An environmental tragedy:
But who weeps?
By Salleh Buang
By now, many of us would probably have forgotten what our fourth Prime
Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, told the Dewan Rakyat on Oct 30, 2003
when presenting the Mid-Term Review of the Eighth Malaysia Plan.
The theme of his speech that day was the attainment of balanced
development, or, if you prefer the more popular jargon, “sustainable
The former PM said that within just 46 years, Malaysia had grown from
being an insignificant Asian country dependent solely on tin and rubber
into a fully industrialised nation, a global player strong in both the
manufacturing and IT sectors.
Average per capita income had soared to the US$4,000 (RM15,200) level,
while the national literacy level was around 94.1 per cent.
In terms of professional training, we had produced more than 87,000
professionals - of whom more than 12,000 were doctors and more than 10,000
The poverty rate, which stood at 52.4 per cent on Merdeka Day, had been
greatly reduced and in 2002 was a mere 5.1 per cent of the population.
Further, more than 90 per cent of the residential buildings in urban
centres had been supplied with water and electricity.
In keeping with the slogan, Malaysia Boleh, we have Malaysians who had
conquered Mount Everest, walked the North Pole and swam across the English
Channel. In terms of the world’s trading nations, we were placed
A very credible performance, indeed, for such a young nation. But is the
total picture really that rosy?
“Development” must not be measured merely in the physical sense, such as
by how many new townships, industrial estates or housing projects that
have been built. Neither should it be measured merely in monetary terms -
by the number of banks and financial institutions in the country, our per
capita income, trade surpluses or amount of national savings - nor by
pointing at the increasing number of mega projects that have been
completed or are being carried out.
More importantly, “development” must be measured in human terms. An
overall assessment of the quality of life of every single human being
residing in this country must be done - locals as well as foreigners; the
rich and the poor; urban dwellers; farmers; fishermen; estate workers and
the village folk.
Put in its simplest terms, quality of life is maintained, and sustained,
when man can live in perfect harmony with Mother Nature; when he is
willing and able to take care of the environment, which will in turn take
care of him. Quality of life exists when man is at peace with nature, and
Seen from this perspective, can we honestly say that we have maintained
and sustained our quality of life, and that we have taken care of our
environment? Or have we become, by design or default, Mother Nature’s
Remember the character Dr Gil Grissom in the popular TV series CSI, who
said, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand”?
To my mind, the most frightening prospect is when man no longer cares
about the continuing assault on the environment. Everything is deemed
acceptable, everything is endured, no sacrifice is too small - all in the
name, and for the sake of, development.
The tragedy is that we all see what is happening, but not enough of us
really care to do anything to stop it. At the international level, you see
this in the policy of the United States towards the Kyoto Protocol on
A couple of weeks ago, a resident of George Town in Penang was quoted as
saying, on prime time TV news, that in the good old days, Sungai Pinang
was an abundant source of fish for people living by the river. Now, it is
a cesspool of domestic waste and industrial effluents.
The same thing can be said of Sungai Juru on mainland Penang, or even
about the waterways in Sungai Petani and Alor Star in Kedah.
In the Klang Valley, local residents must surely remember how “Taman
Pertanian Bukit Cahaya Seri Alam”, formerly called Bukit Cerakah
Agriculture Park, looked like in the beginning, when it was first opened
to the public.
I visited the place a couple of times in the early 80s, when I lived in
Petaling Jaya. Now, some two decades later, what I have learned about it
from newspaper reports is simply unbelievable. To think this sad state of
affairs could happen in the “most developed State” in the country!
What had happened at the agriculture park, as photographs published with
the reports showed, proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there are
still plenty of people who have a perverse sense of development. If these
people are allowed to “manage” our development programme for the next
decade, forget about Local Agenda 21, forget about sustainable development
and forget about smart growth! It is all empty talk!
A full-page report in a daily said that this once beautiful area - a
virgin jungle that also serves as a “green lung” or “oxygen tank” for
Klang Valley - is now facing certain ecological destruction. What was
before an 800ha site, protected and managed by the Agriculture Ministry,
is now merely a tiny blot of green space against a brown canvas of ground,
where earthworks have been gleefully carried out in the name of progress
The shocking thing is that this happened despite a Cabinet decision that
the park “shall be safeguarded as Taman Botani Negara”, set to become the
world’s largest agro-forest by 2007.
So, who is to blame? Is it double-talk from the top, or (as has happened
before) the voice from the top was completely ignored at ground level?
The report went on to say that much of the land on the northern fringe of
the park, a forest area of roughly 1,200ha and which appears on the map as
being under the jurisdiction of the Shah Alam City Council, has been
cleared, and continues to be.
The cleared land has been carved out and alienated by the State Authority
to some 35 housing developers, with each developer getting between eight
On its southern perimeter, land measuring 200ha has been alienated to yet
another housing developer. This spot is said to be close to Taman Kaktus.
Many parties are therefore benefiting from the assault on the environment.
The fact that this is actually a crime against the environment has been
Since the developers and the relevant authorities are benefiting from the
deal, who cares about an increase in the atmospheric temperature (global
warming)? Who cared about the flooding at Kampung Budaya in November 2003?
Or the flooding of Taman Orkid? Or the dead fish in Tasik Empangan Sungai
In due course, the newspaper report said, a 50ha site at the agriculture
park would be transformed into an elite community for the super rich,
where each bungalow is expected to be offered for sale from RM1.5 million
We are witnessing a grave environmental tragedy unfolding. But who’s
really weeping, not just shedding crocodile tears?
Salleh Buang is senior advisor of a company specialising in competitive
intelligence. He is also active in training and public speaking and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org