ACCORDING to the Parliamentary schedule, the Malaysian government will table Budget 2021 in the Parliamentary meeting on 6 November.
The Budget would reflect the government’s plans to carry the country out of the pandemic woes of 2020.
Malaysians have had a troubled year. Our lives, economy and national policies were derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and unexpected changes in the Federal government and state governments of Johor, Melaka, Kedah and Sabah.
Many conservation groups struggled to keep finances and operations running.
Amidst the turbulence, Malaysians continue to see our environment degrade: pollution of rivers and coasts; clear-felling and degazettement of forest reserves for economic activities; human-elephant conflicts; and poaching.
On matters of the environment, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yasin says that the pandemic has prompted his government to include a special focus on sustainability agenda in Budget 2021.
But what are the top concerns of conservationists and environmentalists in Malaysia? What do they want to see addressed in Budget 2021 – or the near future?
Recent events have cast doubts on whether the Parliamentary meeting would happen. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yassin presented to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong his request for declaration of a state of Emergency to combat the Covid-19 pandemic .
The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong rejected the Prime Minister’s request. The ruler emphasised the importance of Budget 2021 for the country’s economy and fight against the pandemic.
The country’s foreseeable future is expected to be challenged by the pandemic and political instability.
However, regardless of the political situation, taking note of conservationists’ wishlist for Budget 2021 would provide insights for managing and protecting the country’s environment.
Our wishlist survey
Macaranga sent an online survey to environmental and conservation groups in September. We encouraged recipients to share the survey with their peers.
Respondents were asked to rank and explain their top six concerns about Malaysia’s environmental health which the government should address in Budget 2021.
Protect Malaysia’s ecosystems
Conservationists are most worried that the country isn’t doing enough to stem the deterioration of our ecosystems.
All respondents mention the need to protect at least one type of ecosystem whether rivers, wetlands, coasts or forests.
Ecosystem protection “needs to be done as a matter of priority because so much has been lost already,” says Justine Vaz of the Habitat Foundation, a charitable trust promoting conservation.
Respondents point to forest loss from economic activity as a main concern. Deforestation often happens due to logging, mining or the expansion of plantations.
And the planning for some of these activities have been “intensifying” during the pandemic “under the pretext” of a “critical need to help recover the Malaysian economy,” says Balu Perumal, head of conservation at the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).
MNS reviews some of the environmental impact assessments required of such activities.
Be more inclusive
Marine conservation group MareCet emphasises that marine ecosystems are much neglected compared to terrestrial conservation.
“More investments in developing marine policies and actions are required to enable our marine areas to be conserved,” says co-founders Louisa Ponnampalam and Fairul Izmal Jamal Hisne.
A step forward would be to increase funding for conservation and biodiversity protection, “including special allocation (to ministries and departments) to encourage the participation of other stakeholders” like civil and environmental groups, says Perumal.
“The establishment of a Trust Fund for the purpose will be good.”
Conservationists also highlight the need to curb pollution from industries, agriculture, and households from damaging ecosystems.
One respondent point to the lack of waste management systems in remotely populated areas like inland forests and islands.
Improve operational efficiency
Most respondents criticise the country’s management of natural resources as inefficient. They call for a budget and ways to streamline management for more effective operations.
“The current management structure for natural resources management is bloated and convoluted,” says Ponnampalam and Fairul of MareCet.
Decision-making on “environmental issues [is] spread out over multiple ministries and departments.”
Not working together
As such, discussion of any environmental issue requires the involvement of agents from multiple agencies, “each of whom are serving different interests of different ministries”.
A bloated structure drives up operational costs. Rather, Ponnampalam and Fairul call for the streamlining of the management of natural resources and all environment types into one institution.
This “will enable more effective use of limited funding available by reducing redundancies in roles and responsibilities,” they say. Other respondents make similar suggestions.
Align Federal-State interests
Operational difficulties also arise from the federal-state dichotomy in natural resource management, particularly land.
The Constitution confers States power over land although it is the Federal government that makes national policies and ratifies international environmental treaties.
For example, the Central Forest Spine plan embodies the Federal government’s vision for connected forests in the Peninsular. However, each State government has the final say on the forests within its borders.
A common purpose
Disagreement over the purpose of land can make for lengthy negotiations.
“Federal and State government need to work together to harness the economic potential [of natural resources],” says Perumal of MNS.
State governments should also be compensated for “for maintaining the forests and the marine environment intact,” he says.
Two respondents point out that there is great need for federal-state cooperation to protect the Greater Ulu Muda forest complex in Kedah for the environmental security of the northern Peninsular states.
The forest complex is a “vital water catchment” area and the financial responsibility for its protection must be shared, says Vaz of the Habitat Foundation.
“A national priority such as reliable water supply is too important to [be] shouldered by one state alone.”
Consult the locals
Another way to improve operational efficiency is to consult locals and get their support in environmental initiatives.
But in the case of islands, “local stakeholders (islanders, tourism operators) are not asked their views on how these ecosystems should be managed,” says Julian Hyde of Reef Check Malaysia.
“Their livelihoods are impacted [by policies]” but their voices are not heard. “This is a weakness” that if rectified would improve compliance and provide access to valuable insights, says Hyde.
Another common and main concern of survey respondents is insufficient capital investment in environmental agencies and outfits. The talent pool and infrastructure are deteriorating.
Budgets are mostly allocated to existing operations, which “severely limits any innovation or new initiatives within the environment sector”, say Ponnampalam and Fairul.
They argue that limited capital funding fails to attract capable personnel to manage natural resources; it also reduces the use of technology that can improve conservation efforts.
“We are subsequently reduced to managing 21st century problems using 20th century approaches,” say Ponnampalam and Fairul.
Capital should be invested in creating job opportunities for researchers in environmental fields, particularly new graduates.
Funding that facilitates knowledge transfer among researchers, NGOs and government agencies would foster a healthy talent pool.
Capital building that falls short can be costly.
Down the drain
“We lost millions of ringgit each year training marine scientists who ultimately work in unrelated fields of vocation,” say the respondents from MareCet.
Of the same mind are Aini Hasanah and Nadine Ruppert of the Malaysian Primatological Society.
“As much as we encourage people to be involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), we must also create job opportunities for them.”
Malaysians want their environment protected
Leading up to the tabling of the Budget, the Ministry of Finance is running a public online poll. In one question, respondents vote on one of five factors to prioritise to achieve sustainable living.
The top choices are pollution prevention and wildlife protection – each received 27% of the votes as of 25 October. The Malaysian public appears to share the same concerns as the conservationists in our survey.
This is in line with an earlier survey that showed that Malaysians want their environments protected.
The Pew Research Center based in the United States, surveyed about 1,650 Malaysians in 2019.
When asked what they wanted prioritised, 73% of respondents chose environmental protection over job creation.
Budget 2021 is expected to be expansionary – boosting demands in the domestic market to spur the economy out of the pandemic slump.
Hopefully, the government knows that the environment is not the price to pay for economic recovery.
[Edited by SL Wong]
Read Macaranga‘s series, ‘Taking Stock’, where we examine how environmental sectors in Malaysia are responding to Covid-19 and a new federal government.