Are Malaysians fed up enough of river pollution to assert their environmental rights? Do they even know what these rights are?
ASTONISHINGLY, it happened again: Sungai Kim Kim in Johor was polluted once more in early March. And it happened smack on the second anniversary of the toxic waste disaster there that hospitalised 2,700 and cost RM6.4m to clean up.
While this recent episode was described by the Minister of Environment as “normal pollution” and not hazardous, it raises concerns and questions as to why any pollution has recurred.
Johoreans are not the only ones wondering this.
(Photo: The Barchats: Envirorights webinars on environmental rights drew 435 lawyers and members of the public. Facebook screenshot: Bar Council Committee on Environment and Climate Change)
Backyards and storerooms throughout Malaysia are still piled up with blue and red tong to store water. Malaysians — especially the afflicted 1.2 million Klang Valley households — are not about to be caught out again after last year’s numbingly repetitive river pollution and water cut episodes.
A high-level government response to river pollution came last month from the Prime Minister. He promised higher fines for polluters in the latest review of the 47-year-old Environmental Quality Act. At the same time, though, Parliament is still not sitting to debate any amendments.
Nonetheless, will Malaysians be pacified by harsher compounds and penalties? Do more Malaysians want to assert their right to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment? And do they know how to assert those rights?
What are environmental rights?
“Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment; and sustainable environmental governance cannot exist without the establishment of and respect for human rights.” —United Nations Environment Program
Malaysians are interested in understanding their right to a healthy environment, according to the responses to a topical webinar series last year.
Organised by the Malaysian Bar Council Environment & Climate Change Committee (BCECCC), the Barchats: Envirorights series ran in October and November 2020. The webinars were curated to bring the public through the whys and wherefores of environmental rights.
To anchor it, the series kicked off by referencing the 2019 Sungai Kim Kim and 2020 Klang Valley river pollution disasters.
BARCHATS: ENVIRORIGHTS Episode 0: Sg Kim Kim and then Sg Gong – Do We Have the Right to be Angry? Episode 1: Where Do Environmental Rights Come From and What Are They? Episode 2: How Does The Law Protect the Environment? Episode 3: Who Said It Is Easy? Upholding Environmental Justice Episode 4: So How? What Can We Do?
The series attracted 288 discrete participants; a quarter partook in two or more episodes, so total participation came up to 435.
While this was a Bar Council event, one-third of attendants came from outside the legal fraternity, suggesting high public interest.
However, although participants might have been interested in environmental rights, their knowledge about what these rights might be, spans a wide spectrum.
At one end of the knowledge spectrum were questions like this:
“On the general understanding that our courts are conservative in the approach to environmental rights, what are your views of a private company bringing legal action claiming that environmental degradation / pollution would infringe their right to property?” (excerpt)
At the other end of the knowledge spectrum, one participant asked:
“Very often I see trees being cut down completely haphazardly. When I tried to talk to the workers, they were rude. What can I do? I’m from Selangor.”
What does the data say?
With permission from the BCECCC, Macaranga waded through the apparently diverse feedback. From the 75 participant questions and comments, we found common strands and a generally positive big picture outlook when it comes to Malaysians and environmental rights.
Issues related to laws, litigation and rights topped the list (27%).
These included technical legal questions, enshrining environmental rights in the Constitution and the right to sue companies or authorities.
“Ordinary citizens mostly are afraid of reprisals, how would the law protect them?”
Another commonality were questions and comments related to the government (24%).
While some participants expressed frustration at government inefficiency, non-responsiveness and corruption, many did not merely point fingers.
Instead, some identified weaknesses at different levels of government, from federal to municipal council; others recognised the dichotomy between state versus federal powers; and many were keen to figure out how to effect change in the way government worked.
Only about a quarter of the questions were purely to get information. The rest were concerned with seeking solutions, including taking action.
“How can the public urge State government departments to implement State Enactments that have environment considerations for sectoral development but are not being implemented?”
Comments on the need for collaborations kept popping up, whether among the various levels of government and/or across several or all sectors of society.
The participation of civil society and the private sector was raised, with some calls for the Bar Council committee to take leadership of action and strategy.
Moreover, Malaysians wanted to act. About 19% of the questions translated to “What can I do” or “What can we do”.
Five participants mentioned public consultations. Calls to educate youth and children popped up across the series.
Perhaps the nature of the series drove these responses.
Calling it a “public empowering series”, co-organiser Kiu Jia Yaw said the team wanted to inculcate the notion that “environmental rights (are) not just in the hands of the lawyers, the experts, the people who are in power.”
“We wanted it to be very clear that the power is also in the hands of everyone, in the layperson, and the layperson has an immediate role to play.” Kiu is BCECCC co-deputy chair.
In addition, the series made sure to include enough complexities to help people eschew cynicism and baseless blame gaming.
“A lot of these matters aren’t as simple as you think, aren’t as simple as blaming each other,” said co-organiser Chin Li Jin. But knowing the details is equally important so folks could “differentiate whether we can be tricked into believing .. stories”.
A research and management consultant, Chin is not a lawyer but had brought the idea of the webinars to the BCECCC as “this Sungai Kim Kim thing really kept me up at night.”
“A few countries have started setting precedence recognising legal personality to natural objects like rivers and lakes to proactively protect it. Altering the view of our natural environment being a commodity bank by the states. Would Malaysian law be encouraged to set legal construct to our natural objects, from the likes of Taman Negara and other forest reserves that are seemingly vulnerable?”
It was as crucial that the webinars attracted a good number of lawyers and pupils in chambers.
Kiu pointed out that legal training did not necessarily translate to knowledge about or interest in environmental rights.
“A person can survive law school and perhaps 20 years of legal practice without having consciously done anything related with the environment…just because (they) don’t have the lens to look at it.”
At the end, the diversity of questions is positive, said Arhwin Kalai Chelvan, another co-organiser and BCECCC committee member. For him, it showed that the presentations and discussions had triggered different thoughts and questions regardless of knowledge and background.
“Some of the questions were interesting in that they were very specific,” he said. “Oh, I have this legal problem; this environmental problem; this was happening in my neighbourhood… That means (participants) joined the series because they wanted answers.”
Asking questions and seeking solutions are good signs of Malaysians working towards an understanding of, and pursuing their rights to a healthy environment. Walking down that path might just see the end of the recurring pollution of Sungai Kim Kim.
[Edited by Yao Hua Law]
With thanks to the BCECCC for access to webinar data. The series responses featured in this article are selected for diversity and edited for grammar and house style. All responses are found on the BCECCC digital platforms. | Disclaimer: SL Wong was a speaker on Episode 1.
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