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.


Cat-from-Sydney said...

OMG! That's a mountain of rubbish you all had to clean up. Why do people make that much rubbish? Filthy humans! I love you guys. Send my hugs and head butts to all Sampah Masyarakat volunteers. I really really heart you guys! purrr....meow!

Ellen Whyte said...

Good luck! Pity the "ethic and moral" class doesn't do anything to teach people to pick up after themselves.

Pat said...

I love that quote by Julia Butterfly Hill. Because it is too true!

After the weekend, the beaches in PD look as horrid as pictures did. The MPPD cleaner/sweeper-guys say that people drop litter right outside the bins provided everywhere! For the life of me, I cannot imagine why :(

But cleaning up after ourselves and being proud of being clean are learn-able traits. So, good luck with your campaign :)

~CovertOperations78~ said...

Dear Kitties-in-Sydney,
Thank you for your headbutts of support. The mountain of rubbish wasn't a pretty sight, but you know what? We enjoyed ourselves during the cleanup. We made friends, chatted and worked together. So it wasn't a case of nothing but hard work. The next time around, we'll start the announcements early and get more volunteers.

~CovertOperations78~ said...

Dear Ellen, Au and Target,

People don't learn out of books. They observe society around them and watch what their elected leaders do to see what they can get away with. And in Malaysia, you can get away with everything including blowing your erstwhile lovers up with C4 explosives, so what's a few tonnes of rubbish to them? I believe in the Broken Windows theory. If we don't start cleaning up and getting everyone involved, who will there be left to clean up and love this country for what she is?

~CovertOperations78~ said...

Dear Pat,

That says a lot about how selfish Malaysians are, doesn't it? I know from my friends in the UK that campers are taught from a young age to restore a campsite to how you found it, so others can derive enjoyment from it too. But over here, the locals seem to think that even beaches and rivers are disposable -- "Here, I'm done with this. I don't care whether someone else needs to use this spot. That's not my problem." One of our volunteers said that it needs a tragedy -- like a massive rubbish landslide that would claim human lives -- before Malaysians would take the issue of rubbish seriously.

Unknown said...

TERUK! All the rubbish !! Honestly I will not volunteer to clean all that rubbish so kudos to you and your friends for showing the way. There should have been better management of waste. Crowds do not have equate tonnes of rubbish.It's a mindset that has to be changed. That's a problem too!!

~CovertOperations78~ said...

Dear Keats,
Thank you for your support! Yes, it is TERUK, isn't it? And the smell, it was horrible. We lost our appetite for lunch entirely. Another volunteer and I said that if only we could get 200 children from the local school to come and help out with the cleanup, I can promise you the same children will think twice about littering in future! Strange, isn't it, that people would go to the House of God only to waste food and leave uneaten food lying everywhere, and dump rubbish at God's doorstep? The mind boggles!