Friday, 2 July 2021

Letter to the Editor: Protect the Privacy of Aid Recipients





The White Flag Campaign currently trending on social media to encourage people who are adversely affected by the Movement Control Order and corresponding restrictions on economic activities to seek help should be seen not as a cause of pride, but an indictment of the government of the day for its failure to provide assistance and support to the most vulnerable members of our community.


While we commend the many individuals and businesses that have stepped forward to provide food aid and monetary relief to the less fortunate, we must remember that it is our political leaders’ preoccupation with wresting power from one another, failure to plan ahead and to manage the Covid-19 outbreak, lack of empathy, and culture of impunity that got us to the point in which 468 suicides have already taken place in Malaysia from the short period between January and May 2021. Malaysians who were optimistic, compliant, and cooperative at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 have since found themselves out of savings, lacking a safety net, and out of options.


For this reason, the White Flag Campaign cannot be a reason for cheer and pride. Being in the position to alleviate the suffering of others should not be an opportunity for individuals, NGOs, businesses, or elected representatives to brag about their generosity. In an unequal and unjust society, mitigating inequality and injustice is the right thing to do, but is not an alternative for good governance. Just because some citizens are willing to extend help to other less fortunate citizens does not give political leaders the license to go traipsing on maskless durian parties and breach Covid-19 SOPs. We need to continue to hold our political leaders to account, even while we are reaching out to those who have fallen through the cracks.


It is in the interest of holding others and oneself to account that I strongly urge donors, elected representatives, and the media not to identify or post photographs of the aid recipients. Those who put up white flags outside their homes are already humiliated enough that they have to concede defeat and acknowledge that they are unable to carry on without the kindness of strangers. There is no need to exacerbate their shame and sense of helplessness and powerlessness further by identifying them by name and posting photographs of them and their homes. There is no pride to be derived from doing the most basic and human of things for someone in greater need than oneself. Being in a position of privilege should make us humbler and reflect more on how unequal our society is.


It is sufficient to identify the aid recipients as a “single mum” or “unemployed father of four” or “struggling hawker” to give their plight a human face. There is no need to name them and post photographs of them and strip them further of their dignity. Even when the aid recipient gives express consent to having their photos taken and shared publicly, this consent is often not given freely but under economic duress. A desperate parent who truly needs the food basket for his or her children will swallow his or her pride and agree to be photographed, but this will only add to the imbalance of power and their sense of vulnerability.


Further, we sometimes do not realise the full consequences of our actions. A homeless contract worker may face repercussions or even termination at work when an employer realises that the said worker is homeless. There is still a lot of stigma attached to homelessness and some employers see it as an indication that the employee could flee after committing misconduct and will not be easily traced or tracked down, instead of merely an indication that rent and home ownership is beyond the reach of many people working in the city. An aid recipient who is working at a low-paying job may face repercussions from his employer who views the white flag as an allegation that the employer is not paying its workers enough or as an attempt to embarrass the employer. There are just so many ways in which the action of flying the white flag or asking for help could be misinterpreted or judged. Even the Kedah MB and several other politicians have interpreted the white flag as an allegation that they have failed their constituents, and some of those who flew the white flag have reported facing harassment and intimidation as a result. Identifying these individuals by name and posting their photographs can only make things worse for them.


It is understood that many donors claim that they require photographs for accountability reasons when the funds come from different sources. Sometimes, well-meaning individuals pool together their money and assign a few members of the group to purchase and deliver the food aid and money. In such a situation, there are other ways of proving that the aid has reached the recipient. Those responsible for delivery should take photos of the record of funds collected, the items purchased, and the receipts. Then they can take photos of the volunteer(s) handing the food over, and the hands of the individuals who received the aid. If photos are taken of the recipient and his/her home, the considerate and responsible thing to do would be to blur out the recipient’s face, home address plaque, vehicle registration number, and anything else that can be used to identify the recipient (e.g. work uniform, t-shirt logo, children’s school uniforms) before posting or sharing the photos. The same rules apply to elected representatives delivering aid to their constituents – those who support you will believe that you provided aid even in the absence of corroborating evidence, and those who don’t support you will claim the pictures are doctored or staged, or that the recipient is undeserving even if you post the recipient’s entire family history and photo album online. So why subject the recipient to even more humiliation and harassment?  


The trouble with givers is that we like to imagine that our actions will inspire others to do the same. What we forget is that we can inspire and influence others without sharing photos and information that make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. Nobody likes to be identified as a charity case or an object of pity. If we want to uplift and help others, we need to do so in a way that respects, protects, and empowers them. If we want to create a spirit of solidarity and unity in society, we need to extend support and help to those in need without making them feel even more lacking in power, agency, and autonomy.








Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Letter to the Editor: Perhilitan Needs To Answer For The Killing Of Dusky Langurs





(Photo credits: The Vibes. Link to the original article by The Vibes here:

It is a cruel irony that on May 23, just one day after the International Day for Biological Diversity, which was observed and marked with a positive-sounding statement from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP / Perhilitan), Perhilitan officers allegedly shot and killed 20 dusky langurs, which are classified as Protected Wildlife under the First Schedule of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, and as Endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


The outrage and horror of the public over the alleged killing of these dusky langurs in Port Dickson is justified and requires an official response from Perhilitan.


It is unfathomable that trained and armed wildlife officers called to assist with the problem of aggressive long-tailed macaques would be unable to tell the difference between the shy and retiring dusky langurs and the admittedly bolder macaques.


The shooting of the langurs appears to have been executed unprofessionally, as instead of being merciful and quick, the suffering and agony of the langurs were unnecessarily prolonged, as described in the testimony of eyewitnesses. The additionally brutal act of executing a mother langur and her baby in cold blood has further left citizens wondering if Perhilitan officers are able to evaluate what does or does not constitute a threat.


This unnecessary and vicious killing is not an isolated incident. The Perhilitan units in various states have a long history of being implicated in the killing of wild animals, many of which have not been proven to be threats to local residents. There is a report of Perhilitan Negeri Sembilan killing a peaceful herd of wild boars in October 2017, and even enabling a pack of hunting dogs to maul the wild piglets to death. In 2013, Aljazeera reported that Perhilitan culled 10,000 long-tailed macaques in 2012, and Perhilitan confirmed the existence of the culling operations even while acknowledging agricultural expansion and housing developments near forested areas to be the causes of human-macaque conflict. We must remember that the population of stray animals and wild species such as macaques explodes only when humans make changes to the environment and interfere with the lives of animals so significantly over a period of time that it changes the availability of food supply and the existence of predators and competitors of a particular species.


Ironically, the Director-General of Perhilitan had in an official pronouncement in March 2019 reminded the public not to kill or ill-treat wildlife, and warned the public that cruelty to wildlife is an offence under Section 86 of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. The D-G had also emphasized the need to protect wildlife and ensure the survival of endangered species, and sought the cooperation of the public to contact Perhilitan in the event of a human-wildlife conflict instead of taking matters into one’s own hands. Can we, the public, now invoke the same section to demand that the officers who had shot the langurs be prosecuted for cruelty to wildlife? Considering that even non-wildlife experts and local residents are able to tell that the langurs are not a threat to humans, can the Perhilitan officers really be said to have acted in good faith and to actually believe that they were carrying out their official duties to protect wildlife and mitigate human-wildlife conflict? If that were true, then perhaps a retraining of all Perhilitan officers is in order.


Even in the case of problem wildlife such as long-tailed macaques, wildlife experts concur that culling may not be the best solution, and should never be the first option. Culling could destroy biodiversity by harming unrelated species, for example, in the current case in which complaints were made about long-tailed macaques but it was ultimately the harmless and endangered langurs that were slain. Culling could result in unintended ecological consequences, for example, as in the now-famous anecdote of how China had, in 1949, culled sparrows as a disease prevention measure, which resulted in the destruction of crops by locusts as there were insufficient sparrows to keep the locusts in check. Culling may, in fact, lead to the increase in the population that the authorities is trying to cull, as can be seen in the case of the feral cat population in Tasmania. Scientists and animal behaviourists have observed that when older, dominant adult animals are killed, younger animals move in from the surrounding areas to replace the adult animals, as the older and more dominant adult animals are no longer around to kill or chase away the younger animals. Culling some animals from a ‘problematic’ colony also creates more space, food, and reproductive opportunities for the ones that remain, and within a short time, their population will bounce back to what it was pre-cull.


To reduce human-macaque conflict, developers need to build human homes further away from wildlife habitats and forest fringes, create buffer zones, and install security fences and monkey-proof garbage bins. Perhilitan needs to monitor areas with reported human-wildlife conflicts and enforce their threats to fine and punish people who feed wildlife. Without the wildlife feeders and easy availability of human-generated food waste, much of the conflict between humans and macaques could have been reduced.


Culling is cruel both to the humans who have to desensitize themselves to the pain and suffering of animals to perform this brutal act, and cruel to the animals who are often just the victims of their circumstances – wild boars and macaques, do not, after all, ask for housing areas or highways to be constructed through their habitats and do not ask to be fed. Translocation and relocation to national parks and forest reserves, sterilization of wild animals by qualified vets, and biological pest control by reintroducing the natural predators of an overpopulated species are all more humane, more sustainable, and more responsible options than culling, although more expensive and time-consuming initially. However, we owe it to the animals to at least find kinder and gentler resolutions to human-wildlife conflict, considering that the conflict is a manmade one.


Public confidence in Perhilitan as a wildlife protection agency is at an all-time low. Those of us working in the conservation and animal protection sectors have a difficult time convincing members of the public to report wildlife crimes and urban wildlife sightings to Perhilitan via its hotline numbers. This does not bode well for the future of wildlife conservation and rehabilitation in Malaysia, if the general response of the public is that they would rather condone the keeping of wildlife as pets or release captured wild animals themselves than refer the matter to the country’s only official agency responsible for the protection and conservation of wildlife. The D-G of Perhilitan needs to investigate the killing of the langurs immediately and come up with new SOPs for dealing with human-wildlife conflict to restore public confidence in the agency. Members of the public will also need to play their part in learning to coexist with local fauna and reduce the risk of human-wildlife conflicts instead of reporting encounters with wildlife as problems to be dealt with and eliminated.







Saturday, 3 April 2021

Letter to the Editor: Biodiversity Loss A Cause For Alarm





(Image credits:

The recent report that a total of 567 plant species out of the 1,600 Peninsular Malaysia plant species assessed in the Malaysia Red List have been classified as threatened should be a cause for alarm.


Malaysia’s tree cover, which stands at approximately 55.3%, obscures the alarming reality of biodiversity loss in Malaysia, but the fact remains that tree cover is not the same as natural forest cover. Most of Malaysia’s tree cover consists of plantations and degraded forest land. Plantations do not have the same biodiversity value and cannot provide the same ecosystem services as natural forests. Intact and biodiverse forests protect watersheds and water quality, are more resistant to fire and drought, regulate climate and weather patterns, and provide habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna.


Biodiversity ensures food security, as a biodiverse ecosystem will provide genetic resources for a variety of food, including those that are resistant to fungi and diseases that may wipe out cultivated strains of crops. Keeping forests intact and biodiverse prevents wild species from crossing into human habitation and spreading both known and new diseases to domestic animals and humans, and thus protect biosecurity. Approximately 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are used by humans for traditional and modern medicine worldwide. Biodiversity loss will limit the discovery of potential new medicines and medical treatments.


Humans rely on the ecosystem services such as the supply of clean air and water provided by healthy and biodiverse ecosystems. The National Water Resources Study 2000-2050 warns that Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Penang, Perlis, Putrajaya, and Selangor are at risk of water deficits, partly due to the loss of vital water catchment areas, and partly due to poor water management systems and habits.  


The UN FAO reports that only 18.7% of forests in Malaysia is classified as primary forest, the most biologically diverse and carbon-dense ecosystem, and that only 11.6% of the forests in Malaysia is classified as ‘pristine’.


Malaysia is rapidly losing forested areas to agriculture and development, and state governments continue to degazette forest reserves and issue logging permits with impunity. The requirement that states gazette replacement sites for degazetted reserves does nothing to turn the tide of biodiversity loss. States are running out of suitable sites to gazette as replacement forest reserves, and further, the gazettement of secondary forests and degraded land cannot be a substitute for the protection of natural and intact forests.


Google’s global forest map reveals that between 2000 and 2012, Malaysia had the world’s highest deforestation rate at 14.4%. Satellite data from the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-lite platform shows that over 80% of the rainforests in East Malaysia have already been logged.


Between 2000 and 2009, over 9,000 hectares of Permanent Forest Reserves were degazetted in Malaysia, threatening watersheds and carbon sequesters, and destroying flora and fauna including those classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The degazettement of the Bikam Permanent Forest Reserve in 2013 caused the extinction of the Keruing Paya, a critically endangered hardwood tree, in Peninsular Malaysia.


The best way to mitigate biodiversity loss is by protecting existing forests. One of the main problems why forest conservation is so challenging in Malaysia is that the Federal Constitution gives states jurisdiction over their land, water, and forests. Forestry revenue accrues to the state government and not to the federal government, and as such, forests and extraction-based industries such as logging and mining are a major source of revenue for state governments seeking short-term gain.


Government agencies set up to manage forests see forests not as sensitive ecosystems to be protected, but as resources for socioeconomic development. However, the economic benefits of logging and mining are short-lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. State governments stand to lose more from the loss of forests and the ecosystem services they provide. Droughts, floods, soil erosion, landslides, and health crises such as dengue and malaria outbreaks will all cost the state and federal governments more in the long run. We need to stop relying on commodity crops and extraction-based industries as our primary source of revenue. If we build a knowledge and skills-based economy and stop relying on monoculture crops and extraction-based industries as our country’s primary source of revenue and jobs, we can find better ways of sustaining our economy.


We need to rid ourselves of the mentality that the loss of threatened tree species does not affect us, or that it can be rectified through tree-planting campaigns and gazetting degraded land as replacement forest reserves. Tree-planting campaigns, habitat restoration, the setting up of seed banks, and environmental education for the younger generation, all take time to bear results. And time is a luxury that threatened species do not have. Biodiversity is not merely something that is nice to have, but essential to the survival of humanity and a living planet.







Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Letter to the Editor: End Deforestation Before Embarking On Tree-Planting Campaigns



It is difficult for environmentalists not to respond with scepticism to the Prime Minister’s 100 Million Tree Planting Campaign. While it is heartening to see that the government acknowledges climate change to be a real and imminent threat, the actions of those in power thus far are not consistent with environmental protection, climate mitigation, or biodiversity preservation. 

The PM claims that Malaysia has forest cover of 55.3%, which is wildly inaccurate as it includes plantations, which consist of monoculture crops that rely on large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides, and fertilisers in order to thrive. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported Malaysia’s primary forest cover to be at 18.7% in 2010, and it has decreased since then. Tree cover is not the same as forest cover, and not everything that puts out roots and leaves is automatically beneficial to the environment. Old-growth forests store carbon for centuries, whereas plantations constitute net emitters of carbon due to the disturbance of the soil and degradation of the previous ecosystem. Plantations cannot be classified as forests, and they are in fact a direct threat to forests due to the fact that forests are cleared for agricultural expansion. For the sake of scientific accuracy and for this massive tree-planting campaign to be an actual climate mitigation strategy, this inventory of 100 million trees must necessarily exclude plantation trees. 

While a tree-planting campaign of this magnitude sounds good in theory, the Perikatan Nasional government does not have a credible environmental track record. Just days before the announcement of the 100 Million Tree Planting Campaign, the Kedah government proposed to log 25,000 hectares of the Ulu Muda forest, which is a vital water catchment area and biodiversity hotbed. Further, there are recent reports of logging in the vicinity of the Jerantut Tambahan Forest Reserve and Lesung Permanent Forest Reserve, among other forest reserves. Things in Pakatan Nasional controlled states are not much better, as the Selangor State Government is adamant about proceeding with its plans to degazette and destroy the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve. Based on these precedents, it is difficult to believe that the government is in any way committed to protecting the environment. 

Planting trees make up only a partial solution to the effects of deforestation. A better, less expensive, and less quixotic option would be to end or at least reduce deforestation. Let us remember that mature trees offset far greater amounts of carbon dioxide than young trees. A tree will only begin to be effective in absorbing carbon in its tenth year, so planting trees as a climate mitigation strategy is not going to produce the results we want to see within our lifetimes. Intact forests provide many ecosystem services that newly-planted trees can’t. Researchers from 15 countries published their findings in Nature in 2014 that old trees not only store carbon and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere, but actively convert carbon dioxide from the air into their trunks, branches, and leaves, a feat that is not replicated by young trees. Currently, the Earth’s forests and soil absorb about 30% of atmospheric carbon emissions. Mature and biodiverse forests store carbon, recycle water, prevent erosion, harbour biodiversity, and improve air and water quality. When trees are cut down, years of a forests’ stored carbon are released back into the atmosphere. When we plant forests, we gain some of the benefits that forests provide, but it takes decades to grow a healthy forest, and humanity is running out of time. 

I can see the appeal of a massive tree-planting campaign to those in power. It creates the appearance that the government is doing something proactive to protect the environment, and also creates public relations opportunities for corporations, particularly those in polluting and destructive sectors such as construction, property development, and oil and gas, to perform a corporate social responsibility exercise to improve their image. Before we embark on this ambitious and expensive campaign, however, it would be good to know what plans the government and its corporate partners have beyond planting trees. Planting millions of trees is the easy part. Tracking these trees and ensuring the young trees’ survival is the challenging part. Mega tree-planting efforts in India, Turkey, and Ethiopia record the number of saplings planted, but are unable to provide accurate and adequate information about the survival rate of these saplings. What makes us think that Malaysia is going to be the exception, given our society’s poor maintenance culture? Tree-planting campaigns are also a cop-out for governments and corporations because it is a way of avoiding having to address more serious environmental issues such as deforestation, pollution, mining, and other destructive activities. 

By all means, we should plant as many new trees as possible, especially native trees that provide food and shelter for native fauna. However, we need to stop pretending that it will solve the environmental problems caused by weak governance, greed, and the prioritising of short-term benefits over environmental integrity. If the PM truly cares about “greening Malaysia” and our trees, as he had claimed, he would start by putting a halt to deforestation and the degazettement of forest reserves.