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
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.