Thursday, 17 December 2020

Letter to the Editor: Racist Statements Cowardly, Irresponsible, and Unprofessional





Nary a month goes by in Malaysia without a politician making a racially-charged statement and then attempting to defend or justify it. More exasperating still is how these politicians manage to get away with impunity, and how the Prime Minister and party leaders ignore or downplay the incidents.


Anyone can tell that Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Mohd Nor’s crass and unfunny remarks that MIC Deputy President M Saravanan and DAP’s Deputy Penang Chief Minister II P Ramasamy are “drunk on the toddy of popularity” and “acting drunk on three bottles after consuming only one” were intended to stoke racial hatred, because they are unrelated to the issue at hand. If the MB had no intention of being racist, then the analogy of being drunk on toddy would never have been used. He knew very well that the insult would not have the same effect on people of other ethnicities. His insult was illogical and irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is as follows: Why was the Hindu temple demolished when the Kedah MB had previously given his express assurance to the Unity Minister and MIC leaders that all relevant parties would be consulted and notified before the destruction of any houses of worship? MIC’s, DAP’s, and the local Hindu communities’ assertions were that the demolition was unfair and not done according to due process, and not that they, the MIC and DAP representatives, were popular, teetotallers, or sober, so why was it necessary to invoke the topic of alcohol consumption and toddy?


A leader of calibre would be able to respond to the questions raised, demonstrate knowledge and fairness, and defend his or her decision without having to resort to personal or racial attacks and irrelevant insults. Making a racist statement is a distraction tactic. The MB knew that it would outrage his critics who are of Indian ethnicity, and at the same time it would win him support from certain segments of society who would then see him as a ‘defender of the race and faith.’ However, one cannot defend one’s race and faith by insulting other races and faiths. One can only uplift one’s race, faith, and society through good deeds and by conducting oneself with integrity and competence.


In any civilised society and in the eyes of any person with a sense of fairness and integrity, acts such as corruption, abuse of power, and violations of the human rights of minorities are far bigger crimes and sins than the consumption of alcohol. One is not by default a morally upright person merely because one does not consume alcohol. Not all non-Muslims consume alcohol, not all who consume alcohol become intoxicated, and not all who become intoxicated cause harm to others. Consuming alcohol in a social or celebratory setting is a harmless activity in many cultures around the world. To assume that someone who is not of the same race or faith as you is somehow morally inferior to you is a sign of ignorance and immaturity.


In his address to the nation in March this year, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin vowed to be a “Prime Minister for all Malaysians”. Yet his silence and inaction on the recent statements of the Kedah MB as well as previous incidents, for example, that of Baling MP Abdul Azeez against Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto, show that he has no plans to follow up on his vow.


Each time a politician makes an insulting statement of a racial or religious nature, there will be a short-lived outcry from the public and politicians from other parties. We will then remind the perpetrator that there are over 40 different ethnic groups in Malaysia, that we are a multiracial and multifaith society, that non-Malays also played a role in securing the Independence of the then Malaya from Britain, that non-Malays also play a significant role in nation-building, pay a disproportionately large percentage of taxes, and serve in the civil service and security forces. To dismiss and disrespect the needs and wishes of such a significant percentage of the population is arrogant, dangerous, unfair, and irresponsible. But the cycle of racist verbal abuse resumes each time accountability is demanded of particular politicians. MP Kasthuri Patto was insulted when she asked about the lack of female representation in the Parliamentary Select Committee. M Saravanan and Dr P Ramasamy were insulted when they queried the Kedah MB on the demolition of the temple. Any rational voter can see that these politicians resorted to racially-charged insults when they are not able to show accountability and respond to their political opponents’ queries. The only reason these racist statements were made was to make the persons at the receiving end feel disrespected and unwelcome. The PM and party leaders need to end their silence and complicity in this culture of systemic racism and the use of racist language and hate speech to harass ethnic minorities and political opponents, not merely because politicians and citizens from minority groups deserve better, but because you need to prove to everyone – both those from majority groups and those from minority groups – that you are capable of decency and fair play.





Sunday, 20 September 2020

Letter to the Editor: Captive Breeding of Tigers Is Not Conservation



The proposal by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) to breed the critically endangered Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) at the National Tiger Conservation Centre for release and ‘rewilding’ raises many reasons for concern.

The reason for the decline in the population of Malayan tigers is not that the tigers are not mating or breeding enough. Tigers, like most members of the cat family, are prolific breeders, which explains why the number of tigers in captivity continue to rise worldwide, even as wild tiger populations continue to be decimated.

The Malayan tiger is critically endangered in the wild because of habitat destruction, diminishing prey species, poaching, and the wildlife trade. Human encroachment into tiger habitats, usually for agriculture, also increases the risk of human-wildlife conflict. In such conflicts, tigers often die from being shot or snared by plantation or livestock owners, or from diseases such as canine distemper virus when they come in contact with infected dogs introduced by humans.

Researchers from the University of Exeter found in a 2008 study that most captive-born predators do not survive following release. The chances of carnivores such as tigers and wolves surviving freedom is only 33%, due to their lack of hunting skills and lack of fear of humans, and susceptibility to viruses and diseases.

Conservation organisation Born Free Foundation also points out that wild tigers born in human-controlled environments such as wildlife reserves and zoos are unlikely to be successfully released and will often spend the rest of their lives in captivity. Part of the reason is genetics. There are not enough tigers in breeding programmes to sustain genetic diversity over a long period of time. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums tries to diversify captive gene pools by exchanging breeding animals between zoos, but genetic drift and genetic bottlenecks can still occur. Genetic weaknesses in breeding stocks can result in deadly diseases, as seen in India’s effort to breed the Asiatic lion. Captive breeding programmes should not take too many animals out of the wild for breeding programmes either, as it will remove their genes from circulation in the wild.

It takes over a year for tiger cubs to learn how to stalk, catch, and kill their prey from their mothers. According to conservation charity Flora & Fauna International, captive tigers, whether they have been hand-reared by humans or raised with their mothers, lack the vital exposure from wild and experienced mothers to be predators. There is also the risk that captive-bred wild tigers, even if raised with their mothers and other tigers, will associate humans with food and lose their fear of vehicles. Upon release, they could pose a bigger threat to humans and livestock than wild tigers, as they are less likely to avoid human habitation and farms.

Efforts around the globe to reintroduce captive-bred tigers into the wild has not been met with much success. After over 30 years of expert conservation efforts and successfully breeding over 1,000 Siberian tigers in captivity, China has still not been able to release even one of these tigers into the wild. Kazakhstan has been trying to reintroduce Amur or Siberian tigers into its Balkhash region but the project has not borne any results yet.

India successfully released Bengal tigers in the Panna and Sariska Tiger Reserves as part of its Tiger Reintroduction Project, but researchers unfortunately found that the released tigers were not breeding successfully, presumably due to stress caused by the presence of human activity near the tiger reserves. This strongly indicates that reducing human activity near wildlife habitats is still key to their protection and conservation. Being able to have enough living adult tigers to release into a designated area is not a measure of success. Success can only be said to be achieved when reintroduced tigers are able to survive, thrive, and breed. This means that we need to invest at least as much energy and resources in the protection of wild habitats as in the captive breeding of the Malayan tiger.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Tigers Alive Initiative has pointed out that “reintroducing tigers is the easier part, protecting the site and prey base is even more complex”. Not only must captive-bred tigers be trained to hunt and survive in the wild, there must also be suitable prey and appropriate breeding partners in the area marked for their reintroduction.

Due to deforestation, habitat destruction, lack of prey species, and poaching, there are not many suitable habitats left in Peninsular Malaysia for tigers to be released into. There is not much use in creating a thriving captive population of tigers if we continue to clear primary rainforests for development and agricultural projects. To maintain a healthy wild tiger population, we need healthy ecosystems.

In addition, professionals in the field of tiger conservation agree that to stop the extinction of wild tigers, there must be comprehensive poaching prevention strategies. This is why the PDRM’s recent announcement of a stricter crackdown on the wildlife trade and firearm possession is such welcome news. The captive breeding of tigers cannot help to restore wild populations unless there is an end to poaching and the trade in tiger parts. There must be stricter law enforcement and harsher penalties for wildlife crimes, and Malaysia must play its part in helping to incapacitate wildlife trafficking networks.

The resources allocated for this ambitious project to breed the Malayan tiger in captivity should instead be redirected to conserving and protecting wild habitats and the remaining wild tigers, and to the prevention of poaching and wildlife trafficking.


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Letter to the Editor: End Speciesism: For the Animals, Planet, and Human Health





If there are any lessons the recent Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that deforestation, the exploitation and consumption of wildlife, and intensive animal agriculture all increase the risk of zoonotic diseases and threaten human health and well-being.


Human society is aware of this link between animal exploitation and disease outbreaks, which is the reason why China announced a ban on wildlife trade in an effort to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. In the US and elsewhere, the sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased by over 200% during the coronavirus lockdown (Sources: US Food Navigator, the Financial Times, Bloomberg). In the Netherlands, the mink fur industry went into an early shutdown after minks were found to have contracted coronavirus and transmitted the virus back to humans, and there are now calls to shut down mink farms in Spain and the USA as well.


It would be premature to celebrate these as victories. Humans have short memories, and human desires and appetites are often alarmingly disconnected from what the human intellect knows to be beneficial to human health, social justice, and animal and environmental well-being.


Humans in general rarely question their relationship with non-human animals and the natural world, and this is attributable to speciesism, that is, the assumption of human superiority and an inherent ‘right’ to use, exploit, and consume animals. In spite of the fact that scientific evidence and historical data strongly indicate that 6 out of 10 known infections and 3 out 4 emerging infectious diseases originate from animals, there is still widespread resistance against ending animal agriculture and the breeding of animals for the pet, sport hunting, entertainment, and fur industries, with supporters of these industries arguing that it would put too many people out of work and cause economic loss. We know from the study of human history and civilisations that human society is resilient and adaptable, and that industries and occupations that become obsolete have died out in the past without causing significant or lasting damage.


Racism is what makes Western society believe that China ought to be pilloried for its wildlife trade and live animal wet markets, but that it is perfectly alright to confine calves in small solitary enclosures and induce iron deficiency to produce veal, and to confine and force-feed ducks and geese and induce liver disease to produce foie gras. Speciesism is what makes human society understand that animal agriculture puts a huge strain on the Planet’s resources, that animals in farms and laboratories suffer in ways that is never considered acceptable for even the worst of humans to suffer, and that humans can live healthy and productive lives without eating or exploiting animals, and yet still choose to eat meat and maintain the status quo. Speciesism is also the reason why people throw birthday parties for their dogs and cats and raise funds for tapirs and pandas, but think nothing of paying someone else to deplete our oceans and commit deforestation so that one can eat fish and steak, because the lives of certain species are valued over that of others. Humans know that in order to prevent pandemics and environmental disasters, we need to stop exploiting and interfering with animals and the natural world, yet our speciesist bias means that we are unwilling to give up the pleasure that comes with eating and confining animals, destroying wildlife habitats, and using animals for clothing, entertainment, and sport. Humans’ sense of dominion and desire to maintain the appearance of being the “master species” means that we continue to normalise violence and cruelty to animals and trivialise their pain and suffering.


To move forward into a cleaner, healthier, greener, and kinder future, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our relationship with other species. For too long, we have relied on the appeal-to-tradition fallacy that “humans have always eaten meat” as a justification to continue doing so. Just because something has always been done does not make it moral. We can agree that no amount of normalisation can make slavery, domestic violence, or human trafficking moral acts, so we are also capable of making the connection that just because we have always eaten and exploited animals, it does not make these acts moral, justifiable, or even essential to human health and survival. Further, it is true that humans have always eaten meat, but it is also true that pandemics in the past have also been linked to the consumption and exploitation of animals. The 1918 Spanish Flu arose from the farming and consumption of pigs. Rabies in South America was transmitted by vampire bats to cattle who then transmitted it to humans. The Nipah Virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted their virus to farmed pigs. Scientists believe that HIV has its origins in the hunting of primates in central African forests, while Ebola has been associated with hunting in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Where there is the consumption of meat and the destruction of the natural world, there will be disease outbreaks.


We need to question not only animal agriculture and meat consumption, but also the frequency and volume of meat consumption. As incomes and standards of living rise in Malaysia, our meat consumption also rises. Between 1981 and 2015, consumption of beef in Malaysia rose from 23,000 metric tons to 250,000 metric tons. Between 1996 and 2015, consumption of poultry rose from 666,000 metric tons to 1.59 million metric tons. Even if meat consumption was not a moral issue for people who lived 2-3 generations ago, it is imperative for us to ask ourselves now if it is necessary, appropriate, moral, and harmless for us to continue to consume so much resources and inflict so much suffering, pain, and death. The more meat we eat, the more intensive and cruel the animal agriculture industry has to become in order to be efficient and profitable.


The technology already exists for us to consume meat that does not cause animal suffering or harm our health or the environment. ‘Clean meat’, grown from harvested stem cells, is now reaching the scale of production in which it will soon be as affordable as animal-based meat. Producing meat in laboratories would require less water, land, and grains than livestock farming, and would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based meat alternatives have already been in the Malaysian market for many years, and most of these products have obtained halal certification and can be safely enjoyed by everyone. Further, thanks to advances in technology, much of the world including Malaysia has access to a wide variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables, which can meet human dietary needs inexpensively. Considering that we can get all the dietary nutrients and calories that we need from non-animal sources, what’s stopping us from making the transition?


There is a growing population of vegans and animal rights advocates who hold the strong moral view that there can be no justification for harming animals. But even holding the moderate view that we should kill fewer animals for food, and choose products and services that do not harm or exploit animals, will reduce the number of animals who suffer great pain and misery and who are killed to satisfy human appetites.


Evolution has equipped all of us – humans and non-human animals alike – with an instinct to survive, thrive, procreate, and avoid pain and misery. This provides us with a scientific foundation to argue that reducing the pain, suffering, and misery of others – not only humans – is the moral, appropriate, rational, and prosocial thing to do. If we can live happy, healthy, and productive lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?


August 29 is observed as the World Day for the End of Speciesism. It is a day for us to reflect on, and challenge, our long-held beliefs about the superiority of humans and how to relate to and regard non-human species. SPCA Selangor, which has long been seen as an organisation working to protect and improve the welfare of companion animals such as cats and dogs, have since expanded its work to include advocating for improvements to farm animal welfare and for a plant-based lifestyle and ethics. On this day of observance, we would like to encourage everyone to change how we view and treat other species, take measures to reduce the suffering of other species, reduce the consumption of meat and animal products even if one cannot make the full transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, support higher welfare standards for farm animals that remain in the animal agriculture system until the system can be reformed or abolished, question traditions and practices that exploit or harm animals, and choose products, services, and practices that cause the least harm to others possible.








Saturday, 22 August 2020

Letter to the Editor: Crackdown on Wildlife Trade Sorely Needed and Appreciated





It is with relief, hope, and gratitude that environmentalists received the welcome news that Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador has directed that all District Police Chiefs will have to report on wildlife trade in their jurisdictions within a month (19 Aug 2020). This is consistent with the IGP’s earlier pledge in October 2019 to crack down hard on wildlife crimes and push for harsher penalties for those convicted of wildlife crimes.


We further commend the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM)’s decision to revoke the firearm licenses of licence holders who are found to have engaged in the hunting of wildlife, and hope that PDRM will continue to investigate licence holders, and revoke licenses and confiscate firearms where necessary. This is not only an important move to curtail wildlife hunting and to prevent the killing of wildlife in situations where the wild animal does not pose an actual and immediate threat to human lives and safety, but also to preserve national security and reduce firearm-related accidents, injuries, and deaths.


Our IGP’s commitment to protecting Malaysia’s wildlife is applauded, as is the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Peninsular Malaysia’s (Perhilitan) recent operations which resulted in the arrest of poachers and the timely rescue of live animals and recovery of wildlife parts and products. The public is, however, understandably concerned that many such operations succeed in the arrests only of rural and indigenous hunters and couriers and other bit-players in wildlife crime networks, while the kingpins who fuel demand and create supply in the wildlife trade manage to avoid detection and arrest. This is why recommendations such as a shoot-on-sight policy will not work – not merely because it goes against human rights and the due process of law and may lead to abuse of power and extrajudicial killings, but because it unfairly targets the pawns in wildlife trade, and may even delay or hinder the discovery and arrest of wildlife kingpins. What we need is for our enforcement agencies to work together with INTERPOL, conservation groups such as TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and MYCAT, and governmental and intergovernmental agencies to gather incriminating evidence against these ringleaders and masterminds and bring them to justice. Without the incapacitation of these wildlife trade syndicates and their leaders, there can be no effective and lasting justice for, or protection of, wildlife.


Malaysia’s wildlife species have been declining rapidly due to poaching, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and human-wildlife conflict. Hardly a week goes by without another news report of elephant or tapir deaths due to traffic accidents or poisoning, or tiger deaths due to poaching or as revenge for eating livestock. For years, concerned members of the public and conservation NGOs have been alerting the police and Perhilitan to the presence of pet stores, traditional medicine shops, restaurants, and online traders selling wildlife and wildlife parts, only to experience frustration and dismay when these reports did not result in arrests or consequences. Conservationists have long urged for swift and decisive action to be taken against wildlife offenders and for harsher penalties to be meted out, but progress has been slow and inconsistent. It is an open secret that VIPs and people in positions of power and influence are often involved in wildlife crimes and often get away unpunished. The ‘soft approach’ to tackling wildlife crimes has not worked. Too much resources and manpower have already been poured into education and awareness programmes, yet at the end of the day when all the posters have been painted and the prizes given out and the mascots have done song-and-dance routines in schools and shopping malls, the wildlife trade has not only continued unabated but flourished, because the financial rewards are significant, and the penalties lenient and derisory. The time for diplomacy and coercion is over, and the time for concrete action is long overdue. For too long, wildlife and environmental crimes have been perceived as being victimless, or less serious than crimes against fellow humans or property, which explains why the penalties are frequently inadequate. Today, we know this is not true. The wildlife trade is a lucrative one, and it finances and is linked to human trafficking, the drug trade, organised crime, governmental corruption, and terrorist activity. The punishment for wildlife offences must therefore be commensurate with their gravity and the damage and harm they cause to the environment, biodiversity, and human society.


There are amendments being proposed to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 to increase the minimum penalty for wildlife poaching to a minimum fine of RM1 million and 15 years’ imprisonment. I believe I speak for all right-thinking and responsible Malaysians when I urge all Members of Parliament to vote in favour of these harsher penalties. Any MP who votes against these proposed harsher penalties should be investigated for any possible links with the wildlife trade industry, as it is inconceivable that there could be any good reason to oppose such a proposal. A vote for a harsher sentence is therefore a vote against corruption, cruelty, and the sheer idiocy of unscientific practices such as the consumption of wild animals for their ostensible medicinal value. A vote for a harsher sentence is not only a vote for the continued survival of wild and endangered species, but a vote for a safer, better, and healthier country and planet.





Friday, 17 July 2020

Letter to the Editor: Make A Stand Against Racism and Sexism


It is correct, proper, and just that the honourable Speaker of the House Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun demanded that Baling MP Abdul Azeez retract his racist and sexist comments made on 13 July against Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto. The decision should have been made more swiftly and decisively to prove Parliament’s unambiguous stand against racially and sexually derogatory language and conduct, and commitment to upholding a certain standard of decency and fair play. 

The purpose and intent of the doctrine of parliamentary privilege is to protect the freedom of parliamentarians to discuss sensitive or controversial issues that may affect laws or the running of a country. It is not intended to protect offensive and persecutory language designed to harass or intimidate political opponents and stymie actual debate and discussion. 

An elected representative who is a repeat offender should therefore face harsher sanctions than a mere retraction of the last offensive statement made. 

Abdul Azeez’s conditional apology is not an apology but an attempt to deflect blame and paint himself as a victim. His claim that he could not possibly be racist or be discriminatory against someone of dark complexion because he is himself of dark complexion cannot be accepted as sincere or truthful. Racism and colour discrimination can be internalised even by those from ethnic minorities or of dark complexion, just as misogyny can be internalised by women through years of social conditioning. 

His claim that he did not intend to be racist also cannot be accepted by any rational person. What other purpose could he have for heckling another elected representative by making fun of her skin colour? If it were indeed true that the seat Kasthuri Patto was sitting in was dimly lit, and Abdul Azeez had no intention of practicing racism or colour discrimination, he would not have asked her to “put on some powder”, but would instead invite her to step forward or present her views from a more brightly-lit area. Instead, his comments that she is “too dark and cannot be seen” and that she should “put on some powder” in order to make herself visible are malicious and intended to ridicule, humiliate, and intimidate a female elected representative as she was raising the very pertinent issue of the lack of female representation in the Select Committee. 

The question to be asked is not whether: “Is Abdul Azeez also of dark complexion?” but “Would he have uttered a similarly disparaging remark to someone of a fairer skin colour?”. The answer is necessarily no, because fair skin is not an object of ridicule and would not have the intended effect of silencing and humiliating the person being teased. 

The next question is “Would he have uttered similar words to another man, that he should somehow alter his physical appearance to make himself more attractive or visible?” The answer is again, no. Men have a long history of talking over women and interrupting or attempting to silence women with offensive and derogatory words often irrelevant to the issue at hand, designed to attack women’s femininity or physical appearance, to make women feel unwelcome and disrespected. This is simply not done to other men, except men who are disabled or who are seen as less masculine than the average man. 

The third question would be “Would he have uttered such words to someone belonging to a majority ethnicity or group, or someone who holds more political or social power than he does?” The answer again is no, because there would be grave repercussions for doing so, and Abdul Azeez’s history in politics indicates that he does not pick on those who hold the majority of support and power. Thus his words and conduct clearly constitute an act of punching down. Parliamentary privilege should never be extended to acts of punching down designed to harass and intimidate other elected representatives and stop useful and constructive debate. 

Elected representatives need to face serious repercussions for hate speech and offensive and discriminatory language and conduct. We have the right to hold them to a higher moral standard because we elected them to represent our values and interests. They should be subjected to greater scrutiny than the average citizen and be made accountable for their words and actions. 

Other elected officials should demonstrate that they are good allies who are capable of making a stand against injustice, inequality, and discrimination, by speaking up against racism and sexism, and standing up for another person facing bullying and unfair attacks, no matter which political party he or she is from. This is not because the tables could be turned one day and you could find yourself sitting on the Opposition bench, but because standing up for someone who is unfairly treated is the decent, just, and responsible thing to do. Your political views can differ from that of someone else, but you need to stand up for someone who is being unfairly treated or ridiculed based on his or her gender, race, faith, skin colour, physical attributes, or other vulnerability. This will persuade us that we, the electorate, have made the right choice in electing and supporting you, and that you are a representative who will protect and assist everyone, especially the marginalised and vulnerable. 

We need to take a stronger and more decisive stand against racism and sexism as a society. We know that it happens to women and people of different races in different settings – when it comes to the hiring of workers, the selection of tenants, or the treatment of employees and customers, for instance. We know that some categories of people are more susceptible to discrimination and unfair treatment than others, and we need to make it clear that it is unacceptable and we will not participate in the discrimination. We need to have the courage to say to someone in a position of power or privilege: “That sounded rather unkind”, “That doesn’t seem fair to me”, “It is only fair that we meet this applicant and interview him/her first”, “She/he is not done talking, please let her continue”, “She/he has a point, let’s hear it from her/him.” We need to centre and amplify the voices of those who are not heard and who had not enjoyed the same privileges and opportunities that we had. Just because we are not participating in the act of bullying or discrimination does not mean we are not complicit in systemic sexism, racism, and discrimination against those who hold less political and social power than we do. It is time for all of us to listen, learn, and change. And this change includes rejecting and voting out politicians whose values are not consistent with those of an equitable, just, and progressive society. 


Thursday, 25 June 2020

Letter to the Editor: Short-Term Thinking Is Destroying Malaysian Rainforests


The Kedah State Government’s rush to resume logging activities in the Greater Ulu Muda Forest and the Terengganu State Government’s decision to degazette the Belara Forest Reserve to make way for plantations are proof that politicians are incapable of thinking of the long-term consequences of their decisions or prioritising the future of the Planet and country. 

Upon the conclusion of each General Election, politicians and state governments proceed with indecent haste to degazette and log forested areas and exploit natural resources before they get voted out in the subsequent elections. Clearly the lessons taught by the COVID-19 pandemic on the importance of preserving ecological balance and biodiversity are lost on Malaysian political leaders, who are wired for instant gratification and not long-term thinking. 

In theory, logging may appear to be a sustainable activity and timber may appear to be a renewable resource. However, this is no longer the case in countries such as Malaysia due to diminishing forests and the overexploitation of forests and forest products. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reports that Malaysia has seen a 60% decline in log exports since 1980 due to the decline in harvestable forest products. Surely there are enough clear indicators that the overharvesting of timber and forest products in the short term will lead to a greater loss of potential earnings in the long run, while increasing the risk of environmental disasters. 

In spite of the fact that forests are made up of flora and fauna that are capable of propagation and regeneration, tropical rainforests are hardly the renewable resources that politicians take them for. Primary forests are complex and fragile ecosystems. Once disturbed for logging, quarrying, or agricultural activities, secondary forest species and recolonisers such as fast-growing climbing plants and epiphytes grow in the clearings created by human activity. Over time, these recolonisers overtake the primary rainforest species in their numbers and affect the composition and biodiversity of a forest, changing its very nature, and increasing the risk of mass extinction of thousands of species. 

Disturbed and cleared rainforests, even if fortunate enough not to be clear-cut and converted into plantations, quarries, or dams, end up becoming unproductive wastelands that are incapable of supporting wildlife or providing the same variety of ecosystem services, such as flood mitigation and carbon sequestration, as primary rainforests. The reduced ability of a cleared or decimated forest to absorb solar energy and release water vapour leads to higher temperatures and a decline in rainfall. 

The Greater Ulu Muda Forest, for instance, is a critical water catchment area for the northern states of Kedah, Perlis and Penang and supplies water to, among others, the Ahning, Muda and Pedu Dams. Ulu Muda further provides economic and sociocultural services which include ecotourism, the harvesting of forest products, and a home for indigenous and rural communities. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia, the Ulu Muda forest complex supplies as much as 96% of Kedah’s, 50% of Perlis’ and 80% of Penang’s water supply. In addition to providing water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use, Ulu Muda also provides vital ecological services such as climate regulation, soil erosion prevention, biodiversity conservation and maintenance of soil, water and air quality. 

The 2016 drought affecting the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia is directly linked to logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex, which affected climate and water cycle patterns, resulting in a massive decline in dam water levels and a postponement of the paddy planting season. Logging in Ulu Muda would affect the survival and food and water security of a significant percentage of the population of Northern Peninsular Malaysia. Is the Kedah State Government prepared to deal with the environmental and economic fallout of the deforestation of Ulu Muda? 

As for the Belara Forest Reserve, this lowland tropical rainforest which is home to Great Hornbills and other vulnerable and endangered species was surreptitiously degazetted to make way for palm oil plantations. We can already foresee some of the immediate adverse impacts of the degazettement and deforestation. Orchard owners whose fruit orchards surround the Belara Forest Reserve will see reduced yield, and more contamination of soil and water due to the agricultural chemicals used in conventional oil palm cultivation. When forests are cleared, malaria and dengue infections will rise. Landslides and flash floods will be a common occurrence, as ground cover crops are eliminated in monoculture plantations. Perhaps there will be another disastrous flood, more severe than the one that destroyed much of the East Coast in the monsoon season of 2014-2015. Is that the price the people of Terengganu are willing to pay for a few extra jobs that come with the opening up of new plantations? Is the Terengganu State Government willing to bear the healthcare costs of mosquito-borne diseases and respiratory illnesses arising from haze and poorer air quality? Does the State Government have plans to deal with increased human-wildlife conflict and water and food insecurity following deforestation, floods, drought, and haze? 

Until State Governments can explain such plans to us in detail and persuade us that they are equipped to handle the loss and damage arising from the loss of forests, they cannot be said to be acting in the best interests of the state or its citizens, and their actions therefore lack moral and political legitimacy.  

Politicians need to be able to look beyond the next 5-10 years and think about the future of the country in the next 50-100 years. Politicians who put short-term personal benefits above long-term environmental protection and the well-being, health, and safety of its citizens have no place in a responsive and democratic society. 


Monday, 30 March 2020

Letter to the Editor: Keep Forests Intact To Prevent Disease Outbreaks


For years, scientists have been trying to warn us that deforestation will unleash infectious diseases onto human populations, but this has been conveniently ignored by politicians wanting to make a quick profit from issuing licences for logging and agricultural expansion. Scientists from all over the world, including disease ecologists at Ecohealth Alliance who are studying malaria in East Malaysia, warn that human activities in forested areas, such as forest-clearing, road-building, mining, hunting, and logging, cause major disruptions to ecosystems, which then causes diseases to spread from their natural wild hosts to new hosts, including humans. International travel then helps some of these diseases spread to other countries and continents, causing significant damage to human health and economies. 

It is not merely the act of killing and consuming wildlife that contributes to the rise of zoonoses, namely, diseases that jump species from animals to humans. The mere act of rapid forest clearing, even without the hunting and poaching of wildlife that usually accompanies encroachment into forests, is enough to trigger chains of events that create the right conditions for deadly infectious diseases to spread to domestic animals and nearby human populations. 

Even as far back as the 1990s, epidemiologists at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute found a link between forest clearing in the Peruvian Amazon and the rise in malaria cases. The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases has documented the steep increase in malaria cases in areas in East Malaysia where forested land has been cleared for agriculture. Mosquitoes and other pathogens proliferate in forest edges where the boundaries between human habitation and forested areas become blurred, and primates and other disease carriers wander into human habitation. 

There are countless examples of direct pathogen spillover from wildlife to humans arising from forest clearing, hunting, poaching, and encroachment of agriculture and farmed animals into forests. Deforestation in South America is a factor in the transmission of rabies by vampire bats to cattle and humans. The Kyasanur Forest disease outbreak came after the encroachment of cattle and farms into Indian forests. The clearing of forests in Liberia for oil palm cultivation attracted forest-dwelling mice which then gave rise to the Lassa Virus when humans came in contact with the faeces or urine of the mice. The Nipah Virus outbreak in 1999 was caused by rampant deforestation in Indonesia which resulted in fruit bats losing their forest habitat and venturing into farms in Malaysia, where they inadvertently spread the virus to pigs, which then jumped species to humans. HIV is believed to have arisen from the hunting of primates in central African forests. Ebola has been associated with hunting in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. 

This does not mean that we need to clear forests and kill wildlife in order to eradicate disease. Many of these viruses exist harmlessly with their forest-dwelling host animals, because the animals have co-evolved with these viruses. It is human activity that make humans unwitting hosts for these viruses and other pathogens. 

To protect national and global biosecurity, it is imperative that we protect our forests and keep forests intact. Intact forests protect watersheds and water quality, are more resistant to fire and drought, regulate climate and weather patterns, provide habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna, and prevent wild species from crossing into human habitation and spreading both known and new diseases to domestic animals and humans. 

Keeping forests intact provide more economic benefits over the long term than clearing forests for agriculture and timber extraction. The economic benefits of logging are short-lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. Intact forests absorb approximately 25% of the world’s human-generated carbon emissions and sequester far more carbon than logged, degraded, or planted forests. For generations, forested ecosystems have provided society with medicinal plants and compounds, and these medically-relevant species are often lost when forests are cleared, fragmented, or replaced with farms and monoculture plantations. Cleared and fragmented forests are less resilient to fire and drought, and the haze caused by forest and peat fires cause governments grave economic loss and increase healthcare costs. 

A 2016 Harvard University study published in Environmental Research Letters reported that the 2015 human-caused forest fires in Indonesia caused more than 100,000 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Can Malaysia keep on bearing the loss of human lives and increased healthcare costs arising from forest loss and declining air quality? 

Ecohealth Alliance calculated that the Malaysian government spends around USD5,000 to treat each new malaria patient in East Malaysia. The healthcare costs of testing and screening individuals for COVID-19 and of hospitalizing and treating COVID-19 patients in Malaysia have not been disclosed yet, but we can assume it is tremendous, even before taking into account economic stimulus packages and financial aid for vulnerable groups. Can Malaysia bear the healthcare and socio-economic costs of managing and mitigating future zoonotic outbreaks arising from deforestation and human-wildlife interactions? 

We know the answer is no, yet the continued destruction of Malaysia’s tropical rainforests and natural environment indicates that our leaders have not learned their lesson. State governments continue to degazette forest reserves and issue logging permits with impunity, and politicians from both sides of the political divide rush to fill their personal coffers before they get voted out at the next General Elections with nary a thought for the environment, wildlife, or rural and indigenous communities. 

Even as the nation is still reeling from the economic shock of the Movement Control Order, and COVID-19 infection rates and deaths continue to increase daily, the Selangor State Government has decided to proceed with the degazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve without giving environmental organisations and the affected local and Orang Asli communities the opportunity to consult, discuss, provide feedback, and prepare for a public inquiry on the degazettement proposal. Such cavalier disregard for the environment and for the voices of concerned citizens show how little our political leaders care about protecting biodiversity, safeguarding biosecurity, and mitigating climate change. This will return to haunt us in the form of droughts, floods, water and food insecurity, increased carbon emissions, poorer air quality, more human-wildlife conflicts, and the rise in tropical diseases. 

As a propitiatory gesture, the Selangor Menteri Besar has offered to replace the degazetted area with a ‘bigger area’ in Kuala Selangor, Sabak Bernam, and Hulu Selangor as a substitute forest reserve. This mindset is problematic, as the biodiversity and complexity of natural forests and the ecosystem services they provide cannot be replicated or replaced so easily. We are rapidly losing forested areas to agriculture and development, and states will soon run out of suitable sites to gazette as replacement forest reserves. Tree-planting activities and the gazettement of secondary forests and degraded land cannot be a substitute for the protection of natural and intact forests for all the reasons listed above. 

Science News and Global Biodefense have already identified Malaysia as the next ground zero for malaria infections. Global disease surveillance network USAID PREDICT has in 2017 identified at least 48 new viruses in Malaysian rainforest species, and only time will tell which of these viruses will be the next to jump species to humans. Considering the current rate of deforestation, our country will be susceptible to many types of tropical and zoonotic diseases. Malaysia is currently still doing its best to contain the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths. It will take us months to deal with the socio-economic fallout of COVID-19. If we don’t move fast to halt deforestation and protect our natural forests, we must then prepare to face the next zoonotic outbreak, and the ones after, that will arise from our callous disregard for the environment. 


(Photo credits:

Monday, 10 February 2020

Film Review: Parasite

To me, Parasite’s best quality is that it doesn’t try, as many other films do self-consciously and ostentatiously, to be an art film. It doesn’t try to be too clever, but still ends up being perfectly brilliant all the same. It just has an effortless feel about it, as if all it aspires to be is a great story. And it is one. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it for a few days after watching it. 

All the characters are flawed yet likeable in their own way, from the highly-strung, self-involved Mrs. Park who is incompetent and clueless in the way only the very rich are, to the scheming and ambitious Ki-Woo with his Gatsbyish resolve to transform his dreams into reality. And all of them are victims in their own way, like Shakespeare’s characters who are more sinned against than sinning. The isolated and detached yet inoffensive Parks with their nannied, tutored, and indulged children are as much victims of capitalism as anyone else. Incapable of handling routine tasks and the vicissitudes of parenting without outsourcing the work to hired help, incapable of being forthright with the hired help out of fear of ‘losing face’, and doomed to always evaluate hired help according to whether the latter is discreet enough not to “cross the line” into familiarity and presumptuousness, the wealthy too are imprisoned by their wealth and social status. The poor who have to deal with the ignominy of urinating drunks and overflowing toilets and flooded subterranean homes are the obvious victims of capitalism, and in this category we find the close-knit Kim family whose only sin is to have the hubris not to obey and stay within their social station. 

Cursed with a scholar’s rock they could neither eat nor have a use for, tainted by the smell of radishes and poverty, stoically leaving socks hung up to dry before a window through which very little sunlight or hope enters, the Kim family's desire for upward mobility eats away at them, consuming them from within like an insatiable parasite. As the movie progresses, the viewer cannot help but question who the real parasites and bottom-feeders of society are. Yet this is a movie without clearly defined heroes or villains. One of the underlying themes of the movie is the idea of ‘fitting in’, and whether the impoverished Kim family that has ingratiated its way into employment in the wealthy Park home fits into its role and the social strata its members found themselves in. 

One of the factors that made this movie such a success (apart from the brilliant screenwriting and directing, I mean) is the way all the thespians fit into their characters and played their roles so credibly and convincingly. That ‘Parasite’ swept virtually all the awards at Palme D’Or, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscars is definitely fitting. 5 stars out of 5! Catch ‘Parasite’ while you still can!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Letter to the Editor: Zoonoses and Disease Outbreaks - It's Time We Take A Closer Look At Animal Agriculture, Not Just The Wildlife Trade


The international community heaved a collective sigh of relief when China announced a ban, albeit temporary, on wildlife trade in an effort to contain the 2019-nCoV coronavirus (Jan 26). Environmental and wildlife conservation groups both outside and within China wasted no time in urging China to make the ban permanent, citing the protection of human health, biodiversity, and wildlife populations as the reason. 

It would be commendable if China were to codify and enforce a permanent ban on wildlife consumption and trade, but in the meantime, a temporary ban would help contain further spread of the virus and give some measure of protection for wildlife. Yet the recent plaudits for China’s bold move is marred by the fact that until the announcement was made, the outrage and vitriol directed at China by the media and international community smacks of double standards, hypocrisy, racial malice, and schadenfreude. 

The media and international community persuaded itself that China’s predilection for consuming wildlife and exotic meats is the reason why it does not deserve its recent wealth and rise as a world superpower, and that its citizens deserve to suffer for their barbarism and dirty and uncivilised ways. If the international community were really so concerned about wildlife conservation and biodiversity, we would see the same level of outrage over fox hunting in the United Kingdom, the USA’s trophy hunting industry, the systematic hunting of minke whales by Norway, Australia’s kangaroo meat industry, and Canada’s annual slaughter of seals and sea lions. Yet for the most part, these countries have been able to carry on exploiting and killing wildlife with relative impunity, and these activities are passed off as being civilised, sophisticated, or an economic or environmental necessity. 

The fact that some countries with a longstanding culture of exploiting, killing, and consuming wildlife have managed to avoid being the country of origin of zoonotic disease outbreaks, while other countries suffer huge losses from the same, indicates that there is more we have yet to learn about the wildlife trade, the spread of pathogens, and ways to contain and control disease outbreaks. 

It would be neat and convenient indeed if the blame for the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak could be placed squarely on Wuhan’s wildlife markets. However, scientists are still struggling to pinpoint the original host of the virus and how it first infected people. The premature blaming of snakes and bats as the original hosts of the virus shows us how truly novel this coronavirus is and how little we know about it, and indeed, about other zoonotic diseases. Until today, the scientific and medical community have yet to be able to confirm that Ebola originated from bats. 

This leaves us with two issues to be addressed, namely, that: 
(1) Wildlife needs to be protected in and of itself, and measures must be taken by all countries to end wildlife trade, ban the exploitation and killing of wildlife, and halt the destruction of wildlife habitats, whether or not the killing of any particular species or population has an adverse impact on human health and safety; and 

(2) In order to protect human health, we need to protect animal health and welfare. To do so, we need to stop scapegoating citizens of developing nations who consume wildlife and bushmeat, and instead, examine how intensive animal agriculture and low animal welfare standards have directly resulted in threats to human health, safety, and well-being. 

Following China’s official announcement linking the virus to Wuhan’s wildlife markets, social media was rife with comments such as “Why can’t they just be civilised and eat domestic farmed animals like the rest of us?”, “Serves them right for eating endangered animals instead of animals raised for food!”, and even “Eat more chicken and beef!”, as if eating farmed meat could miraculously inoculate humans against zoonotic diseases. 

History has shown us repeatedly that not only does eating farmed meat not inoculate humans against diseases, but that intensive animal agriculture is a major driver of zoonosis and disease outbreaks. 

If zoonotic diseases such as SARS, Ebola, West Nile Virus, Nipah Virus, Avian Influenza, and 2019-nCoV were merely transmitted to those who directly handle and consume wildlife, they would not have had the pandemic effects that they did. But wildlife diseases can and do afflict domestic animals, and cross species to humans with alarming rapidity. Farm animals frequently become intermediate or amplifier hosts for pathogens. 

Researchers, including those from the Centre for Global Health Science and Security of Georgetown University, Washington DC, estimate that 70% of zoonotic diseases come from wildlife, and then made the leap from wildlife to humans. Deforestation and human encroachment into previously forested areas for agriculture have been identified as factors in the spread of zoonosis, as farm and domestic animals come into contact with wildlife and wild birds. The crowded and unhealthy conditions in factory farms then expedite the spread of viruses such as Avian Influenza, and bacterial pathogens, such as E. coli, Campylobacter and salmonella. The Japanese Encephalitis Virus, for instance, was transmitted by the Culex mosquito (which usually feeds on wild birds and mammals) to farmed pigs, which became carriers for the virus and then amplified these infections in humans. The Nipah Virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted their virus to the farmed pigs via the consumption of fruit contaminated with bat saliva or urine. In the case of the Nipah Virus outbreak in Malaysia, there was no evidence of direct transmission from bats to humans, and almost all the human cases had direct contact with the infected pigs. Clearly abstinence from hunting, poaching, and wildlife products would have made no difference at all in the case of the Nipah Virus. 

Intensive animal farming is usually characterised by high animal population density and low genetic diversity, both of which are factors that promote increased pathogen transmission and adaptation. Farmed poultry live in conditions that suppress their immunity and make them more susceptible to infections. Avian influenza virus is reported to be “subclinical or of low pathogenicity in wild birds”, yet become highly pathogenic when transmitted to domestic poultry. A 2010 study published in Veterinary Record reports that a large-scale UK survey found that battery-cage poultry farms are 6 times more likely than cage-free farms to be infected with the strain of salmonella most commonly associated with food poisoning. 

The risk of zoonotic diseases must be managed through improvement in farm animal welfare standards, and disease management and control measures. These can include mitigating measures such as using slower-growing animal breeds, creating diets and management conditions that minimise stress to animals, increasing surveillance and vaccination to monitor and minimise the spread of disease, limiting live animal transportation time to reduce stress and cruelty, investing more in research and knowledge transfer to improve farm animal health and welfare standards, reducing non-therapeutic antibiotic use to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, and encouraging consumers to eat less or no meat products or replace conventional meat products with higher welfare animal products such as grass-fed beef or free-range or certified humanely raised poultry. 

On a personal level, we can reduce and mitigate the risk of zoonotic diseases and infections by choosing a plant-based diet and limiting our exposure to wildlife, which should remain wild and protected against unnecessary human contact. At an institutional level, those with the political and economic leverage must reduce and mitigate the said risk by disallowing deforestation and expansion of agricultural activities into forested areas in order to minimise wildlife-to-domestic-animal and animal-to-human viral spillover, tightening biosecurity controls in farms and places that process or handle animal products, improving animal health and welfare standards, replacing factory farming systems with more humane and sustainable systems, setting restrictions and guidelines on the transportation of livestock and poultry, and removing barriers and creating incentives for the development, production, and consumption of plant-based foods and lab-grown meat to replace and eventually phase out conventionally-produced farmed meat.