Thursday, 29 January 2015

The responsibility to protect forests

Brave New World (The Star)
21 January 2015

Forests are under state jurisdiction, but Parliament can pass laws to make the various state laws uniform and to meet international obligations.

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INDISCRIMINATE logging in the east coast has been attributed as one of the causes of the terrible floods that we have suffered this year. To my knowledge, there has been no study conducted to verify this claim although, of course, it is very possible.
Any school child will tell you that forested areas (especially on hills) are vital to the environment. They act as catchment areas, help to absorb rainwater and hold the soil together. All these actions are important not only for our water supply but also to prevent water rushing uncontrollably down from the highlands and to stop soil erosion; both factors in flood control.
Whose responsibility is it, then, to protect our forests? According to the law, forests are under the jurisdiction of the states. The Federal Government only has power over forests in the federal territories; which is not much at all, seeing that Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur and Labuan are not exactly overrun with jungle.
The main law that governs forest on the peninsula is the National Forestry Act. This is a law made by Parliament. “Hold on”, I hear you say, “why is Parliament making laws for something in the states’ jurisdiction?”
Well, the Constitution allows Parliament to do so if the purpose is to make the various state laws uniform. Before the National Forestry Act, each state had its own forest law and it differed from one another.
After the Act was made, the states then took it upon themselves to turn the text of the law into state legislation by making it a state enactment passed by their legislative assembly. So, even though the law has its origins in Parliament, the fact remains that it is the state governments who have power over their forests and they are the enforcers of the law.
The Federal Government, via its National Forestry Department, has always advised states to establish protected forests, but at the end of the day there is no compulsion for this advice to be followed. States will always be tempted to exploit their forest resources as it is a major source of income. This could lead to poor practices and poor enforcement of existing laws.
Is there anything that can be done by the Federal Government? Theoretically, yes.
The Constitution allows Parliament to make laws even if the topic falls under state jurisdiction, if the reason for making those laws is in order to implement international obligations. There are a few international laws that are relevant to the forests that Malaysia is party to.
There is the Tropical Timber Agreement, but in my opinion this is not a very strong law and it does not impose any serious obligations, as it is more of a guideline. A more useful international treaty to explore will be the Convention on Biodiversity.
According to this treaty, there is an obligation for member countries to protect biological diversity by having what is known as in situ conservation. In situ conservation means that one protects the ecosystem in order to protect the biodiversity in it.
It is not inconceivable, then, for Parliament to make forest protection laws in order to fulfil this obligation, even if it means overriding state wishes. I doubt it will happen, though. We need only look at another international treaty to see why I say so.
The Ramsar Wetlands treaty is another international law meant to protect an ecosystem (in this case, wetlands). Malaysia is a party and our obligation is to establish as many protected wetland areas as possible. We have done so, with Ramsar sites in Pahang, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.
But, although this is an international obligation and the Federal Government is perfectly within its rights to either make a new federal law or use an existing one to create and protect those sites, it has instead chosen to allow the states to use their own laws. In other words, the Federal Government is not willing to tread on state government toes with regard to land and forest, even if it is in order to live up to its international duties. Instead, a path of co-operation is chosen.
This is all well and good, but what about situations where the states’ practice is causing great harm, not only to the environment but also to their people? Shouldn’t the Federal Government play hardball then?
Ah, now we enter into the realm of politics. There will always be concern that if the Federal Government does do this, then will they do it impartially, or will they aim to control states held by the opposition and not by the ruling coalition?
Furthermore, because the sources of income of the states are relatively few, such a move would cause outrage. Thus, to conclude this rather bleak (and let’s be frank, deadly dull) article, to properly deal with our forest situations would require some really heavy-duty research and work involving not just the forest laws but also issues such as state income as well.

Monday, 19 January 2015

No Way to Treat a Hero


Sin Chew Jit Poh
14 January 2015
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Major Zaidi Ahmad is a bona fide hero. He served in war torn Bosnia; saved the life of a colleague and served his nation with distinction for over two decades. He also served the nation in a non-military way. In the last general election, when he found out that the so called indelible ink was in fact washable, he made a police report and reportedly he told the press about it too.

This was a good thing to do. If the indelible ink was washable, then the security it was supposed to provide against multiple voting then becomes illusory. This will then lead to serious doubts about the validity of our elections, as well as the honesty of the authorities which said the ink was indelible. These are serious issues and they are of great public interest.

For this service to the nation, Major Zaidi has been court martialed and his punishment is dismissal from the Air Force. I suppose it could have been worse, he could have been put in jail and the Military Court said that the sentence reflects his excellent service record.

I am not familiar with Military law, nor am I familiar with military attitudes, culture and traditions, so I can’t tell if what happened to Major Zaidi is acceptable amongst his brothers and sisters in arms. However as a civilian, I can’t but help feeling distraught that a civically conscious man has lost his career because he has a conscience and because he cares about democracy in this country.

According to the judge, Major Zaidi is being punished because he made a statement to the press without permission. I realise of course that discipline in the military is of extreme importance. But I wonder, surely the nature of the “disobedience” ought to be taken into consideration.

Major Zaidi’s comment about the indelible ink has nothing to do with military matters or security matters in general. The issue is one of importance to all people in the country and it is a serious issue. At the end of the day, the armed forces are there to protect the nation. Surely one of the things it is meant to protect as well are the values of the nation. Is not democracy one of those national values?

I grant that Military law is harsher than civilian law and it has its own ethical systems. Perhaps the judges in the Court Martial had no choice but to punish Major Zaidi. I just find it impossible to accept that his punishment is so harsh when considering that what he did was in no way disloyal to the nation. In fact the opposite is true, what he did was to show great concern for the nation. It just seems to be a shoddy way to treat a Malaysian hero.

Looking back to the future

Brave New World (The Star)
7 January 2015

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I AM watching Back to the Future II at the moment, gently chortling to myself. Not that it is so funny (the first one was much better), but because it is set in 2015; this year. And man do they get their predictions wrong. Where are the fusion-powered flying cars, the hover boards and self-lacing shoes?
But just as I was enjoying watching how far off Zemeckis and co were, a sudden sobering thought hit me. If Back to the Future were to be remade (or rebooted) today, then when Marty McFly goes back in time, it will be back to 1985. That’s when I was in secondary school. In other words I have become Marty’s parents.
It feels like it was yesterday that I was sitting in the Rex theatre in Georgetown (having played truant) watching Doc Brown and his flux capacitor making time travel possible. How I laughed at the quaintness of 1955 America. And now, teenagers probably laugh at the quaintness of the Eighties.
There is much to laugh at, actually. Carrot cut trousers, stonewash denim, Kajagoogoo. Man, when on earth did my generation become quaint? How apt it is that as we enter a new year, I am reminded about just how many years have passed me by.
Anyway, enough moaning; it is time to look back to the future.
I wonder what 2015 is going to be like. If I had my own DeLorean with the flux capacitor, I would hit 88mph and take a peek. I am especially curious to see if the genuine hope of 2008 will still be around.
2014 saw cracks appearing in the Pakatan. Will those cracks develop into full blown fissures?
PAS is chomping at the bit to get their Hudud plans underway. Ironically it is only an act of God that got them to slow down for a bit. However, once the flood waters recede properly and life resumes a semblance of normality, I am sure they will clamber back onto their favourite hobby horse.
And when they do, could the Pakatan stick together? DAP is dropping hints of a break up. PKR has said nothing, still trying to play the bridge-builder but will that be possible when there is such a massive split in ideology? And if DAP does leave, will the other two stay together or will PKR leave with them?
Furthermore, if left alone will PAS strike out as a lone wolf or will they be tempted by the siren call of Umno? Incidentally, if Umno and PAS do join, I wonder what they will be called? The Pan United Malay Muslim National Organisation (Pummno)?
Whatever happens, one thing is clear, if the PR does break up in 2015 then it will feel like we have not moved forward to the future but back to the past; with no clear two-party system and a divided opposition taking votes from one another.
The only ones who will be jigging with glee in such a scenario would of course be the BN and their supporters.
It is still early days of course, and I am loathe to make predictions, but I think this year is going to be a very crucial one politically. The BN is way past their prime, there is infighting in Umno and this should be fertile ground for the opposition. Yet the opposition too can’t get their act together and there is a heavy smell of divorce in the air. What will happen is anyone’s guess.

Hoping for a Better Year


Sin Chew Jit Poh
1 January 2015

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When I was a boy, the New Year was always a time of some excitement. Apart from being given the rare opportunity to stay awake till late, it always felt like a chance to start again. A clean slate, a new chapter, a New Year.

Over the years I of course realised that this sense of starting afresh was merely an illusion. January 1 is not some magical date after which things will change. Things generally stay the same and change if it happens, will happen when it does, unbound by any man made date. So it may be New Year to many, but to me it is just Thursday.

However, even though this idea of a New Year being a new start is logically flawed, I can see how it can be important psychologically. Especially when the previous 365 days had been particularly bad. And in Malaysia, the past fifty two weeks have been very bad indeed.

We have had three airline tragedies in one year. Statistically this should have been a near impossibility and yet it did happen. So many people’s lives lost, so many families grieving. Of course more people die in road accidents and illness every year, but the intensity of so much suffering in one single incident means the effects on the nation is undiluted and therefore more excruciating. And we had to face that three times.

Then just as the year is closing we suffer the biggest floods in over a decade with tens of thousands displaced and tremendous loss to property and, even more tragically, lives.

Throughout the year we have also seen our nation slipping down into a mire of bigotry, racism and extremist behaviour. We have become a country where the views of the wicked have been given so much prominence it makes one wonder sometimes if this is not the true ugly face of Malaysia.

And we have also seen the use of repressive laws in such a way as to be reminiscent of Ops Lalang a quarter of a century ago. One would have thought we would have matured as a democracy but no, the opposite appears to be true, and those with the power seem intent on reducing us to an autocracy.

Just as some seem intent on bringing us backwards in time by introducing incredibly harsh criminal laws which if debated openly and freely surely could not be accepted in this day and age.

Even the usual distractions have not been available to us. Lee Chong Wei’s doping conviction and the football teams’ last minute failure at the AFC Cup means that the transient joys of sporting achievements were also denied us.

Yes, it has been a terrible year for Malaysia. There has been a palpable sense of cynicism and pessimism in 2014. Therefore at times like this, the illusion of a new start in a New Year is perhaps a good thing.

I don’t expect any magical thing to happen as the clock strikes twelve tonight. I know for sure that for those of us who strive for human rights, democracy, and a progressive mind-set will continue to struggle in 2015. I just hope it would not be as harsh a year as 2014.

Need to dilute the potency of the extreme

Brave New World (The Star)
24 December 2014

Our choice must be rationality, compassion, fairness, justice and inclusiveness

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WHAT do the IS, Taliban and Boko Haram have in common?
Firstly, they all describe themselves as Islamic.
Secondly they all have carried out acts of despicable brutality.
Finally, they are convinced that they are absolutely correct in what they do.
I think there is a lesson to be learnt from these three groups for us in Malaysia.
I don’t think we in Malaysia can truly comprehend the horrors felt by those who are the victims of these three organisations.
Mass kidnappings, forced conversions, the murder of schoolchildren, the beheadings of innocents, out and out war; these are things which are so grotesque that, to me at least, they seem almost unreal.
But they are real and we are blessed that we do not have to experience them first hand. But we must not be complacent.
I am not here to be a cheerleader for the anti-terrorism law now in the works. I have my doubts about this new law, but more importantly, the need for such laws indicate a failure to deal with a problem before it becomes a problem.
Now it would be naïve and foolish to think that the IS, Boko Haram and Taliban, for all their pious posturing, are purely about religion.
I am certain that any in-depth study of them will show that their roots are economic, political and social in nature. However, religion is a very useful tool and these people know how to use them.
How much easier is it to convince your followers that killing people is all right if is clothed in the language of a holy war. It is much simpler to deal with economic problems by making the cause of these problems the infidels and the answer is to eliminate them. And controlling society becomes a breeze when you can convince people that you are doing God’s work and only you are correct (coupled with a vicious system of law of course).
What does this have to do with us?
Frankly folks, I do not know what our future holds. I do not know if our economy is going to be strong or whether it will collapse. What I do know is that if things get bad, then people will become desperate and they will turn to something to give them hope. The language of the extremist is one such place
It is absolutely vital therefore that we must have many voices and views out there. There has to be opinions which are not reactionary but measured, thoughtful and just. We must dilute the potency of the extreme with a variety of alternative thought.
There are extremists amongst us, and make no mistake they are there, if not in out and out terrorist mode their language and stance is but a few steps away. If we allow only their voices to be heard, then what we are doing is preparing the soil for extremist behaviour to seed and take root the moment things get bad.
It is therefore of utmost importance to place into the consciousness of the nation a choice. The choice is a clear one. When facing the challenges of a nation, one can approach it through a crude and hateful ideology determined that it is the only valid viewpoint and filled with the malicious intent of the bigoted. Or we can choose rationality, compassion, fairness, justice and inclusiveness.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Returning to rationality

Brave New World (The Star)
10 December 2014

Amidst the pessimism and cynicism, both the old and the young are looking for constructive ways to stop the rot.

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PERHAPS it is just me, but I get the sense that the prevailing mood in Malaysia is one of pessimism and uncertainty. Right now, I do not know where the country is headed and I am not optimistic that we are going in the right direction.
The Rukun Negara is famous for its five principles but as a preamble to those principles, the document lays down what was deemed to be the aspirations of the country and they are: to be a democratic, progressive and modern nation with an equitable sharing of wealth and a liberal approach towards our multiculturalism.
It is a very forward-thinking list of aspirations. Yet at the moment, it does not feel like we are moving forward at all. In fact, the converse is true – we appear to be inexorably moving backwards.
The price of living is going up and yet for the vast majority of us, income does not appear to be matching this rise.
Faith in institutions of governance is low, as can be seen in the cynical responses towards the Commission of Inquiry (its royal status seems to be a matter of some confusion) regarding the so-called “Project IC” in Sabah.
Divisive and downright nasty voices of extremism, bigotry and racism appear to have carte blanche to spread their poisonous ideology without even a whimper of protest from the powers that be.
In fact, some of those voices appear to be coming from the powers that be themselves.
Repressive and oppressive laws are not only embraced with gusto, but are going to be made even more repressive and oppressive. And the voices that support them use such noble words to defend these laws – words like “security” and “unity”.
Yet they do not provide one iota of proof as to how these laws, which are incidentally selectively used, are going to achieve all these wonderful ideals.
My worry, therefore, is that we are headed towards becoming a poorer nation. Poorer in the sense of material security, human freedom and dignity, progressive thinking and peace.
I see no sign whatsoever that those whose hands we have given the power to govern care one jot about this. All that they seem to care about is maintaining the status quo.
But the status quo is not working. The way things are done in this country is not going to help us grow and develop.
The status quo will prevent us from nurturing progressive ideas with which to provide the intellectual vitality needed to thrust us into the 21st century.
In fact, it will keep us in a state of division, superstition, feudalism and backwardness.
In the beginning, I said perhaps I am the only one who feels this way. I do not think so.
I see a hunger for improvement amongst the young. Our youths today are miles ahead of youths twenty years ago.
They have access to information and methods of communication that my generation can only dream about. And many of them realise that things cannot remain as they are.
I also see the older generation despairing at the direction this nation is taking, to the point that they are willing to put name to paper in a desperate call for a return to values of rationality and moderation.
I see many ordinary Malaysians who are tired of feeling helpless, looking for constructive ways to stop this rot.
In short I see pessimism, but I also see a definite conviction to say enough is enough. It is time to reclaim this country from the divisive, small-minded and retrogressive.
It is time, and many are ready.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Landslides in Cameron Highlands

Sin Chew Jit Poh
3 November 2014

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Last month landslides in Cameron Highlands killed five people and injured five more. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated to safety. Last year there was a similar incident in Cameron Highlands as well. Why does this keep happening?
 
One possibility is because there is over development in the highlands. The loss of vegetation, for whatever purpose, be it agriculture or building work, causes rain to rush into rivers which in turn leads to fast rising waters leading to flash floods and landslides.
 
Any primary school student can tell you that surface vegetation is vital in absorbing rain water. Such vegetation also helps prevent landslides because their roots hold the earth together. This is simple science and you do not need to be a geologist to understand.
 
This being the case, why do these incidences still occur? Bear in mind that with climate change, rainfall patterns become more extreme with heavier more intense rainfall becoming more and more common, thus posing a greater danger to hill stability.
 
We have laws that can prevent such occurrences. The Land Conservation Act being one of them. In a nutshell, the law allows for control over any development in hill land. This includes the complete banning of any development on land beyond a certain gradient.
 
The question is does this law apply in the development projects on Cameron Highlands? And if it does apply, then why was it not properly enforced?
 
Another law that may be used to prevent landslides is the Environmental Quality Act, namely the provisions in the act for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). This law makes it compulsory for certain projects to have an EIA done. Theoretically speaking if a project poses a danger to the environment then it should say so in the EIA report and this being the case, then such a project should not be allowed to continue. The threat of landslides should surely be one of the considerations.
 
The problem with the EIA system we have is that it is quite easily circumnavigated. For example the projects that require an EIA are decided based on size. Therefore it is quite easy to circumnavigate the requirement by simply breaking a project up into smaller parcels. Furthermore, hill development per se is not one of the types of activity that requires an EIA.
 
It is clear to me that such loss of lives, livelihood and homes is not acceptable. We have laws that could be used to prevent such things from happening. It is important therefore to ensure that the laws are as sound as possible and that they are also enforced as strictly as possible.
 
These are real problems that affect real people’s lives and these are the kinds of things that the government and their agencies should be working on. Instead our leaders seem to be more concerned about using draconian laws to attack imaginary threats.