GREEN LIVING ADVOCACY: DRAFTING AN EFFECTIVE LETTER TO THE EDITOR
(This blogpost will be published as a 2-3 part series in the Malaysian Nature Society monthly newsletter. All rights reserved by author alone.)
Much as Green Living is about sharing and disseminating information on environmentally responsible choices and putting these choices into daily practice, we must understand that lifestyle changes must go hand-in-hand with political advocacy. It is important to live a lifestyle that is consistent with our environmental values. It is hypocritical, for instance, to call for a ban on the construction of new dams when we fail to manage and reduce our water and energy use. But personal lifestyle changes alone cannot be a substitute for political action. As environmentalists and concerned citizens, we should all strive to keep ourselves informed on environmental issues and to be able to articulate our grievances and ideas in a way that is meaningful.
For many people who have never drafted a letter to the editor, this can seem like a daunting and time-consuming task. But like any other undertaking in life, a bit of planning, a fair amount of research and a good deal of determination is all it takes before you become a regular writer of letters to the editor. Letters to the editor vary greatly in quality. Some are forgotten almost as soon as they are read, some need to be refuted, some are impressive in their pomp and some are worth a second read. If you are a beginner, here are some basic pointers on how to draft a letter to the editor that is more likely to be published and therefore more likely to be read and considered by those with the political and economic leverage to make necessary changes:
1. HIT THE GROUND RUNNING WITH YOUR INTRODUCTION
If you are quoting a newspaper report, article or someone else’s letter to the editor, try not to start your letter with “I refer to your report, XXXX, dated XXXX” or a similarly predictable and bland opening line. Make a stand from the beginning. Let your reader know, in the same sentence that you are bringing their attention to another article, whether you are for or against the article you cited.
Examples of statements that express agreement include: “I concur with the views of…” and “I commend the XXX State Government for…”. Examples of statements that express disagreement include: “I was disappointed to read that the Federal Government has approved plans to....” and “The National Solid Waste Management Policy falls short of …”
If you are referring to a specific incident, for example, open burning or the felling of trees in your area, then start off your letter with a narration. Use the “5 Ws of Journalism” as a rough guide. In your introduction, address:
- What happened?
- Where did it take place?
- Who is it about/ Who does it affect/ Who witnessed it/ Who was responsible for the incident?
- When did it happen?
- How did it happen?
For example, following a reef clean-up project, you could start a letter thus: “Following a recent coral reef clean-up project off the coast of XXXX conducted by volunteers from the Malaysian Nature Society, we found to our dismay that most of the litter consisted of fishing lines and broken polystyrene foam coolers left behind by the local fishing community.”
2. ADDRESS THE CORRECT PARTY
“The Government should do so-and-so” is a statement that is best restricted to coffeeshop conversations. When you are drafting a Press Statement or a letter to the editor, identify and address the party responsible for rectifying a problem or implementing a solution to an issue.
- Waste management, local community, and recycling issues = Ministry of Housing and Local Government
- Open burning = Dept of Environment
- Marine issues = Dept of Fisheries and Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry.
- Tree felling, green lungs = National Landscape Dept and Ministry of Housing and Local Government
- Pet stores, animal welfare, stray animals = Dept of Veterinary Services
- Wildlife = PERHILITAN and Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
- Fuel, vehicle ownership and public transport = Ministry of Transport
3. GO POINT-BY-POINT
If you are writing in response to a letter, report or article, analyse the article you are referring to. Break it down into specific issues that you wish to refute or express agreement with. Be specific.
Here is an example of a point-by-point response to arguments raised by the Malaysian Plastics Forum:
“The plastics industry also attempts to argue that such a ban would result in unemployment. It is, however, unforeseeable to us that any industry, much less the plastics industry, would be so lacking in resilience and resourcefulness that it could not adapt to changes in consumer patterns and legislation and could not come up with alternative or better products to meet market demands.
Further, the plastics industry feigns concern for the environment by arguing that the solution lies in instituting more measures to recycle plastic bags and polystyrene packaging. This is in defiance of science, economics and common sense, which demonstrate that it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than to manufacture one from raw materials, that even the recycling process generates waste and pollution and consumes fuel, water and energy, and that many types of plastic products cannot be safely or feasibly recycled.”
You must be able to explain why you agree/disagree with a statement, and support it with facts. This is more effective than merely saying “Plastic bags are not good for the environment.” As any lawyer will tell you, a failure to refute / challenge someone’s allegation or claim will be taken as an indication of acquiescence!
4. USE EXAMPLES AND COMPARISONS WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
“Leaving your car engine idling while you wait is a waste of fuel” sounds less compelling than “For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about 1.6 km”. Examples, comparisons and illustrations all help to communicate ideas more effectively to your readers, as it will appeal to their imagination and memory. However, be sure to check your facts and references to make sure they are corroborated by official or academic sources.
5. CHECK YOUR REFERENCES
Always cite references whenever possible, e.g. “Relying on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s and CO2 Balance’s carbon emission calculators, it is determined that a return trip for just one person from Tokyo to KLIA would generate an estimated 2.51 tonnes of carbon dioxide.” Cite specific laws and guidelines, whenever possible. In this age of information technology, there is hardly anything that you could not speedily locate using search engines.
This is especially important if you hold a position of leadership in your organisation and you are writing in the capacity of a representative of your organisation. All information cited should be reliable and relevant.
Just as importantly, check your references. Each statement you cite should be corroborated by more than one source type. For example, a newspaper report should be corroborated by an official statement in a Ministry’s official website. Be careful about citing blogs, Wikipedia or statements and claims made by NGOs of dubious reputation. Check the veracity of their statements. Is it corroborated by any other reliable party? Some sources may not be objective, and be based on personal opinions and prejudices.
Steer clear of “round trip” sources, where secondary sources begin to cite each other (e.g. a Chairman of an NGO cites his own article in their newsletter, and the newsletter quotes him in return) and “mirror corroboration”, where secondary sources all cite one source, creating an illusion of corroboration. You can tell that statements constitute “mirror corroboration” when it is difficult or impossible to verify and does not cite authority. A veteran oil industry executive produced an ad that claims: “There is no scientific evidence that CO2 is a pollutant… higher CO2 levels than we have today would actually help the Earth’s ecosystems”. Your “Mirror Corroboration/Round Trip Corroboration” alarm bells should start ringing by now.
6. USE THE “SANDWICH APPROACH” WHEN APPROPRIATE
When dealing with authorities and parties whose cooperation and assistance you require, it is often helpful to use the “Sandwich Approach” in presenting constructive criticism and feedback. In the sandwich, praise is the bread, and constructive criticism is the filling. The person giving feedback begins by praising strengths, then suggests improvements, and ends with further praise.
An example of how to use the Sandwich Approach in a press statement or letter to the editor:
Bread 1: “Like many citizens, I appreciate the State Government’s concern for the welfare of the people”
Filling: “However, it is submitted that reduced water charges will not help water conservation efforts, and may contribute to a water crisis in the state”. (Provide reasons to back up your statements.)
Bread 2: “I am positive that the State Government would be willing to consider adopting water-saving technologies and practicing better management of our water resources, all of which will help our state reach its developmental goals without sacrificing the environment or the people’s welfare.”
7. TAKE A STAND, BUT BE BALANCED IN YOUR VIEWS
Appreciate that whenever you are expressing your views on one issue, there will always be a percentage of people who hold a different view. Not everyone will be as enthusiastic about cloth shopping bags, taking public transport and using vegetable enzymes as you are. For every tree that you may wish to protect, there may be a fearful houseowner convinced that dead branches will fall through his roof at any time. Try to find a common ground, and then present a balanced and fair argument. Help your opponents address their concerns. Try to reach a compromise and propose solutions whenever possible.
8. PROPOSE AN ALTERNATIVE OR A SOLUTION
An eloquent letter goes nowhere if it ends abruptly without offering alternatives and solutions. Put your research skills to good use by finding alternatives, especially ones tried-and-tested in other jurisdictions. Offering alternatives encourages discussion and communication. Here is an example of how to put forward multiple alternatives in a letter to the editor:
“In order to mitigate the problem of overfishing and at the same time, ensure food security, we must consider alternatives to commercial fishing. These include:
i. Promoting aquaculture and fish farming methods that are sustainable and limit the risk of infection, zoonosis and pollution;
ii. ii. Establishing fishing quotas so fishermen can only legally take a certain amount of fish; and
iii. Declaring certain areas of the sea "no-go zones" and make fishing there strictly illegal, so the fish in that area have time to recover and repopulate.”
9. BE PASSIONATE, NOT EMOTIONAL
Many people mistake being emotional with being passionate. It is best never to write when you are feeling too angry or emotional. A letter that declares: “The poachers should die for this!”, “How could they do this?!?” or “This is crazy!” might be able to get public attention, but is less likely to be taken seriously than one that says: “Legislators must take immediate steps to safeguard our fast-vanishing natural heritage, while PERHILITAN and other bodies entrusted with the regulation of the wildlife trade must be more circumspect in the issuing of permits and be more vigilant in the monitoring of wildlife displays.” Remember that your letter or press statement will reflect on you, your organisation and the cause you champion. Be professional and considerate of other’s views and sensitivities always.
10. NEVER ISSUE THREATS OR ULTIMATUMS
A prolific petition writer has a tendency of making demands and issuing ultimatums in his petitions and press statements. “We demand that the police investigate this matter and bring the culprits to book within 24 hours”, ends one press statement. 24 hours went by, and nothing happened. What can the petition writer do? Threaten to migrate to another country? Threaten to vote in a new government? Terminate the entire police department?
Never write cheques that can’t be cashed. You will end up antagonising the parties that you should be making your allies, and you will end up looking ridiculous.
11. MIND YOUR GRAMMAR, SPELLING AND REFERENCES
Please take the time to proofread your draft, and if possible, get a helpful associate to review it for you. A poorly drafted letter indicates a lack of professionalism. If you don’t take your letter seriously enough to want it to be as free of faults as possible, then chances are, your readers will not take it seriously either.
Monday, 12 September 2011
Monday, 5 September 2011
This blogpost was supposed to be about something else (read: something totally mundane and uninspiring), but the emails and text messages flooding my Berry last night impelled me to add my two cents worth to the topic of the pet boarding facility which breached its contract with its clients and left its clients' cats unattended without food and water for an extended period.
I was in the midst of planning a break-in at an apartment unit in Jalan Kuching (with the approval and help of the police and the apartment management corporation, to make it legit) to rescue several abandoned cats when news reached me of the raid on the Petknode Cat Boarding Centre in Damansara Damai by the police, animal rescue volunteers and animal caregivers. I am glad that the police and our ever-reliable Bukit Lanjan State Assemblywoman have stepped in and that the animals have been removed from the terrible premises, but everything else is a merry chaos.
The SPCA Inspectorate was only informed this morning about the raid, break-in and removal of the suffering cats, so our work is as good as done. All the evidence has been tampered with. As anyone with a little bit of experience in investigative work and anyone who has attended our GAWS-SPCA Animal Welfare Legislation and CSI Workshop will tell you, even if you are armed only with a cell phone camera (who doesn’t have one nowadays?), you should take sufficient photos to help establish a causal link between the acts or omissions of the perpetrators and the harm suffered by the animals. The simplest procedure should be to:
(i) Take a photo of the exterior of the building showing the signboard and the address;
(ii) Take a photo prior to entering the room, so that an objective viewer will be able to see that the room being photographed is part of the interior of the building whose exterior had been photographed;
(iii) Take a photo of the room before anything is moved or touched.
(iv) AND ONLY THEN take pictures of the poor cats in various stages of illness, dehydration, starvation and distress. Take close-up photos of chains/leashes, cages, litter trays, empty food and water bowls, wounds and sores, closed windows, mail piling up by the door and anything that can help establish neglect, abuse and/or abandonment. Keep your photos in a memory card without editing anything, so that if you are called upon to give evidence, the photos you took will be acceptable as documentary evidence in a court of law.
I don’t know if the police or any of the distraught pet owners had the presence of mind to do this before they removed all those cages full of poor cats, but if they hadn’t, it could spell trouble for the prosecution team.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to establish cruelty to animals in this instance, but since the penalty for cruelty to animals under the current Act is such a derisory slap on the wrist, the best option would be to go for other offences under the Penal Code as well, including Section 418 (Cheating with knowledge that wrongful loss may be thereby caused to a person whose interest the offender is bound to protect – maximum penalty: 7 yrs in prison or fine or both) as well as Section 428 (Mischief by killing or maiming any animal of the value of five ringgit – maximum penalty: 2 yrs in prison or fine or both).
But above all, the important thing for us to remember is do something constructive with our outrage. Sign the Petition to stop animal abuse, if you haven’t already. Voice your thoughts on this issue in a letter to the Press. Ask your MP to vote for an increased penalty under the new Animal Welfare Act when it gets tabled in Parliament next year. Call your MP the day before the reading of the Bill in Parliament, introduce yourself as one if his/her constituents, and express your hope that he/she will vote for the Bill.
Malaysians, in general, tend to forget easily. We respond to incidents. We express anger and outrage when something bad happens, and then forget about it when the furore dies down. Let’s be the exception to the general rule. Let’s speak up. Animals and the natural environment have no suffrage. We do. Help them with your voice and your votes. National Day was merely a week ago. If we want to do something meaningful in commemoration of our country’s independence, then we should exercise our freedom of expression and free thought. Let’s make this country better for all its citizens – human, animal and plant.
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Raya Roundup and Project Second Chance Updates:
My big bandaged finger and I go visiting on the first day of Hari Raya. Pak Idrus and Makcik Asmah's home is always a joy to visit. Their hospitality, warmth and sincerity always make one feel very welcome. This photo is courtesy of Pak Idrus.
(Note: Further proof that the world is full of friends -- I met at least 4 other mutual friends at Pak Idrus' Raya Open House, and made at least 3 new friends.)
Chatting with my new friends Kevin and Choy, with whom I am currently executing a plan to bring in the stray cats of Ampang Jaya to the SPCA for spaying. I meet up with them tomorrow to set up the cage and carrier, and maybe we'll meet up again to discuss eco-tourism and volun-tourism ideas. This photo is also courtesy of Pak Idrus.
What a jovial lot we are! An especial thanks go out to Makcik Asmah for her thoughtfulness in making sure there are vegetarian dishes, and to Pak Idrus' daughter Lin for her delicious cakes! Heartiest thanks to our wonderful host, Pak Idrus, for bringing friends, old and new, together. What need is there for political slogans and self-conscious attempts at "unity" when there is genuine friendship, acceptance and openness?
(Photo credits: Pak Idrus)
Here is the injured 'community dog' that Kevin and Choy wanted me to see. Something injured him so badly that there is a wound going through his snout right through his upper jaw. You could see the exposed bones and the mouth through the wound. The poor dog was very scared and skittish and would not come to me. I begged the SPCA for a can of wound spray and brought it back to Choy. Choy reports that the dog dislikes the spray but does not try to run away, probably because he knows Choy is trying to help him get better. The wound is healing and there is less risk of parasitic infection now that it has been sprayed with antiseptic solution.
A big, bold kitty at the SPCA lets us know just what he thinks of the Malaysian mainstream media. You tell 'em, Kitty!
Tigger and Cali (both 3 months old) are vaccinated, dewormed and toilet-trained. They will be spayed at the age of 5 months. They are still in need of good homes. You will help me spread the word, won't you please?
~ Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Eid Mubarak, Happy National Day, Happy Vinayagar Chatturthi and Happy Mid-Autumn Festival to all ~