Friday, November 23, 2018

Letter to the Editor: No Development Should Take Place In Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve


It is with alarm that environmentalists and concerned citizens learned today of the proposed degazettement and development of parts of the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve in Gombak. 

Bukit Lagong provides more than just recreational and ecotourism value to the Selangor State Government, residents and visitors. Forests such as the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve provide multiple ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, flood protection, air quality improvement and water purification. Healthy trees absorb solar energy and release water vapour, thus regulating climate and temperature. Intact forests safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and mitigate climate change. There is irrefutable data, including from various studies conducted by the World Bank, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wetlands International, to support the assertion that forests are worth much more intact than when depleted, logged or converted into plantations. The economic returns of forest clearing for logging or development are short lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. 

While the Selangor State Government’s action of calling for feedback and opening the proposed development for public inspection is an encouraging indication of greater transparency and participatory democracy, it must be emphasised that the opinion of the citizens, engineering professionals and the scientific and conservation community must also be taken into account, whether or not they have locus standi to object to the proposed development. Further, the feedback and objections from the public must be thoroughly considered, addressed and acted upon, not merely collected and then filed away to create the impression of civic participation. 

Any proposed development in an ecologically sensitive area with high conservation and high biodiversity value will adversely affect more than just people living in the immediate vicinity of the site. The clearing of forests for roads and construction will increase air and water pollution and the risk of soil erosion and landslides. The destruction of watershed areas will affect the entire state’s water supply and water quality. The opening up of access roads will create access not only for the construction vehicles, but also illegal loggers, poachers and wildlife traffickers. The construction of roads will fragment and bisect wildlife habitats, and the increase in traffic will result in wildlife deaths and wildlife-human conflict. The increase in motor vehicles and fossil fuel use in the area will contaminate the soil and groundwater with fuel runoffs. The clearing of trees will raise carbon dioxide emissions and reduce air quality. All these actions will affect more than just local residents. The damage to the environment will be irreversible, and yet those most severely affected by the destruction – namely, the trees and wildlife – have no suffrage and are unable to put in their written objections. 

The state government and developers have a duty of care not only to the local residents, but to all the living beings present and future who will foreseeably be harmed by the proposed development project. The well-being of the local human residents is interconnected with that of the local flora and fauna and even entities such as rivers and forests. 

The most preposterous thing about this proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is the fact that it is so patently wasteful and unnecessary. There is no shortage of viable housing development sites in Selangor. A study in June 2018 found that there are over 34,532 unsold completed residential units in Malaysia. Abandoned projects and lacklustre existing housing projects can be revived, improved and put back on the market. The advantage to reviving abandoned housing projects in urban and suburban areas is that there will often already be existing transportation, waste management and drainage infrastructure and systems, thus reducing the environmental and economic cost of providing housing. 

The proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is clearly not designed to meet the housing needs of the poorest and neediest, but to create an exclusive enclave for homebuyers who can afford the luxury of having a home in the heart of nature. The unfortunate cost of the privilege of living next to a forest reserve is that roads, sewage systems and waste management systems will have to be put in where there were none before, thus creating an additional burden on an already strained natural space. If the goals of proposed housing projects were to improve human quality of life, then such projects would be focused in urban areas close to amenities and infrastructures. The question of balancing environmental conservation and meeting human needs for adequate housing does not arise in this situation at all. 

The proposed Bukit Lagong development project must be immediately and irrevocably scrapped. It can benefit only an elite few but will harm a great many in the long run. I urge all concerned members of the public, whether or not you are residing in the vicinity of Bukit Lagong, to write in to the Director of the Selangor Forestry Department at Level 3, Bangunan Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, 40660 Shah Alam, Selangor, to politely and firmly state your objections to this irresponsible and indefensible proposal to degazette and develop the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve. 


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Hill Slope Development Comes With Many Environmental Risks


 The Bukit Kukus landslide tragedy is a grim reminder that hill slope development comes with many environmental and safety risks. Hill slope development causes erosion, habitat loss and air, water and noise pollution. It threatens wildlife, forests, water security, and soil integrity and stability. 

The Malaysian Cabinet had already drawn up a set of guidelines in 2009 prohibiting development on, inter alia, slopes exceeding 35 degrees, and slopes between 15-35 degrees showing signs of soil instability, erosion or other vulnerabilities. The Bukit Kukus tragedy involved an elevated road on a hill slope with a gradient reported to be 60-90 degrees. 

 The authorities are not unaware of the risks arising from, or the laws and guidelines in place in relation to, hill slope development. The guidelines include the National Slope Master Plan 2009 – 2023 issued by the Public Works Department, while the laws include the Land Conservation Act 1960, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Town and Country Planning Act 1976, and Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974. This clearly shows that there is no shortage of studies, guidelines, regulations and laws in Malaysia pertaining to hill slope development. What is lacking is the political will to enforce these laws and guidelines and to ensure the safety of people and the environment or the sustainability of the project. 

Blaming a massive landslide on rainy weather is irresponsible. Clearly the tragedy is not caused by merely rain and gravity, but corruption, apathy, irresponsibility and a willingness to cut corners and create wiggle room where there should be none. Intact land does not just spontaneously break off and descend on homes and roads when saturated with rainwater. If that were the case, then entire mountain ranges would be flattened annually during the monsoon season. 

Fatal landslides in Malaysia keep recurring because local and state authorities are willing to approve development projects on hill slopes, especially when given the assurance that mitigation measures, no matter how minimal and negligible, would be taken. However, no retaining wall or terrace can mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation, destruction of watershed areas, overdevelopment and mining, quarrying and construction activities near slopes. 

The Highland Towers collapse in 1993, Bukit Antarabangsa landslide in 2008, Hulu Langat landslide in 2011 and Tanjung Bungah landslide in 2017 all precede this latest incident, but decision-makers responded with words of regret and sympathy when strong policies and strict enforcement would have been more effective and would have prevented further tragedies. A prohibition on hill slope development on slopes exceeding a certain gradient should be treated as such, and not merely as a temporary freeze on hill slope development until public outrage simmers down. 

No development or construction activity should ever take place at a site in which the state and local authorities are unable to guarantee full compliance with safety guidelines or criteria. The profits to be gained from authorizing hill slope development work are paid for by construction workers and local residents with their safety and lives. Wildlife, rivers, forests and other natural entities pay the price with their existence. 

There must be a nationwide moratorium on all hill slope development. Existing projects must be reviewed, mitigation measures carried out and laws strictly and transparently enforced. The parties responsible for this fatal landslide must be held to account. Previously forested areas that had been cleared for hill slope development must be rehabilitated. The cost of hill slope development on the environment and communities is simply too high to be justified any longer. 


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Illegal Plastic Recycling Factories Highlight Need For Real Solutions


New Zealand news portal RadioNZ’s recent exposé of the illegal plastic recycling industry in Jenjarom and other plantation hinterlands in Malaysia to deal with plastic waste imported from New Zealand and the UK highlights the fact that most of the world, including developed nations with ostensibly clear waste management and recycling legislation, are ill-equipped to deal with plastic waste.  

The irony of this fact (i.e. the import and processing of plastic waste in Malaysia) is not lost on environmentally-aware Malaysians who applauded Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin’s latest announcement on Sept 14 that Malaysia would be phasing out and eventually banning single-use plastics.

All our efforts to reduce plastic waste and microplastic pollution would translate into very low environmental and health returns if plastic recyclers – mostly unlicensed and unregulated – are allowed to carry out operations and continue processing plastic waste that had entered Malaysia prior to the Minister’s Sept 1 announcement of a restriction on plastic waste imports.

The plastics manufacturing industry tries to convince the public that littering, ignorance about recycling and lack of recycling facilities – and not the production of plastics per se – are the problem.

But the real problem is that we are using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste as the world is becoming more industrialised. The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastics as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more and more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience, and most of these plastics can never be recycled.

Plastic recycling is a labour-intensive process. Plastic waste has to be broken down, cleaned, separated by grade and made into pellets. This means that manufacturing plastic from scratch is always more economically rewarding than recycling plastics, even with subsidies and recycling-related legislation in place.

Developed nations often believe that legislating and incentivizing recycling and collecting plastics for recycling is the same thing as ensuring that plastics are being properly recycled. What the general public often is not aware of is that developed nations take the easy option of exporting plastic waste to developing nations --- the very same developing nations whose rivers are identified as the source of 90% of marine plastics, the very same developing nations lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste.

It could take years for Britain, USA and European nations to increase their domestic recycling capacities. Even so, existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality.

In the meantime, more and more plastic products will continue to be produced, used and discarded, and many countries will resort to burning plastics for energy recovery or landfilling plastic waste. However, burning plastic creates harmful dioxins, and if incinerators are inefficient, these dioxins leak into the environment. Burning plastic for energy generation is also very carbon-intensive and contribute to increased carbon emissions. Burying plastic waste in landfills may appear to be safer but this is a really inefficient use of land, and studies have found that the degradation of plastic waste in oceans and landfills actually produce methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases.

The solution to the problem of plastic waste doesn’t lie in recycling more, or replacing plastics with other types of disposable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is linked to other environmental problems, which include increased carbon and methane emissions in landfills, deforestation, higher water and land use, and higher fuel use due to the fact that paper and plant fibre products weigh more than plastics.

The solution to the problem of plastic waste lies not in setting up yet more licensed and legal plastic recycling plants in Malaysia and other developing nations, as there will always be unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste and toxic byproducts to deal with. The solution does not lie in individual countries banning the import of plastic waste in order to protect their own population from reduced air quality and other environmental hazards, as there will be other developing nations and impoverished societies desperate enough to accept imports of plastic waste.

The solution lies in creating a circular economy that does not rely on shipping materials across oceans to be reused, but keeps resources in use for as long as possible in the economic cycle. The solution to the problems of plastic waste lie in reducing dependency on all single-use and disposable items, creating more closed loop and low-waste systems, creating and sustaining a bigger market for reusables, and making zero waste stores and products available, accessible and affordable to all, not just to higher income, urban, educated and expatriate communities.

The Malaysian Government is taking a step in the right direction by raising awareness, phasing out single-use plastics, enforcing laws against open burning, banning the import of plastic waste and regulating the plastics recycling industry. What we need now is for the Malaysian public to stop treating environmental issues as political or economic issues, and to instead understand that environmental and human health are interconnected. What we need now is to stop seeing the problem of plastic waste management as the fault of high-consuming, affluent developed nations, or the fault of developing nations with high corruption levels and flawed waste management systems – and to start seeing it as a shared responsibility.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Letter to the Editor: ECRL cancellation financially and environmentally the right move


The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipeline projects makes economic and environmental sense. For the sake of Malaysia’s natural environment, it is hoped that none of these projects would be revived even when it becomes financially viable to proceed with them at a later stage. 

The ECRL, had the construction works proceeded, would have bisected the Rantau Panjang Forest Reserve (RPFR) into two separate forest areas. This would have effectively fragmented over 230 hectares of the RPFR, cut off any possible safe wildlife corridors and increased the risk of human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife deaths. 

The plans for the proposed ECRL rail alignment also showed that it was to cut through a section of mangrove forest as it approached Port Klang. This would have grave consequences on the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the area, which as we all know, plays an important role in erosion prevention, flood mitigation, water quality regulation, and as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Not only that, the project would have also been detrimental to the livelihood, agricultural and fishing activities and water supply of the local coastal communities. The project is said to be capable of creating business and employment opportunities, but it is foreseeable that it would also affect the livelihood and quality of life of rural communities. It is hoped that all future infrastructure projects will take these factors into consideration before proposing activities that will alter the landscape of mangrove forests.

The ECRL project, had it proceeded, would affect up to 12 forest reserves, including the Central Forest Spine (CFS), 5 major rivers in Kelantan, 16 rivers in Terengganu, 5 rivers in Pahang and 1 river in Selangor. The environmental cost of the project is simply too high for a rail link that most Malaysians perceive to be an expensive convenience that may be nice to have but is inessential and unnecessary. 

Although the ECRL project team and the previous Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment had in 2017 attempted to reassure environmental organisations that the project would reduce forest loss and wildlife deaths through the use of an estimated 45 tunnels and 29 wildlife viaducts, it cannot be denied that wildlife populations, air and water quality and forested areas would still be adversely affected by the project, both during the construction process and after the completion of the project. Tunnels, fences and wildlife viaducts and crossings may not always provide a solution and may indeed create fresh problems for wildlife populations. Fences erected to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto railway tracks could further fragment habitats and limit a species’ natural range and breeding opportunities. A study conducted by wildlife researchers with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) from 2011-2013 on the effectiveness and usefulness of wildlife viaducts found that the viaducts studied were only effective crossing structures for only a few species, and that some species took a longer time to adapt to new crossing structures (Source: The Star, 22 Sept 2014). In the meantime, more wildlife lives would be lost to traffic and human-wildlife conflict, including hunting and illegal poaching. The same study also recorded the presence of hunters and campers at the viaducts, thus highlighting the fact that one cannot just construct a wildlife viaduct and expect it to mitigate wildlife deaths by the mere fact of its existence. Wildlife viaducts and crossings need constant maintenance and monitoring, and in spite of this may still not register the desired level of effectiveness. The best option is always to divert and realign any proposed infrastructures away from environmentally-sensitive areas. Opening up forested areas for road, highway and railway construction has almost invariably led to an increase in illegal logging, poaching, and hunting and the conversion of forests into land for human activity.

Now that the project has been cancelled and construction sites and cleared forests will be left behind, I support and commend Ketari assemblywoman Young Shefura Othman’s recommendation that the abandoned project sites be restored and replanted with trees without delay to prevent greater environmental damage, landslides, flash floods and the encroachment of poachers, loggers and illegal settlers. 

The viability of all existing and future infrastructure projects should not merely be based on the availability of funds and the projected return on investment. It should always prioritise the environment and consider factors such as how it would affect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, hill slopes. wildlife and bird habitats, water and air quality, and rural and indigenous communities. Financial debts can be paid off over time, but environmental damage and biodiversity loss can be almost impossible to rectify. 


Monday, August 6, 2018

Quick Facts About Marine Plastics


1.      Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tons of plastic are entering our oceans every year. That’s a rubbish truck full every minute. Single-use packaging for food and drink is a particularly common part of the problem.

2.      About 1/5 of marine litter is made up of fishing gear, materials lost at sea by accident, industrial losses or illegal dumping. Roughly 4/5 (80%) of marine litter comes from land.

3.      When plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it can be at risk of falling off, blowing away and ending up in the environment. Even in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in drains, rivers and oceans because of its light weight.

4.      Plastic litter end up carried by wind and rain into our drainage networks or rivers, where they eventually flow into the sea. Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15 – 2.41 million tons of plastics into the oceans every year.

5.      Lenient standards in industrial processes are responsible for some plastic, particularly small bits of plastic resin pellets called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid’s tears’, getting into the environment, either when products containing plastic are not disposed of properly, or when these plastics escape during the production or transportation processes.

6.      Many of the products we use daily, including wet wipes, cotton buds, sanitary products, microbeads from cosmetics and cleaning products and microfibers from clothes, are flushed down toilets or sinks and released into our waterways. Microbeads and microfibers are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and end up being consumed by marine animals.

(Sources: and


1.      90% of marine plastics come from just 10 rivers in the world. 8 of these are in Asia: Yangtze, Indus, Yellow (Huanghe), Hai He, Ganges, Pearl, Amur and Mekong. 2 are in Africa: Nile and Niger.

2.      These rivers all have 2 things in common: A generally high population living in the surrounding region – sometimes into the hundreds of millions – and an inadequate and flawed waste collection and management process.

3.      Nearly 1/3 of plastics in the world are not properly collected, recycled or disposed of, as these countries lack strong waste management infrastructure. These plastics end up as litter in the world’s lands, rivers and oceans.

4.      The world is on track to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050, with fewer living in poverty than today. Thanks to the rapid industrialisation of developing countries like China, India and Malaysia, the global middle class is exploding, meaning a lot more people want to buy a lot more things. Often these fancy new things are sold in ways that were uncommon 20-30 years ago – vegetables individually wrapped in clingfilm, party packs and door gifts, and individually wrapped biscuits and crackers.

5.      This does not mean that wealthier or developed nations do not need to address their use of plastic – they still do! All nations and corporations must make efforts to reduce plastic production and use. The problem isn’t merely that plastic waste is not managed properly. It is that way too much plastic is being produced. Even in developed nations such as the UK, only 1/3 of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled.

[Sources: World Economic Forum (, World Resources Institute ( and Ellen Macarthur Foundation (]


1.      Existing recycling technology isn’t good enough. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. This is largely due to limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives.

2.      The trouble is that we are also using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste. We use 20 times as much plastic as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more and more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience. This is a problem because when exposed to sunlight, oxygen or water, plastics will not biodegrade but will fragment into smaller and smaller particles until these microplastics enter into the food chain, air, soil and water. Latest studies show that plastic also releases methane  -- a potent greenhouse gas – as it decomposes.

3.      Not all plastic is recyclable. Recycling won’t be able to deal with foam products, microbeads, microfibers, plastic-coated products and oxo-degradable plastic bags. For example, disposable coffee cups are made of high quality cellulose fibres and a polyethylene inner coating that are tightly bonded together and consequently, difficult to separate and recycle.

4.      Many developed nations, including those in the European Union, have taken the easy option of exporting plastic waste to China and other developing countries – the same countries lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste! The assumption is that these plastics are being properly recycled, but in reality, the public and government have little idea where the plastic ultimately ends up after it has been exported. It is likely that poor quality materials end up in the local, inadequate waste management system. The developed world clearly needs a circular economy – one that does not rely on shipping materials halfway around the world for them to be reused, but one that keeps resources in use for as long as possible and recovers and keeps materials in the economic cycle.

[Sources: World Resources Institute ( and Grantham Institute (]

Monday, July 30, 2018

Letter To The Editor: Reconsider Construction of PIL1 Highway


The Penang State Government should consider all points of view before being defensive over the proposed Pan-Island Link 1 (PIL1) highway plans. Before the 14th General Elections, Pakatan Harapan had promised to review mega projects and re-evaluate the necessity, economic feasibility and benefits of highway and infrastructure projects. Concerned citizens have now highlighted the risks of increased air, water and soil pollution and increased traffic from the proposed PIL1 highway plans. To dismiss their concerns would be to dismiss the concepts of transparency, democracy and public participation that the Pakatan Harapan government claims to be committed to.   

Whether or not PIL1 will result in the decrease of property values or cut through Penang’s Youth Park is secondary to the undeniable fact that PIL1, and indeed, any highway construction project, will result in poorer water and air quality for residents, and possibly more dry spells due to reduced watershed areas, and more wildlife roadkills due to greater fragmentation of areas able to support animal and bird populations.

The construction process itself will result in an increase in air and water pollution, waste generated and traffic congestion due to construction vehicles and traffic diversions. Road and highway projects do not benefit the lower-income and marginalized groups who cannot afford to own vehicles and use highways, and yet these are the groups most likely to be adversely affected by heavier traffic, noise pollution and poorer air quality.

The argument that highways are necessary for the alleviation of traffic congestion is fallacious, and anyone involved in public planning and transport policies can attest to the fact that the construction of more roads and highways will only lead to the well-known and long-established effect known as “induced traffic”.

Whenever a new road is built, more traffic will divert onto it, as more motorists would make the decision to make trips they would otherwise not make, and travel longer distances because of the presence of a new road. Commuters who would otherwise plan their trips and manage their time in order to carpool or take public transport would be persuaded to drive instead, as the existence of a new highway would persuade them that it would be more comfortable, convenient and time-saving to drive. Instead of planning their routes to avoid peak hour traffic, motorists would opt to drive on highways in the belief that it could accommodate more traffic and shorten their routes.

The solutions to the problem of traffic congestion are to make better use of the state’s existing road and transport systems, improve public transport, reduce incentives for private vehicle usage, and improve road safety for public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians. Penang and indeed most of Peninsular Malaysia has the infrastructure for an efficient public transport system, but unfortunately not the political will or societal commitment to make public transport systems reliable, punctual, convenient, affordable and safe. Improving road safety and the public transport system will use less public funds, benefit a greater strata of society, have a lower environmental and carbon footprint and take less time to implement than constructing more highways and roads.

Just as adding new roads and highways would not reduce traffic congestion, removing existing roads will not exacerbate the problem either. When Paris downsized and reduced roadways, motorists simply readjusted to the new system and up to 20% of commuters switched to public transport. When San Francisco removed the Central Freeway in 1989, motorists eased into using a smaller boulevard without difficulty. When Seoul shut down a highway and replaced it with a river, parkland and smaller roads, traffic situations did not change but air quality and city living conditions improved. The Penang State Government is not required to make a decision as radical as closing down existing roads. It would, however, be courageous and responsible for it to review and reconsider the necessity of PIL1.