Malaysia is weeks away from what is shaping up to be the closest national election in its history — but its environmental crisis is largely neglected by political leaders.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, has grown beyond its limits and sits in a sea of filth. Rainforests are being torn down — especially in the fragile ecosystem on Borneo — by loggers and to make way for palm oil plantations. Controversial hydroelectric dams are under construction.
Environmental groups and opponents often accuse federal and state governments and big business of widespread corruption and steamrolling over environmental concerns.
Malaysia’s overriding target is to become a developed nation with an average income of US$15,000 (A$14,470) by 2020 — from just under US$10,000 last year.
In a 26 February poll by the respected Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, the economy, crime and social problems are Malaysians’ biggest concerns.
The environment did not even rate a mention. Yet Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak, on Borneo, exports more tropical timber than South America and Africa combined, according to environmental activist group Global Witness. Sarawak has lost 95 per cent of its jungles in recent decades.
“Sarawak’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has ruled the state for more than three decades and controls all land allocation and forestry licensing,” Global Witness said in a recent report.
“He is widely understood to abuse this power to enrich his family and associates”
Taib, a close ally of embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, and his family have amassed a US$20 billion fortune in his more than three decades in power.
The 76 year-old patriarch travels in a chauffeured silver Rolls Royce in one of Malaysia’s poorest states.
Across mainland Malaysia and Borneo, the next government faces major problems with deforestation, polluted waterways, soil and coastal erosion, over-fishing and coral reef destruction, as well as air pollution and disposing of waste, says the WWF.
Malaysia’s federal and state governments see exploiting the country’s vast natural resources as critical to achieving developed nation status by the target of 2020.
Malaysia has some of the greatest biodiversity on the plant. But it is being threatened by this drive for development.
There are very few environmental checks and balances and, in a country where corruption is rife from the top down, virtually no punishment for abuse.
Many lucrative contracts are handed out to businesses with links to the Barisan Nasional (United Front) coalition which rules federally and in Sarawak and several other states.
Indeed, Najib recently praised Taib’s record but said it did not go far enough.
“Sarawak has tremendous potential to become a developed state,” he said. “[But] it has yet to exploit its natural resources.”
Environmental concerns last year prompted one of the world’s biggest investors, Norway’s $710 billion sovereign wealth fund, to pull out of palm oil investment — mainly in Malaysia and Indonesia — according to its annual report released this month.
A review by the fund said forests were being cleared for palm oil plantations. Malaysia is the world’s largest palm oil producer after Indonesia. Palm oil is used in many foods and consumer goods, such as soap, lipstick and peanut butter.
Taib has embarked on an ambitious and controversial plan to build 12 dams for hydroelectricity by 2020 — a plan opposed by environmentalists and social activists.
They say it will damage the rainforests and displace indigenous tribes and benefit only an elite few.
Another controversial project is the development of a $780 million rare earth minerals refining plant by Australia’s Lynas Corporation on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsular, reported on late last year by New Matilda's Wendy Bacon. The courts have rejected environmental objections and the project will go ahead.
Rare earth minerals are used in everything from wind turbines to smartphones to cruise missiles.
Although polls and “coffee shop talk” show hip-pocket issues and crime overshadowing environmental problems in the federal election, which must be held by end-June, at least one activist is standing for parliament.
Himpunan Hijau (Green Group) head Wong Tack will stand for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). But he said the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) understands his position he was standing as a green independent.
But most analysts agree it’s a federal election that will hinge on populist handouts — “Santa Claus politics” as Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper put it.
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