choice but to sell the vegetables cheaply to restaurants. Finally we decided to sell to the supermarket that was very supportive.

But we got through all the challenges. The farm demonstrated that a variety of vegetables can be grown in Malaysia without any use of synthetic agro-chemicals. We achieved this by inter-cropping, crop rotation, companion crops, insect-repellent plants, the use of homemade compost and organic fertilizer to improve soil fertility. We also had our supporters, CETDEM members and volunteers who helped us through all our efforts.

The farm also demonstrated how the natural equilibrium of the soil ecosystem could be restored through organic farming, and succeeded in introducing numerous Malaysians to the advantages of organically grown produce.

We have run work camps for adults and outings for children from 9 to 12 years old, and it is wonderful to see them experience what farming and gardening is like. I took great pride in the fact that people were able to experience the farm and see that you could really grow organic vegetables. It was a joy to also see people from different backgrounds come and learn things like farming organically, and how it really worked! They were excited to see vegetables growing and learning how waste could come to good use.

I also think it was more about personal development. I thought if I could learn and change, why not others? I think farming can be a platform for people from different backgrounds to come together.

I always believe that it is by living and working together, only then you will grow, develop and improve with the community. Because people are a mirror to you, and you will be able to see yourself and how you can become better. Overall the journey has been sweet and sour, and without much bitterness.

Plans & pushing onwards

As the farm continued through its trials and tribulations, CETDEM pushed for other projects it felt were important in its mission to use technology for sustainable development.

It sought support for an independent environmental monitoring laboratory in 1987, believing that such a lab would “lend analytical support to existing environmental and consumer organisations, especially by providing quick and independent data at a low cost during controversies like the present one on pesticide contamination of vegetables”.

CETDEM had hoped for an analytical laboratory, manned by chemists and supported by laboratory and field staff, but it could not come up with the estimated cost for such a project which would come to RM309,000. Disappointed but undaunted, CETDEM would instead turn its focus to a Technology Transfer Project which began in 1988 and was supported by funds from the Dutch Organisation for International De-velopment Co-operation (Novib), now known as Oxfam Novib. It may have been the 80s, but CETDEM was also already thinking about alternative energy projects.

As a committed advocate of sustainable development, CETDEM organised many Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) workshops and the EIA Methodologies Course. They trained hundreds on the necessity of EIAs and what was required to ensure development did not come at the expense of Mother Nature.

The EIA training events would be CETDEM’s only source of general income for a while. However, in 1988 the board raised concerns about the low number of participants and the “slackness of state governments in responding to requests on collaborations”. But the EIA sessions were not the only ones CETDEM was actively involved in. The organisation also conducted an Environmental Management Workshop for Lembaga Letrik Negara in 1987, and joined forces with the Department of Environment and the Malaysian Association of Engineers to organise development and environment seminars. In these early years, these seminars and workshops were CETDEM’s quiet but diligent behind-the-scenes contributions to ensuring that environmental protection had a strong system and base behind it.

Funding & Baby Steps Onto The World Stage

The first few years were to be challenging ones for CETDEM when it came to funding and international networking. As a fledgling organisation, these two matters proved to be interconnected. Gurmit was invited to various environmental conferences overseas, but he could not attend many of them as CETDEM was in no position to cover these costs. Most trips were possible only if they were funded.

The organisation was aware of its own predicament in relation to the projects it wanted to carry out and the scarce funds to support them. It was written in one of its reports that year that “The current financial situation of CETDEM was worrying”. For example, CETDEM was interested in board member Lean Kang’s proposal to buy and operate a toxic waste incinerator for research, but this did not pan out.

Even the Technology Transfer Project hit a snag when funds did not arrive and Gurmit had to seek out local and foreign sources that could be interested. In the end, however, and like most of its projects, CETDEM found a way. The “Environmentally Positive Technology Transfer Assessment Project”, as it was called, was successfully completed in 1988 with funding by Novib, and covered medium- and small-scale industries in the Klang Valley.

Even though there had to be selective international networking and participation in the early years, however, CETDEM’s ability for leadership was recognised early on. It became a founder member of the Malaysian Environment and Conservation Network (comprising EPSM, MNS, Fomca and CETDEM) in 1988. The network swung into action quickly, urging the Malaysian Pesticides Board to immediately gazette the draft Highly Toxic Pesticides Regulations 1989. It also demanded that the board take urgent steps to ban or severely restrict the remaining “Dirty Dozen” pesticides.

CETDEM also started receiving regular reports and publications from the International Environmental Liaison Centre, which saw the organisation as a potentially important regional player. The centre also invited Gurmit to submit a report on the lack of consultation with local NGOs on the proposed Malaysian Tropical Forestry Action Plan at the time.

The organisation also co-signed a global NGO letter to the World Bank President in 1988, expressing concern over the way World Bank funded projects created environmental problems. When there were funds or travel grants, Gurmit also represented CETDEM and Malaysia at conferences like the 2nd World Congress on Engineering and Environment in 1985 in New Delhi, India, as well as international symposiums on environmental protection and forestry in other countries.

CETDEM eventually became a member of the Nairobi-based International Environmental Liaison Centre, and took part in various other efforts to network with other environmental organisations. They may have been five interesting and challenging years, but 1985 to 1990 set the groundwork for the organisation and what it would do next.