Monday, 31 January 2011

Letter to the Editor: Cleanliness A Critical Issue At Batu Caves During Thaipusam


I commend the Selangor State Government for enforcing its directive against having entertainment and gaming activities in places of worship ("Taking the fun out of the fair", Metro, Jan 19). Not only does the annual Thaipusam funfair at the Batu Caves temple complex pose a hazard to human safety, it also generates excessive noise and light pollution in an area known for its natural beauty and as a religious sanctuary.

Another pressing concern at Batu Caves and most other tourist destinations in Malaysia is that of litter and waste management. On Saturday, 22.1.2011, I joined a multiracial band of volunteers called "Sampah Masyarakat" to clean up the Batu Caves temple complex. Our group of 50 volunteers collected approximately 12 tonnes of rubbish in under 4 hours. Although following Sampah Masyarakat's cleanup campaigns in previous years, the Batu Caves temple complex committee has responded to our requests to provide more rubbish bins, it is noted that the volume of rubbish still exceeded the bins' capacities. Rubbish consisting mostly of food waste that was piled up next to bins remained uncollected, while plastic bags and styrofoam packaging were carried all over the temple complex by wind and rainwater due to their lightness. Despite the greenwashing propagated by the plastics industry, plastic bags and styrofoam are not recyclable, especially when contaminated with food, and so the waste collection contractor engaged by our volunteer group was unwilling to collect the styrofoam packaging which made up the bulk of the litter collected.

The solution to the problem of litter and waste management is not to have ever-increasing numbers of volunteers to clean up public places after major festivals and events. The solution lies in finding ways to deter littering and to create incentives for waste reduction. My recommendations include:

1. Restricting the sale, distribution and use of plastic bags and styrofoam packaging during the Thaipusam festivities through public education efforts to encourage devotees and visitors to bring their own food and beverage containers, and by instructing stall owners to use less packaging and alternative packaging such as brown paper, banana leaves and washable tableware;

2. Initiating anti-littering public education efforts targetting schools and faith groups prior to major religious festivals;

3. Providing more rubbish bins within the temple complex and making frequent announcements over the P.A. system to remind devotees not to litter in a place of worship;

4. As most of the stalls and shops were found to have left large amounts of litter and waste behind the stalls and on the playing field of SRJK (T) Batu Caves, measures have to be implemented to issue summonses to stall owners who fail to dispose of waste properly. Stall owners must be made responsible for the cleanliness of the immediate surroundings of their stalls and must transport their rubbish out of the temple complex premises at the end of each trading day;

5. Instituting a nationwide deposit system for recyclable items such as aluminium cans, PET bottles and beverage cartons. The cost of purchasing packaged food and beverages in Malaysia does not reflect the cost of disposing of them and managing the waste generated. If a 20-sen deposit were to be charged for each unit of recyclable packaging, which will be claimable at designated recycling centres, it would create an incentive for people to collect and redeem their recyclables for cash, and this would also hopefully translate into less litter ending up in places of natural and cultural interest.

Litter reflects how a society views and values itself, and is a form of anti-social behaviour. Measures to inhibit littering must include both penalties for littering, as well as motivations to reduce waste and to encourage the public to take pride in their surroundings. It's time we take ownership of our community and public spaces by taking responsibility over them. It's time we discard the mindset that someone is paid to clean up after us. At the next religious festival, let's make ourselves worthy of the houses of worship we visit by making a conscious effort to keep it clean.


Weekly Roundup, In Photos:

Me with Big Boy, Nicole's latest rescued cat, at the SPCA. Apparently he shouldn't be manhandled so soon after neutering, but he seems to like me and fell asleep in my arms.

The SPCA gang has yet another potluck party, this time at Jacinta's house. I am having a great time cuddling Jacinta's baby, Isabel. Babies and children love me almost as much as animals do!

Gorgeous Mummy Jacinta with Adorable Baby Isabel!

My buddy Amarjiet returns for a visit from Canada. Here I am having tea at the roadside on a Friday evening with the gang.

I passed the Bandar Utama Central Park on Saturday evening after the SPCA and saw a dog obedience class taking place at the Park. This is an initiative supported by the Malaysian National Animal Welfare Foundation to create good canine citizens.

Monday, 24 January 2011

People Power and Community Cleanups

Sampah Masyarakat is a multiracial, apolitical community initiative founded by my friend, Shyam Priah.

Our mission is to foster awareness on creating a litter-free society and to empower volunteers to be agents of change.
Sampah Masyarakat isn't about picking up other people's rubbish.
Sampah Masyarakat isn't about doing the work of local council contractors.
It's about changing our mindset and attitude towards cleanliness.
It's about taking back our community and public spaces.
It's about creating awareness by taking action and walking the talk.
It's about valuing ourselves as a society.

Each year, Sampah Masyarakat organises community cleanup campaigns in public places after major festivals and events. This is Sampah Masyarakat's third year of cleaning up the Batu Caves temple complex after the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. I am proud to be part of Shyam and Petri's team of volunteers in the incredibly challenging task of cleaning up the temple complex on Saturday, 22nd Jan 2011.

The Batu Caves temple complex receives approximately 1.5 million visitors each Thaipusam. One can imagine the amount of litter and waste generated during an event of such a large scale.

Visitors to the temple complex, unfortunately, seem to think that rubbish is someone else's problem, and that there are contractors paid to remove their rubbish. If we can't even keep a place of worship clean on a religious holiday, what does it say about us as a society?

The fairground that springs up within the compound of the temple complex is another source of waste. Plastic bags, Styrofoam tableware and disposable packaging pile up at every corner, overflowing out of bins. Styrofoam and plastic bags, due to their light weight, are carried by wind and water into drains and other places.

Our team of volunteers proceed from the Meeting Point at the foot of the Lord Muruga statue to the football field to be greeted by this depressing sight.

People, THIS IS US.
This is how we view ourselves.
This is how we view our community.
This is how much we value our public spaces and recreation grounds.
This is how we see ourselves as a country.

There's nary a patch of grass that doesn't have rubbish on it.
How little we must value ourselves as a society if we could do this on hallowed grounds!

Undaunted by the challenge ahead of us, volunteers start cleaning up the football field.

(Photo credits for the above 5 photos: Fellow volunteer Stephen Nah.)

Forget Barisan Nasional propaganda.
When volunteers of all faiths and backgrounds come together to reclaim, rehabilitate and clean up community spaces, we know something good is happening. A revolution is taking place within all of us. Can you feel it stirring in you too?

Our pile of rubbish begins to grow. It's easy to ignore the heat, stench and filth when you're feeling good and making new friends as you work!

All I can say is that their parents are doing a great job with these young'uns!

Rakes and shovels help keep the rubbish in place and the pathway clear for other volunteers.

I managed to cover most of the south-east side of the field in the first hour.

Ta-daa! Petri and Chun Lee transport the remaining rubbish from the north-east side of the field. Compare the green litter-free field behind the guys with earlier photos -- what a difference we made!

Ye Gods and Little Fishes -- it's a manual ferris wheel made of solid wood! Looks like something right out of rural Nepal or somewhere similarly quaint and charming!

An old-timey merry-go-round (with an Indian parasol thingamajig on top) with flying horses and swing seats and florescent light tubes chained to the support pillars -- I don't think this contraption has passed any safety standards, but it sure looks like fun!

Thank you, Shyam, for this initiative, and for believing that we can make a difference! We can! We did! We have!
Thank you, Petri, for your passion and good nature and can-do spirit!
I am proud to have you guys as my friends!

Our team of volunteers, although only 50-strong, managed to collect over 12 tonnes of rubbish in 4 hours. If we could double the number of volunteers, we could easily collect twice the amount of rubbish, or halve the time taken to do this.

Our goals for our subsequent cleanup campaigns are as follows:
1. To get the local community involved and to request the participation of students from the neighbouring school and Sri Murugan Tuition Centre.
2. To work with the State Government and local councils to put measures in place to reduce waste and deter littering in the first place.
3. To generate more publicity for the cleanup campaign to gain more support for and encourage participation from a higher number of volunteers.

My next step as a Sampah Masyarakat volunteer would be to write a Letter to the Press on the issue of littering, to submit written recommendations to the State Government on managing waste during public events with high volumes of human traffic, and to contact local Buddhist youth groups and Boy Scout/Girl Guide troops to assist in our next cleanup campaign at the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields during Vesakha Day.

Why do we do what we do? One of my heroes, Julia Butterfly Hill, sums it up most succintly of all:
The environmental crisis is the outward manifestation of what is inside of us. The outer landscape is the reflection of our inner landscape. A simple way to see that none of us are immune or free from this disease is to look at a prevalent statement like when we say we are “going to throw something away.” Where is “away?” There is no such thing.

There is no "away".
This is our country.
This is our Planet.
This is our Home.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Survival Smarts

I spent most of the last weekend at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park for the Malaysian Nature Society's Strategic Plan Workshop for Council Members and Secretariat staff.

Among our team-building activities are the Marshmallow Challenge and a Survivalist Simulation Test. Of the latter, only 3 out of 44 participants passed the test, and only 1 team out of 4 passed it. I passed the test as an individual, and although the rest of my team did not pass it, as a team, our collective decision received the best score and we managed to pass the test.

How do you think you will fare in the Survival Simulation Test? Look at the scenario below and try to take up the challenge without using cheat sheets or looking up external websites for the scoring system!

Borneo Survival Scenario

"You have just survived the crash of a small plane. You were travelling from Pontianak when your plane came down on the steep slopes of a mountain near the Kalimantan and Sarawak border. Both pilots died in the crash. It is January, and you are in the centre of Borneo. The temperature is 30 degrees Celsius by day and due to wind chill and humidity, effectively 10 degrees or less at night. The jungle around the mountain is high ridge and ravine with many streams. You remember flying over a Kayan longhouse about 15 minutes previously. Your group of survivors managed to salvage the following items:
- A bag of fine steel wool
- A parang
- A loaded 9mm automatic pistol
- A tin of ghee (clarified butter)
- Newspapers
- Empty cigarette lighter
- Extra shirt and trousers for each survivor
- A 7m x 7m piece of heavy-duty plastic sheeting
- A 1:100,000 aviation map of Borneo laminated in plastic.
- One litre of Napoleon brandy VSOP
- A compass
- Family-size chocolate bars (one per person)

Choose the 5 most important items for your survival. The other items will then no longer be available to you. Choose 5 items first for yourself and then in consultation with the group. You must come to agreement as a group."

Which 5 items would you choose from the list above, and why?

Once I begin receiving responses to the test, I will post the scoring system and the answers to the test in the comments section below!

Until then, Happy Thaipusam and enjoy the Weekly Roundup!

Weekly Roundup, In Pictures

Donating blood at the National Blood Bank on 11th January. I am grateful for my good health and hope to remain eligible for blood donation for many more years to come.

First Earthquake (8 scoops of ice cream with 8 different toppings. Half-price on Tuesdays!) of the Year at Swensens with my buddies, Lili and Yanty.

Cuddling 2 of the new feline arrivals at the SPCA. The kittens are currently being fostered at home by my friend Amelie until the tiny fuzzies are strong enough to be put up for adoption.

One of the dogs at the Maternity Kennels not looking too happy at having to have a bath. I managed to bathe and tickwash all the Maternity Kennel dogs that afternoon.

Shelter dogs Lulu and Sherry came out to play in the front area after I had completed washing and disinfecting the shelter in the evening.

TeckWyn and Kanitha's team doing the Marshmallow Challenge during the Strategic Plan Workshop.

My team and our freestanding marshmallow-and-spaghetti sculpture! I wasn't looking at the camera because the marshmallow suddenly LEANED over to one side!

The MNS Strategic Plan Workshop participants decide to go on a short trail walk before dinner.

View of the herons and egrets from the 4th storey of the watchtower at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What To Do When A Bird Flies Into Your House

(This article was originally drafted for the Malaysian Nature Society Eco Kids Column, after a tearful friend called me for help when a bird hit the ceiling fan in her home and died of its injuries. I felt frustrated that too many people did not know what to do with injured and lost birds and wildlife. The article received positive feedback and SPCA Selangor reproduced it in our e-newsletter last week. It is reposted here with the relevant phone numbers)


Sometimes birds and insects end up inside our homes by mistake. While this can be an exciting incident for pets and young children, the stress of finding itself trapped in a human home can cause great distress to wild birds. Some may crash into walls and windows, injuring themselves badly in the process.

When a bird flies into your house, take these steps to prevent further distress, injury and death:

1. Switch off all fans IMMEDIATELY. Birds often try to escape by flying up towards the ceiling and many die upon coming in contact with fan blades.

2. If you have companion cats and dogs, remove them from the area and confine them to their kennels, cages or an escape-proof room immediately.

3. If the bird is in the kitchen, switch off the stove, cookerhood and any other heat-generating appliances that may harm the bird should it collide with the appliance. Cover all pots, pans and kettles that have hot food or liquids in them.

4. Open all the doors and windows to enable the bird's escape. Close all doors to other rooms to stop the bird from becoming more confused and flying deeper into the house.

5. Do not use loud noises, sticks or hard objects to chase the bird out. Use your hands to gently push, pick up or direct the bird towards and open door or window. If the bird appears stunned or injured, throw a light towel over the bird and gently pick up the bird. Inspect the bird for injuries.

6. Injured birds should be brought to a vet for treatment. Birds that are merely stunned can be brought outside and released. Be on the lookout for dogs and cats that may be waiting to pounce on a dazed bird.

A: The first choice is always to return a baby animal to its parents. Try to locate the nest and put the nestling back in it.

A: The majority of birds do not have a highly developed sense of smell. They will not "smell" a human and reject the nestling if you replace it in the proper nest. Put the bird back in its nest and walk away. Do not hang around the nest, whistling or chirping to attract the mother bird's attention. Go indoors and wait for an hour. The mother bird will generally return to check on its baby when she feels it is safe to do so.

A: If you spot an animal on its own, particularly a young or juvenile animal that appears to be deserted or in difficulty, do not try to catch it right away. Observe its behaviour for 20 minutes. In the case of a young or juvenile animal, it may simply be waiting for a parent to return. Remember, adult animals will often leave their young to hunt for food and return within a short period of time to feed/care for the offspring.

If the animal is obviously injured, call PERHILITAN or any wildlife rescue centre for assistance. Injured wild animals can be dangerous and need special handling. If you need to bring an injured wild animal to the vet or to the PERHILITAN office, be sure to wear protective gear before handling the animal. A long-sleeved shirt, gloves and eye protection (glasses, sunglasses or goggles) are essential. Cover the injured animal with a towel, wrap the towel around the animal's feet/claws/talons, and pick the animal up gently. Put the animal in a box (with holes punched into the sides or top for air). Bring the animal to the vet or PERHILITAN office with as little disturbance as possible. This means no lifting the box lid to peek at the animal every few seconds! The less the animal sees of you, the less stress it will experience. Good luck!

Useful numbers to have:

Avian Vet, Dr. Jalila Abu of Universiti Putra Malaysia: 03 8946 8340

Perhilitan (Dept of Wildlife and National Parks) Hotline (for wildlife crimes and injured wildlife): 03-90866800

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Year's Eve Campout At The Bentong Farm Sanctuary

The recent Christmas festivities had been an opportunity for me to rekindle and nourish old friendships, renew my resolve to work to improve animal welfare and environmental awareness and make use of the prescribed vacation time to carry out volunteer and campaign work. As you could see from Nicole's Christmas Blogpost, the only unfortunate side effect of the festive season was that it was also an opportunity for me to cultivate a pot belly.

In observing the spirit of the season, I organised a New Year's Eve Campout at the Bentong Farm Sanctuary to encourage my friends and associates in the City to visit and help out at the Sanctuary. Shahrul and Jorg have recently taken in another 20 dogs from the SPCA Selangor shelter that were reported to be on the list to be euthanised due to their age and limited rehoming prospects. Shahrul and Jorg's grim determination to save animal lives despite their limited resources earned my respect and admiration, and so a number of us rallied together to collect donations of pet food and pet supplies for the Sanctuary to make these dogs' final home a happy and comfortable one.

Some of the guests came to the Sanctuary as daytrippers, while some of us chose to stay the night and camp out. Some came as volunteers, but others who were less accustomed to animal care work needed time before they could commit to any challenging activity. Flexibility and autonomy are valued in our group, so everyone was allowed to contribute and participate in his or her own way, according to their comfort levels. And this, my friends, is the recipe to a successful and joyous New Year's Eve Campout!

Our first stop was CK Ice Cream House in Bentong Town, where I made short work of 5 scoops of ice cream -- peanut, vanilla, chocolate, pandan and yam!

My new friends, Melissa and Brigitte, aver that they found the directions to the Sanctuary from my blog! Hurray! So my blogpost did help me make new friends and the Sanctuary find new supporters and fans!

We convoyed to the Sanctuary after our ice-cream brunch to be greeted by the friendly dogs outside the Farmhouse!

My friend Audrey arrived with her friends Arthur and Yien Lee after I invited them via Facebook. The internet is, to me, unequivocally a force for good!

Audrey and Yien Lee hand out treats to the thrilled pooches.

Shahrul's husband and Papa to the animals, Jorg, reminds the dogs to behave in the presence of company.

My dear friend and fellow volunteer, Roli, reciprocated the dogs' unconditional love with hugs, kisses and kind words.

Yen and Roli take the erstwhile SPCA shelter dogs for walks on leashes as the said dogs are still nervous and not used to being free-range animals.

The Sanctuary's cats are bold, friendly and unafraid of dogs or people.

My buddy Serina would be pleased to see that her scratching post has been put to utmost good use -- the cats have scratched it to bits by now.

Shahrul and I prepare the dogs for their medicated baths and tickwashes.

Puteh was so afflicted with demodectic mange when he first arrived that he didn't have a patch of fur on him. See how good he looks now, after regular baths using Malaseb and Tacktick EC tickwash!

Roli cuddles his beloved Laika, who was scheduled to be euthanised for want of a new home. We are grateful indeed to Shahrul and Jorg for opening their home and hearts to the Last Chance Dogs.

My MNS buddy, Leo, helps to shampoo Hitam.

Sasha, no longer a stranger to the Sanctuary, helps to bathe Frowny.

These chickens, saved from slaughter, are free to engage in natural behaviour like scratching, dust-bathing and preening.

Ripe for the picking, these crispy and sweet jambu air, or "water apples" (Syzygium samarangense) entice us as we walked past the fruit orchards to the goat pens.

"I am the King of the Through!" announces a billy goat, while his companions look unimpressed by his unilateral declaration of sovereignty.

Safe in my embrace, J.C. (so named because he was born a week ago, on Christmas Day) bleats for his mother.

Here's looking at you, kid!

Free-range cows, also saved from slaughter, chew their cud contentedly in their enclosure after roaming the Sanctuary for much of the day.

Nancy's oldest son, Jien, demonstrates that you can actually hear a tortoise's heartbeat through its plastron.

Nancy (right) and her two youngest children play with the quarantined puppies behind the Farmhouse.

Ee-Tan, Roli and I make a fuss of Susu, a friendly 3-month-old retriever cross.

As evening falls, the smell of sweet potatoes roasting over a charcoal fire permeates the air! Nancy and her family had very kindly supplied most of the food for our cookout. Scalloped potatoes, noodles, cakes and fruit were some of the things we had for dinner.

Once most of the dinner things had been cleared away and washed up (by yours truly), it was time to toast, or rather, char, our marshmallows by the fire. Marshmallows are best toasted until they are brown and swollen -- that way, you can be sure that the outside will be caramelized to a chewy crisp, while the inside is creamy and liquid.

As the clock struck midnight, we yelled "Happy New Year" and released hot air lanterns to carry our wishes into the night sky.

The party continues inside the Farmhouse, far from the madding crowd of the City.

Nancy opts for a hammock instead of a conventional tent, and uses the shrine pillars for support.

For those who are too tired and too lazy to set up a tent or hammock, camping in one's car is cosy and comfortable enough an option!

The dogs are not ready to turn in yet and continue partying into the night. Speedy plumps for healthful apple cider vinegar since alcohol is forbidden from the Sanctuary grounds.

Dolly sure knows how to have a good time! Won't you join in our Dogs' Masquerade Ball too?

The party was a bit too wild for poor ol' Uncle Dog. And so we bid you goodnight, and adieu 2010!

May 2011 be a year of integrity and justice for our country, and abundance, joy and contentment for each of us!