Balu Perumal, conservationist beloved of his charges. (Dylan Ng)

The Living Legacy of Balu

Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation of wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. The Bible, James 3: 13

Written by Ginny Ng SL with Chin Sing Yun, Dylan Ong, Joanna Tang and Surin Suksuwan

WHEN I received news of Balu Perumal’s untimely passing on 6 August, I was in disbelief. I had not had regular contact with him, only occasionally catching up during conferences and meetings of common interest.

My immediate thought was how his family and the conservation world will now be poorer because of his absence. For Balu was a lifelong conservationist, botanist, mentor, teacher, family man, and friend.

(Photo: A conservationist to the core, Balu Perumal [1966–2021] is pictured in the early 2000s surveying what is now the Selangor State Park | Pic by Dylan Ong)

Extraordinary mentor

However, Balu’s legacy is not only the programmes and projects he led in his years in the field, but in the people he helped to build up.

He understood that while projects and programmes may have a limited life span due to funding, investment into people would create passionate advocates about conservation that would leave an enduring impact.

For those of us who had the benefit of working with Balu during our early years in conservation, it was he who educated, nurtured, encouraged, built us up and helped us develop.

Hence this, our collective tribute by myself, Chin Sing Yun, Dylan Ong, Joanna Tang and Surin Suksuwan.

Daily lessons

One of Balu’s guiding philosophies was to “teach every day”. Lessons could happen at any time, whether during lunch time, tea time, during our discussions of issues or when we were in the field.

We remember fondly his many impromptu lectures on ecology, forestry, environmental law, and almost any other topic that sparked his interest on the particular day.

These lessons were also repeated many times, to ensure that they were drilled into our heads.

For example, I remember traveling with him in the car from KL to Perlis and he gave an in-depth commentary of the botanical ecosystems of the different highlands we passed, from start to finish.

Keep growing

Balu was also a man who understood that for a person to grow, they needed to be challenged.

As his main charges at that time, Dylan, Joanna and I remember how he would assign us more difficult tasks as we progressed in our work.

He had his constant phrase of “Jangan risau, kawan” to encourage us to try our best at the given task.

As Dylan remembers, “This made a world of a difference to our development and confidence, having a supervisor who believed in us.”

Balu being hosted by the Tok Batin of Kampung Orang Asli Kampung Cheros, Bertam Valley (Dylan Ong)
Balu being hosted by the Tok Batin of Kampung Orang Asli Kampung Cheros, Bertam Valley (Dylan Ong)

Indeed, one of Balu’s most indelible qualities was assuring his charges that he would stand up for us.

This enabled us to continue our tasks without dealing with unnecessary interference. It created a safe space for us juniors to grow into our roles as conservationists and as people.

As Joanna recalled, “The most impressionable memory I have of Balu is the fact that he was always courageous to speak up against unfair treatment to his staff and gives steadfast support to them at work.

“These are admirable work ethics that I appreciate even as my career has taken me to a different industry.”

Community is key

It wasn’t only his charges whom Balu believed in empowering. Sing Yun, who was a colleague, was also encouraged by him to never give up on working with communities.

To Balu, even if we could make a difference to one person out of 100 on the ground, it was still a success!

This has helped Sing Yun to realise the importance of community empowerment in conservation and she was also inspired to be patient when working with local communities.

Mangrove legacy

One of Balu’s biggest successes in community empowerment for conservation was the establishment of what is locally recognised as an authority on community-based management on mangrove rehabilitation.

Balu initiated and led the programme which resulted in the formation of the Sahabat Hutan Bakau, a community-based organisation in mangrove- and bird-rich Kuala Gula, Perak.

The organisation now has 40 members, mostly from the fishing community around the mangrove area.

The members currently play an active role in rehabilitating, protecting and providing inputs into the management of these mangrove areas.

Saving the Merbau

A botanist by training, Balu was passionate about plants.

For example, during his time in Gua Musang working on empowering local communities in protecting Sungai Nenggiri, he developed a passion to save the Near Threatened species of Merbau (Intsia palembanica).

He observed that there were a number of Merbau mother trees there.

Again, based on his conviction to empower communities, he persuaded the locals to collect the seeds with the aim of ensuring the survival of the species beyond just one area.

This initiative ended up in partnership among various organisations including the Forestry Department, where the local communities would provide Merbau seeds to their nurseries which would be germinated and planted elsewhere.

A passionate and knowledgeable botanist, Balu would regale his charges with information at every turn. He is pictured here examining a cycad in Gunung Rapat, Ipoh (Dylan Ong)
A passionate and knowledgeable botanist, Balu would regale his charges with information at every turn. He is pictured here examining a cycad in Gunung Rapat, Ipoh (Dylan Ong)

Balu was also very passionate about his family. He constantly strived to find the balance between them and conservation.

All of us would have heard of his story of how he met his wife when he was doing his field work in Sarawak.

His stories about his family were also a reminder to us that even as work is important, family is equally important.

Work with everyone

Another valuable lesson Balu taught many of us is that environmental and conservation work cannot be separate from other social and economic issues.

For example, he understood that fundraising was as important as the conservation work.

He believed that one must not work in isolation because different areas of work are interconnected and it is crucial to work with others not in the same sector to achieve our conservation goals. 

Carrying the torch

Over the years, all of us charges have moved to different organisations yet we all continue to persevere in the environmental field. 

Some of us continue to help empower communities to protect their own natural resources. Others are working with commodity industries to raise the bar on sustainability.

Yet others work to provide critical technical guidance to governments and industries on improving their environmental performance.

Personal philosophy

Personally, Balu’s lessons have become a part of the philosophy of how I work.

I find myself “teaching every day”, by explaining things to people who are not experts in my field, in an effort to create greater awareness and understanding of the issues on the ground.

I am unafraid to try new experiences even if they may fail, as I know that that is part of the learning process.

And it is through these little things that I hope I can pass on a legacy that is as rich and enduring as the one that Balu left me.

Rest in peace, kawan. We miss you.

[Edited by SL Wong]

Ginny Ng trained as a zoologist and has worked in the environmental field for 20 years in three different sectors, most recently in a commodity-based company.

Dylan Ong specialises in biodiversity conservation, ecosystem planning and nature interpretation; he has over 15 years of experience as a consultant for government, private sector and NGOs.

Surin Suksuwan has 20 years’ experience working as a biodiversity conservationist and sustainability practitioner.

Chin Sing Yun is trained in forestry and has worked in conservation for more than 20 years in park management, and planning and implementation of various conservation projects.

Joanna Tang has been involved in environmental management as an NGO, technical advisor, policy researcher to a consultant for 13 years. She is now a technical professional in an energy company.


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5 thoughts on “The Living Legacy of Balu”

  1. Thanks for this write-up. I am happy to learn of Balu’s strong and lasting impact on the conservation community. This legacy of his can only be envied by all working in nature conservation.

  2. Thank you for sharing. It’s very well written, giving me a glimpse into the life of one who lived his life well, not for personal pleasures but for the betterment of others.

    1. Thank you kindly for your comments. As mentioned, we hope that we too would be able to leave such lasting impact.

  3. Great tribute! Yes, I love how Balu would encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, “Jangan risau, kawan. You can do it!”

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