Streamlining the Environmental Movement in Malaysia

This is a story of an idealist’s mission to change the world.

I am a vegetarian, for environmental reasons. About four years ago, I decided to stop eating meat when the guilt of supporting the livestock industry (which emits potent greenhouse gases, depletes natural resources, and pollutes the environment) interfered with my enjoyment of a good steak. Eating meat stopped making sense, so I stopped eating meat. Other lifestyle changes followed, as I strived to reduce consumption in general, and to make careful purchasing decisions such as buying local and boycotting unethical corporations. For a while, this seemed to be enough. I was content in doing my part and making a difference in small ways. A person can only do so much, I argued, to cynics questioning the effectiveness of my approach towards saving the planet. At least I was doing something.

Sometime ago, I saw some statistics. The average Malaysian (such as myself) consumes 49 kilograms of meat per year. The annual meat consumption of a US American is 122.8kg per person, for a population of roughly 300 million; for China it is 53.5kg per person, for 1.3 billion people. Comparing the amount of meat that I do not eat with the amount of meat that is eaten by these two nations alone, I was confronted with a sobering reality – my personal efforts are miniscule and honestly, extremely insignificant. The cynics were right after all. I would have to think bigger.

Thus began a quest for a better, more effective way to change the world. I did not know the specifics of the plan, but the vision was clear enough. After the submission of my PhD thesis, while awaiting examiner comments, I started contemplating the issue seriously.

THE PROBLEM

One would think that the search for an environmental problem to solve should be relatively straightforward. After all, the world is rife with them. However, the challenge lay in finding the problem of a right size – one that is big enough to make a real difference, but small enough for the solution to be within my reach.

As my main interest lies in sustainable lifestyles, I started by looking at the sustainability movement in Kuala Lumpur (also known as KL), the city that I grew up in. I had worked and volunteered with international organizations such as Greenpeace New Zealand and Green Drinks China, but five years spent abroad meant that I had some catching up to do with the local scene. A survey of the grassroots activities reveals some interesting projects. Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social enterprises promote various activities such as recycling, growing organic food, sustainability camps, tree planting, and so on. There is an annual Eco Film Festival that gives prominence to Malaysian and international films with environmental themes. The NGO behind the film festival also holds a yearly award ceremony called Anugerah Hijau (Green Awards) to reward the best local designs in green spaces, fashion and films. Global actions such as 350.org, Food Not Bombs and Green Drinks have local chapters. In terms of personal initiatives, a good example is an ongoing project of drafting a cycling map for KL by some volunteers, to be distributed for free by the end of 2013.

The sustainability movement in Kuala Lumpur appears to be in its infancy. Apart from a couple of NGOs that have a larger presence, the movement in general seems fragmented. Interest groups exist but information online is limited and scattered. At a broader, national level, the environmental issue in Malaysia that garners the most attention is deforestation. Malaysia has rainforests as old as 130 million years old, but these are being cleared in an alarming rate to make way for oil palm plantations and development projects like dams and housing areas.  In the recent years, the opening of a rare earths refinery plant sparked a huge outcry in the country, triggering street demonstrations and a wave of online protests on Facebook. The general Malaysian public is relatively indifferent about environmental problems, and mobilization of the civil society is centred on environmental crises, and less on day-to-day sustainability issues.

In the process of finding a gap to fill, I started listing down the causes, organizations, events, and individuals, forming a simple network of who’s connected to whom, and who’s doing what. Before long, this started to look like a research project. I found the researcher in me listing down questions that looked suspiciously like research questions. I looked into a methodological guide on mapping civil society, to try to make better sense of my list. This was when the problem became clear: I wanted a bird’s eye account of all the environmental movements in Malaysia, to see where I could fit in best, with the skill set that I have. There was no such account yet – but I could create one. Instead of filling in one gap (e.g. planting trees), I could provide a nuanced overview of current efforts and existing gaps, so that other people like me who are looking for a way to contribute can find the niche that best fits their interests and capabilities.

THE IDEA

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was of the project of mapping out environmental movements in Malaysia. There are many parties who would be interested in this information – individuals who are trying to start or join a movement, NGOs for networking or collaborating purposes, policymakers who need an executive summary of what’s happening on the ground, and so on. Therefore, equally vital is the dissemination of this information in a timely and accessible manner. This means that academic publications cannot be the sole deliverable of this project. I would need a website to organize and present the information for public consumption. I discussed this with my partner Leo, a social entrepreneur and web developer, and together we drew out a more comprehensive plan.

The main idea is to streamline the environmental movements in Malaysia through an online platform. This online platform would serve three interconnected functions: to share information, to support networking, and to increase online and offline participation in environmental actions. Firstly, the availability of information of who’s doing what – when, where, why and how – will have a multitude of positive effects, such as empowering laypeople to volunteer in a project of their choice, and increasing the visibility of various initiatives to potential audiences. Secondly, the platform will get people talking to each other, and help build social capital within the community. A social network with well-connected dots is a map of potential, filled with opportunities to share resources, exchange expertise, and to bridge the gap between need and help in general. Thirdly, with an online following accumulated, we can start organizing regular events (such as monthly documentary screenings) of our own to build an offline community. Conversations offline can be continued online on forums; hence initiating a virtuous cycle of online and offline participation.

Data collection for the research project, which involves interviewing and reaching out to the main connectors or community leaders of various environmental movements, will serve three main purposes: (1) to get insider information of the local scene, (2) to spread awareness and advocate usage of the online platform, and (3) to gather feedback on how to make the platform better for the users. Through this platform, we can build a community of like-minded people that have a common goal of protecting the planet and living a sustainable lifestyle. The information flow through the community will be efficient, as the website will serve as the centre where people transmit and receive important environmental news.  This will be very useful to bridge the urban and rural disconnect in environmental problems. With the Malaysian environmental movements clearly mapped out, international collaboration will also be easier to set up. While we will feed data into the platform initially, the goal is to have an open database where organizations and individuals will be able to upload information of their initiatives.

THE ACTION

While scouring for more information online, I made an important discovery: someone had already started the project that we wanted to initiate. A website by Malaysia Environment Sustainability Youth Movements (MESYM, https://www.mesym.com), with the tagline “Connecting the green dots”, had been in operation since May 2011, and listed objectives that were virtually identical with what we had in mind. The platform had a wealth of resources on the Malaysian environmental scene: profiles of governmental and non-governmental actors, upcoming and past events, articles on sustainability and environmental issues, etc. There was no need to reinvent the wheel. A meeting was quickly arranged to discuss possible collaboration.

MESYM.com was run by Gene, a 23 year old green building consultant, and he was a one-man-band providing the content, developing the website, promoting the website, and so on. The discussion went very well. Gene, Leo and I ended up forming a three-person team. As I write this, the MESYM website is being revamped. It will take a couple of months to launch the new website, and in the meantime I am drawing up a research proposal to apply for funding, so that I can do full-time fieldwork and work on building this initiative.

THE CONCLUSION

In Malaysia, where environmentalism is not yet a widespread concept, environmentalists are regarded as mavericks and idealists because they operate outside the prevailing notion of rapid development and economic growth regardless of environmental impact. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for one’s beliefs, and to do something about it. I can think of no better ways to reward the courage of all these pioneers of social change, than empowering them with the knowledge and connections to amplify their good work, and providing a sense of solidarity that they are not alone in fighting the good fight.

*This article was written in February 2013 when MESYM 2.0 was still under development.*

Welcome to MESYM!
Connecting the green dots

MESYM.com is a crowd-sourced platform and a living database for environmental movements in Malaysia. There are many good actions being done out there. Our goal is to bring them together. We connect the green dots.