Upping the Ante -1990 to 1995

With more projects and forums, CETDEM would make its presence felt from 1990 to 1995, and Malaysians were starting to sit up and listen.

The 90s had begun in earnest and there were more discussions about environmental degradation, although the topics and concepts left much to be desired.

“Although the Earth Summit in 1992 made commitments to the concept of sustainable development, the practical parameters of this environmental form of development had not been adequately agreed on,” Gurmit said in a 1994 regional conference.

Gurmit felt there was a need for Malaysia to filter the rhetoric and commit to action at the national planning level, particularly when it came to programmes formed with sustainable development in mind.

Very encouragingly, CETDEM’s first public forum on the topic of “Rio and After” was held in Petaling Jaya in July 1992 to an almost full house attendance. They also successfully held their first Kem Alam Sekitar (Environmental Camp) for children in 1995. Siew, as farm coordinator, would also give talks at TMC & Hankyu Jaya in Bangsar, and to various groups in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. CETDEM would also continue to make its voice heard nationally, such as issuing a joint statement with others on the Bakun Dam controversy.

“We the Malaysian organisations listed below, are appalled at the recent ploys that have surrounded the controversial Bakun Hydroelectric Project in Sarawak, especially since most of the public concerns of the past have not been satisfactorily addressed up to this day! These concerns include the lack of public accountability, the ineffectiveness of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process and regulations, the use of public funds for a privatised project, and the overall lack of due care for the environment.

To interpret the recent Barisan election victory as an outright and blanket endorsement of this project is stretching credulity to the limit, since the environmental plank of the Barisan election manifesto made no mention of Bakun.”

— In a joint statement of nine organisations, including
EPSM, CETDEM, Aliran, Hakam and Suaram, 1st June, 1995.

Besides advocacy work, CETDEM also took its research and policy work seriously, as well as deepened its efforts with long term projects. It completed phase two of the Technology Transfer Project during this time, and the farm continued to consolidate its work. Siew visited other organic farms in South Korea and Hong Kong to exchange information. In a 1991 report, Siew noted that their produce was now being “sold fairly regularly at two supermarkets, one each in PJ and KL”.

During this time, CETDEM saw greater public and government interest in the organic farming project. More individuals were inquiring about the farm’s practices and seeking advice on starting their own organic gardens, and these included a few businessmen.

Ideas of standards for organic produce were also being explored through the Eco Labelling Committee established by the Standards and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia or Sirim. The inaugural Organic Farming work camp for secondary students was held at the farm, funded by the DOE.

In line with its greater visibility, more articles were written about CETDEM, including those featured in the New Straits Times, The Star, Her World and other publications. Publications produced by the organisation in 1993 were Promoting Environmental Audits in Malaysia and How to Farm Organically. In 1994, CETDEM published the Proceedings of the Regional Seminar: Implementation of The Basel Convention.

CETDEM launched its new Internet email address cetdem@po.jaring.my in 1995 as it embraced the realm of cyberspace and its possibilities.

Recognition beckons

With CETDEM’s public profile rising, its founder members were also being recognised for their hard work and dedication to the environment.

In 1991, Datuk Dr Salleh received the inaugural Langkawi Environmental Award, while Prof Sham Sani was appointed to the Tun Abdul Razak Chair in Ohio University, USA. These marks of recognition would boost CETDEM’s standing as the country’s main intellectual resource when it came to the environment. Siew was also invited as a keynote speaker for events on organic farming, such as the Asian Forum on Sustainable Agriculture in the Philippines.

Gurmit represented CETDEM at the NGO Dialogue with the Environment Minister in 1992 and presented a paper at the MIER Workshop on Climate Change in 1993. He was also invited, along with CETDEM chairman Mano Maniam, to a dialogue between the Prime Minister and the professional and corporate sector on the National Vision in 1994.

As a sign of its growing standing, CETDEM joined the Malaysian Climate Core Group (MCCG) and was asked by the Malaysian Organic Farming Network (Mofan) to become its coordinator.

On the global scene, there were many highlights for CETDEM in the years between 1990 to 1995, and some of the notable ones include:

  • Participation in the South East Asia NGOs meeting on Climate Convention in Jakarta in 1991 and the Green Deal Conference in Brussels in 1993.
  • The executive director representing the MCCG at the 9th Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee session on Climate Change in Geneva.
  • Information exchanges with organisations and parties such as the Hong Kong Productivity Council, the Forum for Energy and Development (Denmark) and Development Alternatives (India).
  • Requests for advice on proposed research, such as the one on the Sustainable Management of Tropical Timber by two researchers from the University of Sussex.
  • The organic farm was getting attention from international observers, and in one instance seven Indonesian farmers joined local farmers in a visit to the farm to exchange views and experiences.

A well deserved recognition would also come in 1993 when CETDEM’s main mover was honoured for his dedication to the environment. Gurmit received the Langkawi Award from the Malaysian Government in October, the second board member in the organisation to receive this award.

In the next section, we look into Gurmit’s journey with CETDEM and his thoughts on the organisation and environmental issues he has committed his life to.

An environmental hero

from the perspective of GURMIT SINGH

CETDEM would not be the organisation it is today without its founder, champion and advocate in the embodiment of Gurmit.

A staunch environmentalist and social activist, he has dedicated almost four decades of his personal life championing the cause he holds so dear.

A man who breathes, eats and lives a sustainable lifestyle, he famously once upstaged the Minister of Environment in 1978 when he cycled to Taman Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur from the other side of town and beat an EPSM member’s car in journey time. He does not own a car and chooses to travel by public transport whenever he can.

He steadfastly continues to confront the authorities and other environmental groups alike, network with global environmentalists, engages with government agencies and private sectors, takes part in policy discussions and educates the public seamlessly.

Formerly an electrical engineer with the Rubber Research Institute, he was elected president of the Environmental Protection Society, Malaysia in January 1974. His passion for environmental issues grew stronger and stronger, and he found that his position in RRI had become untenable because of his outspoken statements for the EPSM and the Selangor Graduates Society. He resigned and became a freelance engineer.

Gurmit formed CETDEM in 1985 with a small group of like-minded friends. The organisation became the environmental platform that he would dedicate his life to. As CETDEM’s executive director from 1985 to December 2006 (before he became its chairman), he channelled all his energy to the organisation, shunning most home comforts. Gurmit organised and managed many of CETDEM’s key programmes over the years, including the Mobilising Malaysians on Climate Change project, the Capacity Building in Sustainable Energy Usage in Urban Households project, and the Documentation and Demonstration Centre for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Urban Households. He also worked closely with the Petaling Jaya community on Sustainable Energy Usage in 2006, among many other initiatives.

Known for confronting the authorities and anybody else on the environment without mincing his words, Gurmit has spent years organising and managing national and international courses, workshops and studies.

He has also been active in many other environment related initiatives, serving on the Department of Environment’s Ad Hoc Review Panels for the Environmental Impact Assessment Reports on the Asian Rare Earth Waste Disposal site in Perak, the Titanium Dioxide Plant in Terengganu and the Chlor-alkali Plant in Johor.

He was also on the DOE’s panels looking at Singapore’s Linggiu Reservoir in Johor, Malaysian Titanium Corporation’s plant in Perak and Malaysian Integrated Scheduled Waste Management Centre in Negeri Sembilan.

Gurmit works with people on the ground, attends committee meetings of various groups and advises top government agencies on environmental issues. On almost every topic on the environment, he has vast amounts of information gleaned throughout the years at his fingertips. The environmentalist is so respected for his views that he has also served on the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment’s Environmental Laws Review Committee, its Environment Policy Drafting Committee and similar committees of the Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment since July 2005.

In addition to that he has delivered over 400 papers at local and international seminars and meetings on the environment, conservation, energy, engineering, technology, research, climate change and human rights. He also has a book titled Beyond Me and Mine. It has not been an easy ride all these years, Gurmit acknowledges. Early on, he said, environmentalists like him were treated as anti-government and anti-nationalist, and were given a hard time. He saw how important the issues were, however, and he persevered.

There were very few in society who were willing to spend the time to do the work that needed to be done. Gurmit trudged on, committed to walking the talk, and continuing the fight for the environment.

“The fundamental issues need to be resolved otherwise we will never solve our environmental problems. The Klang River is as dirty as it was in 1975. So how can you say our environment has improved? You could say I am still at it because the problems have not been solved,” he once said.

And as we will see in the interview below, the man may have gone through a lot over the years, but there is still plenty of fire in his belly.

Question & Answer With Gurmit Singh:

What was the start like for CETDEM?

One of the ideas we had was that as a company we would have fewer hassles than a society, and we could do things a little bit more efficiently. But we found out that we had to have auditors and needed to pay them each year to submit our accounts. We had to pay a lawyer to get our company registered. As a society we need not have done that. We were lucky for the first 10 years because someone helped us with the mandatory secretarial work. We listed 10 development projects.

Then reality set in — that it wasn’t that easy. One of the problems we had was that not everyone would work with equal enthusiasm, and I guess it ended up that actually at times I was the only one doing things. But it was okay because I was being paid a nominal amount and I felt like I had the obligation to see the organisation survive.

When Siew came along in 1986 and came up with the idea for the farm, that was quite helpful.We thought it could be a revenue centre for us, but this did not happen and we actually had problems sustaining it for the first few years.

Any memorable moments from those early years?

The first few years of the farm was a struggle. It was a challenging time. Then of course there were the glaring flops, like trying to set up a windmill at the farm. We did not do background work, did not find how strongly the wind blows. (Laughs) We put up the windmill but the area did not have much wind, and that taught us that you don’t do projects of that kind without first getting baseline data.

I still believe in wind energy, although I realise now that because we are in the doldrums, geographically speaking, the winds are not strong. So practicalities do upset our plans. Wind potential is limited to some coastal areas and some areas in northern Sabah.

Could you tell us about the research and reports CETDEM produced over the years?

For the first five years, we managed to do a project on small- and medium-scale industries using environmentally sound technology. It was one of our first major research areas in an area where few had attempted to look at. Another major report was the assessment of renewable energy, we did that in late 90s with Danish government funding.

I think it was the first nationwide attempt to assess why renewable energy work was so poor in the country, and now it is referred to by people as a baseline study. Subsequent to that were our attempts to push the biodiversity policy in the region.

In a way that effort showed us the state of flux and uncertainty in many mega-biodiversity countries in Asean, even in their policy commitments.

There are also the studies we did on energy usage, and we managed to get data from 50 urban households. I was proud that even the Economic Planning Unit came to get data from us about that, and until today there are very few studies that give the same level of information.

We are also proud of the study we did about energy usage in schools, and the documenting we have done about farming with the community and composting. Our farm exhibitions and Hari Organik are breakthroughs, because as far as I know nobody in Malaysia has managed to do that.

CETDEM obviously has quite some clout now when it comes to dealing with the authorities or policymakers when it comes to the environment. Could you tell us about this journey?

I think things started when I was appointed to the national Environment Quality Council in 1986, initially as the EPSM representative. This presence would continue until 2009 when I decided I did not want to continue.

But I think this was a form of recognition by the Department of Environment and my contributions were acknowledged. I was reappointed every two years and was usually the most outspoken at the meetings. Of course they did not like me sitting there because I was like the thorn in their flesh, but then eventually they found out I knew more about things because I had the experience and knowledge from my international exposure.

As director-generals would change, I had a longer memory of things so there was the value to that. I was also involved in the global climate change negotiations, and we developed good relationships with negotiators at the international arena although not all of this was reflected back home.

I presume that after a period of time, they felt that, like it or not, I was competent enough, because they would give me the entire Malaysian climate change reports to review.

How was it like dealing with environmental issues cropping up now and then?

At CETDEM we have been very careful about commenting on issues publicly. When we do not have facts we would not comment. For example, on the recent sand mining issue (in Selangor) we have to ask if data from government agencies was even available in the first place. I kept asking, “Can you tell me what was the condition of the land before mining? What is the major issue if it is ex-mining land anyway?”

We are still not accepted by all government ministries, and not invited to certain dialogues like other environmental NGOs. But we have submitted our views to them, such as us submitting a memorandum on a comprehensive sustainable energy policy to (former Minister of Energy, Water and Communications) Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik. It shows the sort of policy thinking we are trying to do and influence.

Has it worked?

In the Ninth Malaysia Plan, we submitted, along with other NGOs, a report to the government about the assessment of Malaysia’s performance in protecting the environment and the shortfalls. There was no acknowledgement. These matters were also not addressed in the Ninth and Tenth Malaysia Plans.

And now because there is MENGO, the Malaysian Environmental NGOs grouping, the government does not meet us directly. They ask MENGO to get two or three representatives together to attend meetings when there are 16 of us. We are very different and we all do not necessarily support the same positions.

Thus the direct interaction of NGOs with the EPU has been obstructed. That is why I was not keen to form a federation of NGOs because what happens is the common position will be the least common denominator, and they will deal with the umbrella body and let people fight among themselves.

Could you give us an example of the difference of the positions of environmental NGOs?

When Datuk Khir Toyo was the Menteri Besar of Selangor, MENGO had submitted a memorandum on the opposition to the incinerator that was going to be built.

We did not agree with the position, which was a total “no” to incinerators. That is not our position. Basically the majority of the people behind CETDEM were technologists, either in hard technology or biological sciences.

We have always believed that we should be able to bear in mind what technologies are available, be in a position to comment on that technology, and then see whether that technology will help solve the problem that the government is trying to solve.

In the case of incinerators, we believe that maybe in certain cases incinerators are necessary but they have to be properly designed.

Our concern is that Malaysia’s maintenance record is very poor and any high technology equipment has to be properly maintained or it will fail to function. When it came to the Broga incinerator, many were not happy that I was not prepared to condemn the incinerator and they stopped inviting me.

But I told them, “Look, if you see similar incinerators working in Singapore, for example, you cannot condemn that?” So it is a conditional approval, but we must ensure that certain things must be there before that happens. And if others argue that there must be complete recycling instead of the incinerator, my question is if that is not in place yet, then what do you do with the existing problem?

Of course in the long-term we should be talking about reducing consumption and the generation of waste.

Any disappointments throughout these years in CETDEM?

There was disappointment when people made promises and did not deliver. Sometimes people would agree to a proposal but would not come up with ideas to support it. Sometimes I felt like I had to shoulder most of the burden, and of course that gave the impression that this was a one-man show.

What makes you happy about CETDEM?

The very fact that we have survived for 25 years! We were at the forefront of issues like climate change and organic farming. We are the regional co-ordinator for Climate Action Network -- SouthEast Asia for the third time, and that is something to be proud of. I would say I am reasonably satisfied with what we have done in 25 years. Of course I would be happier if we had done much more, happier if we had been able to attract more active board and ordinary members. We are, again, looking into how to get more members actively involved.

What more do you wish for?

We tried to do so many things but they did not really go through. For example we wanted to set up this mobile laboratory, it was a project that we could not raise money for. We wanted to provide an independent facility for ordinary Malaysians who were worried about things like water quality problems in their areas, providing them with facts and figures so they could fight the issue more substantively. CETDEM wants to move into water in a bigger way, but this time, more on a policy level.

Reaching a decade, what is next?

It was not just the farm’s future that was being talked about. Gurmit told board members that since 1995 would mark CETDEM’s 10th Anniversary, the occasion could be used to evaluate its performance. There were even suggestions to consider if it would be more appropriate to change the organisation’s name to “Centre for Sustainable Development Malaysia”.

There were hopes of raising around RM500,000 to cover basic operating costs for at least five years, without having to rely on projects or course incomes, as well as attracting influential members of the private sector to become CETDEM members or directors.

Discussions were held on the proposed “institutional strengthening” of CETDEM, to ensure it had a sustainable mode of operations as well as more support staff such as a training coordinator, research and consultancy coordinator and a documentation and funding coordinator.

By this time, after returning from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared that NGOs were no longer the enemies of the government.

Malaysia had played a prominent role at the summit, with Mahathir leading the call for sustainable development. We saw the Langkawi Award being given to environmentalists in subsequent years. But was this followed up by action? Environmental problems continued to fester and grow. Although the Penang Hill Development project had been stopped at the Environmental Impact Assessment stage, we saw the Pulau Redang development project and the Bakun Dam being pushed through.

Tropical logging has continued, toxic wastes have been dumped in oil palm plantations and air pollution from motor vehicles has worsened with the escalating car sales since Proton was set up.

It was quite apparent that for all CETDEM was doing in advocacy and influencing government policy, environmental degradation was occurring more quickly and intensely than ever. Environmental activists and organisations like CETDEM had their work cut out for them.