Letter from Malaysia

A Second Chance for Our Environment, Let’s Not Waste It

By Melvin Gumal
May 22, 2019

[Note: This story was originally published at Malaysia Kini.]

Malaysia as a country now appears to have an able experienced pilot at the helm and is pulling things back together. Citizens and the international community are also rallying around the leadership, and passion runs high as their expectations are also very high. As indicated very early on, the priorities for the new government are economic health, finances, the need to fight corruption and the need to back ‘rule of law’.

Taking the analogy of a sinking ship, the skipper has started plugging the holes and once it is steadied, other urgent items will be addressed. If this analogy holds true, the environment and biodiversity are thus going to be among the items that now need to be addressed — after the ship has been steadied.

Today is International Day of Biological Diversity. Among the more notable comments are about it being a mistake to put a monetary value on the environment. The argument is that doing so diminishes other just as important items such as cultural and spiritual values as these intrinsic properties are considered ‘invaluable or priceless’.

Meanwhile, others point out that it is vitally important to put a value on the environment for otherwise, it is impossible to get the majority of the people to understand the need for it. In line with this trend of thought are other supporters who highlight that it pays to protect the environment or biodiversity

Inherent in this opinion is the argument that biodiversity is linked to so much of each country’s resources, forests, water catchment, wildlife and even the air we breathe or the water we drink. In their argument, we need to protect the environment and biodiversity as it will help us now and in the future.

In the newer economic valuations, even logos of iconic wildlife that are used as a projection of strength, such as the tiger logo for Proton and Maybank, and indeed our Malaysian crest can be valued. Perhaps that is why I cannot find a corporation in Malaysia that would want to put an extinct dodo as part of their logo.

It is clear that Malaysia is now at the most important political, economic and even philosophical crossroads since independence and other major events of the 1960s. We need to make the right decisions for the country. We also need a strong leadership in the environment. There are various examples where good environmental leadership can mean success immediately and others seen decades later.

A case in point is that of India in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi. This prime minister decided to strongly protect tigers by creating protected areas and by improving legislation under Project Tiger. As a consequence, the environment is taken seriously amongst the citizenry, and yes, tigers have bounced back.

A similar event happened in 2010 when president Putin of Russia wanted tigers protected and the net effect was a galvanised effort to save these animals. China also decided that the environment was crucial and as tigers were a flagship, poured much money, time, energy, latest science and the best minds into this matter. The resulting effect is the largest injection of funds into protected areas seen globally, in the last three years and a trend in increasing numbers of tigers.

All these countries decided that at different, crucial moments, the environment and the flagship species (identifiable with the citizenry), i.e. tigers had to be protected. The protection cascaded into protecting the prey they eat, the forests they live in, and ultimately in the collateral value they give to their citizens, i.e. water, air and space.

The improved environment enabled the populace to take pride that their standard of living had improved and also that their country had taken care of their environment, which in turn benefited themselves as well as the biodiversity in the wilds.

Malaysian biodiversity and environment are also at this very important crossroads geographically. Our wildlife knows no boundaries and empirical data from existing research do show them moving large distances. Tigers, leopards, tapirs, birds and other ungulates can and do move across state boundaries.

Thus it is a reality that at the convergence of the three states of Johor, Pahang and Melaka, some of these animals such as bats, birds, deer, pigs, and even the big cats like leopards and tigers have the three states as part of their home range. Indeed, if they could speak, they might even say that they are true Malaysians.

These animals, our forests, the water and air we need are all part of the environment. All these invaluable components are crucial to us Malaysians and indeed priceless. Our Malaysian environment so highly regarded by ourselves and globally that we as a nation signed on to international conventions to save it, as part of our global responsibility. As a responsible country, we should indeed abide and honour them.

Whilst we see the urgency in putting back Malaysia together, the time is now to also look at how we should view the environment and the wildlife living within it. We have lost many species since independence the most notable of which is the rhino. We should not be just pointing fingers at the cause, but we must learn from it.

We now need to decide how the new Ministry of Environment, or the Ministry of Natural Resources or an amalgamation of the various natural resources ministry should take shape. To know where we should be going, we need to know where we have been. We all need to sit down and look at this very important ministry and decide how we want our wildlife, forests, water and air to be handed back to us and our young ones.

The resources lie in different states, but if the new ministry is able to weave a working relationship with everyone, it is a collective weave that can be much stronger than the sum of individual strands.

We must not waste this second chance. We can decide our environmental future. We have seen what our collective actions can do. Malaysia used to be a tiger economy. It needs to roar again. Central to this roar is the environment, as we need to be living in one that enables us to breathe in clear air, swim in clean waters and gaze at unbroken nature which in turn helps us spiritually to be truly alive and whole, facing our future with undiminished joy and creativity.

Melvin Gumal is Malaysia Country Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Originally published at m.malaysiakini.com on May 22, 2018.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.