Malaysia has accumulated all kinds of environmental damages following decades of rapid industrialisation. Take water for example, five states are currently considered water deficit, while 377 rivers are getting narrower, shallower and lled with mud from unrestrained development. The pollution load on land also shows no sign of ebbing, with Malaysians generating about 38,000 tonnes of household waste daily. Consequently, most land falls have exceeded their operating capacity with serious health threats.

A restorative rather than destructive economy seeks to turn such environmental challenges into opportunities for growth. Instead of regurgitating the antagonism between ecology and business, Malaysia should open up prospects for businesses to facilitate the recovery of a landscape or an environmental service that has been damaged or destroyed. Restoration of ex-mining lands into premier housing estates, or rejuvenation of the degraded Klang River are examples of local-scale eco-innovations. Moving forward, we need solutions as big as the problems we face.

When Malaya was a resource-rich land, we pursued preservation policies to keep natural ecosystems in pristine state. Just as game hunting during the Colonial era began to threaten faunae in the forests, the authorities were quick to set aside a number of protected areas. The first Malayan wildlife reserve was created in Chior, Perak, way back in 1903 to protect the bos gaurus or bison. Unfortunately, now both the Chior reserve and its charismatic gaur are gone. Following Independence, we undertook extensive logging and agricultural development in rural Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah. As a result, the natural areas dwindled in size, causing further loss of ora and fauna species. Eventually, the governments– both federal and state – declared various conservation measures to reduce the wear and tear of economic development. The Sustainable Forest Management System, for instance, was established to halt the depletion of valuable timber species and to ensure forest sustainability.

But the truth is, the word sustainability has little actual meaning in the world. Many of the policy statements on conservation were rarely matched with credible implementation. A case in point is the Ulu Muda forest reserves in Kedah. Almost 74 percent of Ulu Muda’s 106,418ha forests have for many years been gazetted for timber production. Aside from its rich biodiversity, it is also a key watershed for the northern states. Yet contrary to popular belief, it was never fully protected as a water catchment area. Never mind the fact that Ulu Muda provides 80 percent of the raw water in Penang, 70 percent in Perlis and 96 percent in Kedah for industrial, irrigation and domestic usages. In the event of a water supply disruption, the livelihood of four million people in the three states will be affected, risking some RM115 billion worth of economic activities.

A few months after the 14th General Election, the Pakatan Harapan-led Kedah state government put a stop to logging activities by revoking logging concession licenses at Ulu Muda. While this is a welcome step, a deeper reform would require the Kedah government to “lock up” Ulu Muda forests as a permanent water catchment area in legal terms. Here is the rub though: for a state operating on a mere RM700 million budget, the loss of RM40 million annually from the logging ban surely hurts. As a result, some may argue that the federal government must compensate the Kedah state government in place of its forest premium. Such is the convenient stance of the Penang state – an economic powerhouse– instead of offering its neighbour Kedah some payment for its raw water supply to Penangites. At a time when inter-basin water resources transfer is a rule than an exception, should not states help each other out to secure the stable supply of water?

Perhaps a better option than its current plan to access raw water from Perak is for Penang to jointly develop with Kedah innovative projects that restore the ecosystem function of the Ulu Muda River. There is something to learn from the Ta Shizen Gata Kawa Zukuri project (or nature- oriented river works), which has effectively restored degraded river corridors and their biodiversity on a large scale in Japan.

Government policy, however, is not the holy grail of environmental reforms. What is more critical than policies is winning of the hearts and minds of the average citizen to embrace environmentally-friendly habits and behaviour. This is no easy feat since the environmental awareness level among Malaysians is very low.

The Pakatan Harapan government got off on a good start with its campaign to eliminate the consumption of single-use plastic by 2030, which is now gaining positive responses from the public. The motivation is to release Malaysia from the global hall of shame with it being ranked among the top ten countries with mismanaged plastic waste in the world. Malaysia had produced 940,000 tons of mismanaged plastic wastes, most of which may have been washed into the oceans.

To its credit, the government knows that imposing an overnight ban to curtail plastic pollution is not an option. Doing so will jeopardise the business of over 1,000 plastic manufacturers in the country with export value in the tune of tens of billions of Ringgit.

As an alternative, the government unveiled a 12-year roadmap based on restorative principles. It contains a push for a gradual plastic-free lifestyle change for 32 million citizens to adopt and reflect on a set of practices that show them the importance of the environmental issues to their daily lives. For businesses, the roadmap encourages research and commercialisation of eco- friendly technologies, including the creation of biodegradable plastic industry. By joining countries that are transitioning to restoration models, Malaysia is in the race to tap into the USD$1 trillion worth of new businesses in the global circular economy market.

Saying no to plastics is a necessity, but it is only a means to an end. In fact, Malaysia faces greater environmental problems than plastic waste; sewage pollution of rivers being one of them. Creating a high-level, cross-party platform – such as a parliamentary select committee on the environment – will be a useful step forward to prioritise responses to our environmental menace.

The acid test for policies and roadmaps lie in their implementation. This is true both for the “slow creep” problem like water scarcity or a “flavour-of-the-month” issue like plastic waste. In the past, the enforcement of environmental regulation was constrained by limited funding. Only about one percent of the annual budget goes to environment-related agencies. Regrettably, the bulk of this funding ends up as emoluments, which is a part of the operating expenditure.

In reality, it is the development expenditure that transforms economy and society through the creation of new goods and services. Is the ruling government willing to allocate more development expenditure to set the restorative economy in motion? One thing is certain. A business-as-usual funding strategy will not lead to Pakatan Harapan being able to deliver on its environmental reform promises in the next four and a half years.

Hezri Adnan is currently Ceo of the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA)

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