Malaysia's women eco-activists fight on in the face of threats and prison


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  • Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020

Green women: (From left) Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, Maya Karin, Pua Lay Peng and Meenakshi Raman. — Filepics

In conjunction with International Women's Day 2020 last week, StarLifestyle spoke to four Malaysian women activists who shared their stories on how and why they're passionate about protecting the environment.

Being locked up didn’t silence her

As a child growing up in Penang, Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil’s playground was the outdoors, where she would spend long hours on the beaches or exploring and trekking Penang Hill.

“I have always been into nature. As a little girl, all my activities were outdoors.

“I loved soaking up every inch of nature. But as time passed, I noticed that many of our natural resources were deteriorating.

“There were no clean rivers and trees were being replaced with buildings, ” she says at a recent interview.

So in 2010, Shariffa founded the Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka) to be a force for the protection and conservation of the natural environment.

Shariffa in the field in 2016, pointing out the sad state of Teranum forest reserve in Pahang to the media. — FilepicShariffa in the field in 2016, pointing out the sad state of Teranum forest reserve in Pahang to the media. — Filepic

Since then, Peka has been at the forefront of many issues and Shariffa, 58, is known for speaking out on deforestation, logging and the destruction of natural resources. She has even crossed swords with some powerful politicians, it seems.

Besides verbal threats and challenges, being belittled by others is a regular occurrence for Shariffa.

“Being an activist for any cause comes with a price.

“However, the most life-changing experience I had was when I was thrown into a lockup a few years ago in Johor.

“They kept me there for three days – like a prisoner – for fighting against environmental destruction, ” she recalls.

In 2016, Shariffa, along with Peka administrative assistant Norhayati Shahrom, were remanded for three days for allegedly insulting a state Ruler.

Besides championing environmental causes, Shariffa runs a string of cafes, restaurants, fitness centres and resorts. The certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor has established a chain of ecofriendly resorts called Tanah Aina in Pahang, Johor and Selangor.

The wife of prominent businessman Tan Sri Syed Mohd Yusof Syed Nasir admits that despite her colourful life and endeavours, her fight for a better environment is not even close to being over.

“Environmental issues consist of a very broad spectrum.

“There is still so much more to be done but it requires the government to impose stricter laws so that everyone can cooperate, ” she says.

Shariffa’s environmental wish is for the world to be educated on the importance of natural resources.

“I want to educate and remind people of the importance of nature and the environment.

“With no rivers, we have no clean water. With no trees, there is no fresh air. Dirty oceans lead to toxic seafood consumption.

“There are so many effects on human life if we continue to

destroy nature, ’’ she says.

Speaking up in the face of threats

For chemist and activist Pua Lay Peng, fighting illegal plastic waste factories around Jenjarom is an act of love for her family.

China’s decision to stop importing waste from other countries in 2017 opened up the floodgates for illegal plastic recycling factories to mushroom in parts of Malaysia, including Jenjarom, a quiet town of some 30,000 people in Selangor.

“If anybody says that they love their family, I will tell them to stand up and protect their families by saying ‘no’ to importing plastic waste, or any waste. To me, that is more important than my own life, ” says Pua, who describes herself as a “victim turned activist” since early 2018.

Pua is a chemist by profession and a fierce activist by choice, fighting against the illegal plastic recycling factories in her hometown of Jenjarom, Selangor. — HandoutPua is a chemist by profession and a fierce activist by choice, fighting against the illegal plastic recycling factories in her hometown of Jenjarom, Selangor. — Handout

Two years ago, along with a small group of other concerned residents, Pua set out to uncover the truth behind the toxic odour that had begun to hang in the air at night and in the hazy mornings that followed.

While some could no longer enjoy unbroken sleep at night, others started to experience ailments such as headaches, skin problems and respiratory issues, recalls Pua, 48.

“We soon discovered a broken system.

“While developed countries have gotten used to dumping their waste here and in other developing countries, the root cause is actually due to corruption in Malaysia.

“The whole system was broken to allow the smuggling of plastic waste into the country, ” says Pua.

Due to what they saw as inaction from the government despite complaints from the residents, a band of them decided to stand up and fight for their rights by raising awareness of the issue with the general public and media.

Their activism received attention from international publications such as the Los Angeles Times and online news portals HuffPost and Mashable South-East Asia.

One of the illegal plastic recycling factories and dump sites in Jenjarom that Pua brought to world attention. — FilepicsOne of the illegal plastic recycling factories and dump sites in Jenjarom that Pua brought to world attention. — Filepics

In December last year, Perak Ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah even said in his speech during the launch of the environmental conservation book, 40 Hadith, that the “world needs more activists like Pua”.

As a result of the residents’ efforts, Pua says some improvements have recently been made, such as the government carrying out a review of the support letters it had issued to the plastic recycling factories.

“It used to be that factories running plastic recycling don’t even need to install any air quality monitoring devices.

“We sent inquiries to the government to ask why would they issue support letters to these factories without asking them to take care not to pollute the air?

“Now we see that some legal factories have started installing those facilities and the bigger ones were also asked to install a water treatment system, ” says Pua.

She acknowledges, however, that there is still a long way to go in the fight as weaknesses in the system are still allowing Malaysia to be a hotbed of plastic waste and e-waste smuggling.

“At every port in this country, there are containers that we need to send back, ” she says.

Burning plastic waste to solve the problem, says Pua, is a myth, as this will not solve the issue but will instead have an adverse impact on the environment and people.

“What the government should do is to reduce single-use plastics and impose a total ban on plastic waste imports, just like China, ” she says.

As long as plastic waste is still allowed into Malaysia to endanger people’s lives, Pua’s fight will go on.

And this is despite getting death threats from men who once assaulted Pua’s sister by splashing red paint on her after they mistook her for the activist.

“The paint almost injured her eye. Luckily it did not blind her.

“They also sent death threats to the residents, saying that they would take revenge against us if we continued to protest.

“But no matter what, we must make all Malaysians know that the country is a dump site and that the smuggling of plastic and e-waste is increasing, and the government has not been able to stop it, ” she says.

Pua’s wish is to be able to stop being an activist one day so that she can focus on environmental education for children.

“That is the thing that we need to focus on because the root of it all is education. Currently, we provide very little environmental education for our children, ” she laments.

Solitary confinement stoked her passion

Legal eagle Meenakshi Raman was one of the 106 activists and politicians detained under the now abolished Internal Security Act during Ops Lalang in 1987.

Meenakshi never allowed her 47-day detention in solitary confinement break her spirit or stop her from continuing to be an environmental defender. Today, the Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) president looks back at her time in prison as a lesson in strength and determination.

Meenakshi cut her teeth in environmental protection while reading law at Universiti Malaya, where she volunteered with SAM and the Consumers Association of Penang.

Upon graduation in the early 1980s, Meenakshi started a public interest law firm.

“One of the first cases I took up was the case of the Asian Rare Earth plant set up by Japanese-owned Mitsubishi Chemicals in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, ” she recalls.

Meenakshi at the stump of an old angsana tree that had been cut down to make way for development in Penang. — FilepicMeenakshi at the stump of an old angsana tree that had been cut down to make way for development in Penang. — Filepic

The rare earth refinery and its radioactive exposure was blamed at the time for higher than national average rates of miscarriages, birth defects, levels of lead in the blood and illnesses among the people living in the vicinity.

“What was a community battle then became an international campaign, ” says Meenakshi.

In 1992, the people of Bukit Merah won their suit against Asian Rare Earth and the Ipoh High Court ordered its shut down.

“But the Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision. So we campaigned internationally and we had support from Japanese MPs and civil society there.

“And despite the success of their appeal, Mitsubishi decided to shut down the plant due to international pressure, ” says Meenakshi.

The Asian Rare Earth case is one of the early milestones in a life lived using her professional experience as a lawyer to help environmental causes on behalf of the people.

Meenakshi pointing out her photo on The Star's front page among those who had been arrested under Ops Lalang in 1987. — FilepicMeenakshi pointing out her photo on The Star's front page among those who had been arrested under Ops Lalang in 1987. — FilepicDecades later, Meenakshi, 62, is still a practising lawyer active in providing legal advice to the community besides being the president of SAM.

She represents SAM on the Environmental Quality Council, which, under the Environmental Quality Act, advises the Environment Minister.

Since the start of her journey as an environmental activist in the 1980s, Meenakshi has learned how women play an incredibly important role in defending the Earth.

“In much of the community work that we have with environmental groups, the women have always been the most important constituency. This is because of the higher health impact on them.

“They are always on the frontline, educating their fellow villagers. In many of the forest communities, women are the ones doing the agricultural work.

“When their lives are impacted by issues like logging and deforestation, they move very fast, ” she says.

Meenakshi hopes to see more women activists on the ground and more women participating in policymaking as well as more women Members of Parliament concerned about the fate of the country’s environment.

She knows her fight is long from being over, with environmental protection still on the periphery as the country focuses on economic development.

“The environment has to be the centrepiece and around it, we formulate development, jobs and policies.”

A lifelong commitment

Beyond her glamorous life as an actress and television host, Maya Karin has pledged her lifelong commitment to the environment, even if she hasn’t tied herself to a tree – yet.

Maya was raised in a family with strong environmental awareness as well as an appreciation for nature and its resources and made her debut as a celebrity ecoactivist early on, in 2006. She says she will never stop playing a role in raising public awareness on environmental issues.

“It started in 2006 and The Star was one of the first media outlets to support me.Maya Karin ditched single use plastic bags back in 2006, long before it became fashionable to do so. She's made a lifelong committment to championing environmental issues. — FilepicsMaya Karin ditched single use plastic bags back in 2006, long before it became fashionable to do so. She's made a lifelong committment to championing environmental issues. — Filepics

“They sent a reporter and a photographer to cover this very ‘exotic’ event of me going to the pasar malam with my own bag.

“Even something so normal was, like, a big thing back then, ” she says, laughing.

Maya has starred in some memorable local movies, like 2004’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam and 2011’s Ombak Rindu but she’s currently on a break from acting. She says she has been focusing on environmental conservation in the past four years.

The 40-year-old German-Malay actress constantly takes to social media to raise environmental awareness among Netizens, using her high profile to promote programmes and campaigns.

“I will never stop. This is not just a temporary hobby thing. I focus more on public awareness.

“I have not gone the Greenpeace way and tied myself to a tree yet. The key word here is yet!

“I may just do that if things come to it but for now, I choose diplomatic ways to raise public awareness, ” says Maya with a laugh.

One interesting campaign she promoted was when she was an ambassador for the Federal Territories Ministry’s “River of Life” campaign in 2019 to raise awareness about river pollution.

“I’ve worked on so many but the most successful one was that one, ” she says, adding with a note of wonder that, “until today, the #Maya-KarinChallenge is still going on. It’s been incredible!”

She introduced the #Maya-KarinChallenge on social media during the campaign and people are still posting videos today of themselves attempting the challenge, which involves submerging yourself in bodies of water to show how clear and pure the river, stream or lake is.

Maya is currently working on the “Save Harimau Malaya” campaign to draw attention to the critical state of tigers here – there are fewer than 200 of the animals left in Malaysia’s forests.

She believes celebrities should use their status to promote something worthwhile simply because there are a lot of eyeballs on their social media platforms and activities.

“They can easily penetrate through certain sections of people that NGOs are unable to, ” she explains, adding that her fans always ask for ways in which they could help out.

“I try to channel them to certain NGOs or organisations that suit their liking, ” she says.

Maya wants politicians to sit up and take notice of the nation’s rich biodiversity before it is lost for good.

“I’ve come to the belief that the incredible biodiversity in Malaysia that we have been blessed with needs to be protected.

“It’s up to us to either hack it down or protect it. It’s that simple, ” she points out.

The nation, adds Maya, cannot put gross domestic product targets and development at the forefront of its pursuits while ignoring the environmental costs.

“I need to tell the politicians that they are undervaluing Malaysia’s biodiversity richness and the future revenue that can come from preserving it.

“Often, for politicians, their priorities are the short-term benefits, which are viewed as more important than the long-term impact.

“But we have to focus on our children and realise that we have to leave something for them.

“We have to think long term and appreciate what God has given us.”

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