Get cracking now

Last month, this Leader asked a pertinent question: Is the world serious about global warming? It does not believe so, because after much deliberation about what needs to be done, pretty much everything has remained the same.

Climate scientists have warned that efforts to limit global warming must be done now if we want to avoid a future of extreme droughts, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and other disasters.

We are already experiencing some of the disasters, the current Covid-19 pandemic, notwithstanding. Look around us.

BBC reports that at least 120 people have died and hundreds more in western Europe are unaccounted for after some of the worst flooding in decades.

Record rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks, devastating the region. The death toll in Germany and Belgium continues to climb. The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland are not spared.

Elsewhere in Turkey, more than 200 wildfires burnt 1,600 square kilometres of its forest in its Mediterranean region between last month and this month. The country’s leaders say it is the worst ever wildfire season in Turkey’s history. If all these are not indicators of climate change, what are they?

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The outlook is grim. The report warned the world was on course to reach 1.5°C of warming around 2030.

It said “the climate crisis is not only here, it is growing increasingly severe”. World leaders, green groups and influencers, according to news wires, reacted to the report “with a mix of horror and hopefulness”. The 3,500-page report is the first major review of the science of climate change since 2013.

Its release comes less than three months before the key climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow. The world needs to “cool down”. Governments need to mobilise experts in all fields to respond and give ideas about tackling climate change, and it must be done now. What has been done? Have current efforts met their objective? Admittedly, not enough, given the IPCC report.

Malaysia, too, needs to do more. Reportedly, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, when chairing the first meeting of the Malaysian Climate Change Action Council in April, said Malaysia would participate in carbon trading systems, but not allow them to affect the country’s own greenhouse gas emissions commitment.

Another development is the green recovery plan in which Malaysia becomes a green economy, services and technology leader, while fostering healthy green lifestyles in all walks of life.

Enough said. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it’s that it requires global solutions. The Covid-19 crisis will not be resolved until all countries bring the pandemic under control through widespread vaccination, just as the climate crisis will not be solved until all countries swing into action.

UN secretary-general António Guterres said: “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe.” The world was not prepared when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and how, in less than two years, it engulfed us and altered the pace, fabric and nature of our lives. The global death toll is devastating. We cannot afford another pandemic — climate change — which will change the world forever. We have been warned.

This editorial published by the New Straits Times, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Too Hot to Handle

CLIMATE anxiety is real – and it’s going to get far worse according to the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of scientists backed by the United Nations.

The report, approved by 195 governments in a virtual meeting early this month and based on more than 14,000 studies, confirms that the world is surely and irrevocably warming – even though some politicians and industrialists may still deny it.

More alarming is that, as the IPCC report points out, even if governments were to drastically and immediately cut carbon emissions today, we can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years.

Total global warming, says the report, is likely to rise by around 1.5°C within the next two decades and along with that hotter future comes its attendant effects.

This means that heatwaves, such as the one that slammed into the Pacific North-West of Canada and the United States and sent temperatures into the high 40s a few months ago, as well as wildfires in Europe, Nordic countries and Siberia, and deluges in Germany and China will become more frequent.

The most damning aspect of the IPCC report, however, is that humans are the only ones to be blamed for this hot mess we’re in, with the rise in global average temperatures being driven by countries burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and spewing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the air.

If that isn’t enough, a paper recently published in the Nature Climate Change journal suggests that a crucial ocean circulation system in the Atlantic called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC), which helps to stabilise the climate in Europe, is showing signs of slowing down.

Although it is yet to be established if this is linked to climate change, the slowing, if proven true, further imperils the state of our planet.

In the words of the United Nations secretary-general António Guterres, this is nothing less than a “code red for humanity”.

Apocalypse now?

While Malaysia seems to have escaped for now much of the heat-induced stress – the south-west monsoon is even wetter this year so we are not expecting to see haze from Indonesia – global warming will affect Malaysia.

This is because much of the weather in Malaysia, particularly Peninsular Malaysia, is influenced by the monsoon system.

Universiti Malaya climate expert Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah says Malaysia is on a maritime continent, an important component of the whole global circulation heat engine.

“We are also influenced by what happens – not only in the Northern Hemisphere, especially during the north-east Monsoon, but also by the Southern Hemisphere related to the south-west monsoon.

“So any warming or cooling in the mid-latitudes, especially during the Northern Hemisphere or Southern Hemisphere’s winter, will have an impact in weakening or strengthening our monsoons,” he says in an interview last week.

Should this happen, it will have an effect on the biological productivity of the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea, which are very much influenced by the monsoon.

Normally, a tropical ocean is less productive biologically compared with the colder oceans in the midlatitudes and polar regions – except for the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.

“This (effect on the monsoon) will have a grave consequence for the fisheries and the region’s food security,” explains Prof Azizan, pointing out that the marine ecosystem in these areas is already under stress from overfishing.

“Global warming will further stress these seas and the ecosystems,” he adds.

Prof Azizan, who is from UM’s Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, says being in the humid tropics, he does not anticipate prolonged drought in Malaysia, such as that experienced by northern Australia that is associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or Enso.

“We may have a few weeks without rain around February which is our normal drier period. This will be further enhanced if Enso is also present,” he says.

However, Prof Azizan points out that in a warmer world, the atmosphere will be able to store more water vapour, usually translating to stronger thunderstorms and more rainfall.

“Depending on the duration of the rain, this can result in frequent flash floods or, if the duration is longer, river flooding (akin to) the 2014 flood,” he says.

The 2014 flood, which affected over 200,000 people and killed 21, devastated parts of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang on the East Coast, as well as other states.

It also damaged infrastructure, including homes, highways and rail lines, to the tune of billions of ringgit.

The stronger monsoon in the region is the north-east monsoon, which lasts from November to February and is also the time of heavy rain for Peninsular Malaysia.

Most weather models, says Prof Azizan, are predicting a weaker north-east monsoon and a stronger south-west monsoon from global warming.

“That is why regionally, they are predicting that Indonesia south of the equator will experience a drier climate in the future due to a weakened north-east monsoon,” he says.

Melting pot

While the present IPCC report approximates a sea rise level of about 3.2mm per year from glaciers melting in Greenland and the Antarctic continent, many glaciologists, says Prof Azizan, feel this to be an underestimation.

He says there are two components to rising sea level, one which is about 50% due to water expansion as ocean temperatures rise, and the other is from glacier melting.

“However, many Antarctic glaciologists think that this (the IPCC forecast) is an underestimate due to the rapid melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf that is now unstable.

“This may contribute a further 7m of sea level rise if all of the West Antarctic ice shelf were to melt away,” he says.

Also being threatened are the mangroves, seagrass and coral species along Malaysia’s coastlines – already these are under stress from development and, before the days of Covid-19, overtourism. 

Such damage basically leaves the country’s coasts “naked” and vulnerable to floods and erosion.

Pointing out that Malaysia is a “mega biodiversity region”, Prof Azizan says this area hosts about 70% of the world’s mangrove, coral and seagrass species.

“So our ocean is an important biodiversity refugia that is under threat from global ocean warming and acidification.

“While we tend to focus on conserving our terrestrial biodiversity like our rainforests, it is our ocean that plays an important refugia for global ocean biodiversity.”

(Refugia refers to an area in which organisms can survive unfavourable conditions, especially glaciation.)

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s climatologist Prof Dr Fredolin Tangang, who authored a number of scientific papers cited in the IPCC report, says it does not specifically provide information on the future climate of a particular country.

However, he says that “Malaysia is projected to experience increased extreme climate events in future: “These include more heatwaves, more droughts and floods as well as rising sea levels in decades to come if there is no deep cut to greenhouse gas emissions soon,” he says.

Prof Fredolin is the review editor for Chapter 10 of the IPCC report as well as a contributing author of the Atlas Chapter.

Lest any climate sceptic tries to throw doubt on the report, Prof Fredolin says it represents a credible body of scientific evidence on the climate system that is based on a comprehensive and holistic, open, robust and transparent assessment of related published literature, involving over 1,000 authors and editors.

Although the Nature Climate Change paper was not assessed in the IPCC report having been published recently, Prof Fredolin believes that the collapse of the MOC will likely trigger an abrupt change in regional weather, including Malaysia’s, which is regulated by the monsoon cycle.

“I believe there is no particular paper addressing how this affects climate in Malaysia but this would be an interesting issue to investigate,” he says.

However, Prof Azizan believes that changes in the Atlantic will have only an indirect impact on Malaysia.

“The more direct impact will be changes in the Pacific and also the Indian oceans.”

No more talking shop

With slightly more than two months to go before the Glasgow Climate Change Conference at the end of October, the IPCC report has upped public expectation for the thousands of negotiators, politicians and diplomats to at last come to an understanding.

However, despite the fact that humanity’s survival depends on it and despite high hopes and criticisms, each time the conference has a dismal record of not performing up to expectations.

Should an effective agreement fail to materialise from Glasgow, current policies being pursued by governments will likely push warming up by 3°C by the end of the century, warns the IPCC report. In contrast, the goal of the much hailed Paris Agreement of 2015 has been to limit global warming to well below 2°C or preferably 1.5°C compared with preindustrial levels.

“The current pledges under the Paris Agreement won’t be able to cap the warming under 1.5°C and 2°C. More impact from extreme climate is expected in future decades,” agrees Prof Fredolin.

The report, he adds, also indicated that without deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C threshold is projected to be breached between 2021 and 2040 – likely in 2030 – and 2°C in 2050.

However, scientists behind the IPCC report believe there is still a chance to avoid the more harrowing effects of global warming by preventing the planet from getting even hotter.

According to the report, if a coordinated effort among countries can head off CO2 emissions by 2050 by moving away from fossil fuels and removing carbon from the atmosphere, this will allow global warming to likely halt at the level of around 1.5°C.

Failure is not an option because as many of the young climate strikers like to remind us – there is no Planet B.

Eye on the future

Malaysia’s main priority now, according to Prof Azizan, is to plan a more climate-resilient, sustainable socioeconomic strategy.

“This is to anticipate a soft landing for our nation and region in the future as the world warms up,” he says.

He argues that even if Malaysia is not a major emitter of greenhouse gas, the existing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere have already locked in a future global warming of 1°C to 2°C.

“So the question is more about how much warming is acceptable to maintain our status quo without any major climate shift and to maintain the ecosystem that we are familiar with or adapted to,” he says.

The 10 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (in descending order) are China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran and Canada.

Prof Fredolin says given the fact that Malaysia’s emissions contribute less than 1% to total global emissions, the focus should be on adaptation measures in increasing climate resilience.

“Having said this, of course, the country should enhance mitigation measures consistent with what is required by the Paris Agreement.”

Both Prof Fredolin and Prof Azizan agree on one thing: the country has to quickly come up with a national adaptation plan or strategy.

While Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang told The Star in April that the government is coming up with specific legislation and policies to tackle climate change, there is currently no national adaptation plan.

“We need to look into water and food security strategies, using the climate scenarios of a warmer world,” says Prof Azizan, suggesting that Malaysia uses the Enso as a natural scenario to study how the ecosystem responds and from this, plan how coastal, rural and urban areas can adapt to changes.

Malaysia, he points out, needs to plan up to 30 years into the future.

“This is so that we can slowly build the necessary investment and governance structure at the macro level based on a number of scenarios – from optimal to a worst case scenario – and test how our ecosystem and socioeconomic system adapt.

“The bottom line is the world is getting warmer and we have no choice but to plan for it so that we can avoid a climate crisis in the future.”

IPCC Simulation. Picture by REUTERS

This story, originally published by the The Star, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters. 

Good journalism no longer appeals to readers?

Having been in journalism for so long, a question that I have always been asked is: what is news, and what makes “good journalism”?

For a long time, I thought that the question was rather interesting.

Good journalism should be what is most ideal for journalism.

The entire journalistic system and production chain – from the tips received, to reporting, editing and publishing – have all been operating impartially within the most ethical and professional journalistic framework.

Additionally, good journalism should be about inspiring the readers.

This is done by exposing and rectifying acts of corruption, overseeing government operations, and voicing out injustices within our society.

To become a watchdog the villains will dread. This is the most ideal scenario in journalism.

Although I don’t think I have penned any good stories throughout my journalistic career, I consistently instil these philosophies in my students, so that these journalists-to-be will have a very clear idea of their future obligations.

Of course, it is beyond my control whether they will eventually put this into practice one day, because to be honest, I do not think today’s media industry and audience are capable of digesting such a profound ideal.

Take Malaysia for instance. The readers here are very much more attracted to sensational news characterised by violent or explicit content.

As the audience is more inclined to such news and reporting, local mass media increasingly carry stories violence and conflict.

As a former journalist and now a media education worker, it has never crossed my mind that orthodox journalism should be led by the nose or by audience preferences.

Content presentation and headlining are becoming more sensational too, in a bid to capture the attention of a new generation of readers.

By academic standards, such content is the exact opposite of what makes good journalism, . It is also what we could label as “bad journalism”.

This phenomenon of sensationalised news gained traction following the rise of social media, especially since any individual can build his or her own media brand.

The entire information market has inevitably plunged into a whirlpool of vicious competition, making it harder for regulators to control the quality of news.

As a result, large numbers of content farms, plagiarists and fake news factories come into being.

In other words, today’s information market is not only inundated with bad journalism, but also plagued with “fake news” and “headline news”.

Such articles are fact- distorting, plagiarised, excessively sensational, exaggerated and inappropriately headlined.

Sadly, these are the stories that command the most attention on the social media. And most importantly, such audience engagement appeals tremendous to online advertisers.

Media organisations in Malaysia are confronting unprecedented challenges arising from such a trend.

Against such a backdrop, orthodox good journalism has become increasingly unattractive to the audience under the powerful siege of bad journalism.

Sure enough, some may argue that the current political climate has somewhat contributed to the unpopularity of good journalism, too.

For instance, Singapore has enforced a quasi-authoritarian approach to information management.

Content that is perceived to be seditious, overly sensational and exaggerated will come under the watchful eyes of the republic’s communications and information ministry, which is known for having the region’s strictest control over the spread of misinformation.

Although the public may consequently relinquish their freedom of criticising the government, a stable administration will ensure expanded space for (extra-political) good journalism.

As for Malaysia which has seen a change of federal administration for two years, there are already signs pointing to a more liberal expression freedom.

Unfortunately, the political turmoil has further complicated the information market, and the authorities remain unprepared for media challenges.

The highly intricate information market and intense confrontation has created a favourable environment for the propagation of fake news and bad journalism in an attempt to crush a political rival or divert public attention from some highly controversial issues, and these make excellent topics for gossips.

With the proliferation of bad journalism , room for survival of good journalism is destined to constrict further.

As such, I always tell my students that good journalism has become a rare commodity because the local media industry appears to be slowly giving up on the production of high quality news that constitutes good journalism

It is instead going after production speed and attuning itself to the audience’s preferences.

Such a “rushy” content production model has deprived a journalist of the time to contemplate the depth of journalism.

What is more worrisome is that this phenomenon seems to have developed into a global trend, as I have heard from fellow journalists from regional countries like Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As the audience is more inclined to such news and reporting, local mass media increasingly carry stories violence and conflict.

They too are also encountering the same problem of bad journalism and fake news dominating the information market.

In other words, safeguarding the integrity of good journalism is posing a major challenge to the global media industry. And the elements that make up such a challenge are highly convoluted: a shift in audience preferences, media organisations’ pursuit of advertisements, unrestricted information dissemination channels, availability of information devices, and resurgence of media manipulation, among others.

Tackling one specific factor alone will not alter the status quo.

In view of this, I urge media workers in this region to constantly keep in mind what used to draw them to this profession.

Some of you might have joined this industry after pursuing a course in journalism, and I would like you to look back at all the expectations “good journalism” once promised you.

As a former journalist and now a media education worker, it has never crossed my mind that orthodox journalism should be led by the nose or by audience preferences.

The media industry has an irrefutable obligation of inspiring the public and enhancing their awareness.

We must stand united and take the initiative to tell these people what “good journalism” is, and help them nurture the ability to filter out unauthenticated news and bad journalism.

I always believe it is not that good journalism does not appeal to readers, but rather to their supervisors.

The article by Liew Wui Chern will be published on Sin Chew Daily on Sep 28. Liew Wui Chern teaches Journalism in University Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaysia.

Taking down a drug mule syndicate

In a crowded shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, 16-year-old Shirley* (not her real name) met with two men she had never seen in her life. They gave her a flight ticket to Hong Kong, and RM2,000 (US$474.32) in spending money. A friend she had met on Facebook, 15 years old at the time, had arranged the trip, telling her it was a free holiday. He had gone several times before, and even brought souvenirs back for her.

On the morning of her flight, one of the men showed up again and gave her and another fellow traveller a pair of shoes each. They were asked to wear them to Hong Kong.

Hours later, her life as she knew it was over. After arriving at Hong Kong International Airport, she was picked out for a body search, and 700g of heroin were found in the soles of the shoes.

In the past year, nearly 30 young Malaysians – some still teenagers – have been arrested in Hong Kong for being drug mules on behalf of international syndicates; and experts say the arrest numbers are just a fraction of those who actually make it through.

For Shirley’s parents back in Malaysia, the nightmare was only just beginning. For nearly two months, they had no idea what had happened to her. The last time they saw Shirley, their only child, she was begging them to let her go to Hong Kong with her friends. She was only supposed to be gone for three days.

Her parents searched everywhere – the airport, the police, hospitals – and found nothing. They couldn’t eat or sleep, and yet, as the owners of a small business, they had to continue working each day to survive.

And then came a phone call which gave them fear and relief in equal measure. It was from Hong Kong Correctional Services – their daughter was facing over 20 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. Ever since that moment, Shirley’s parents have been working frantically and desperately to prove their daughter’s innocence. But Shirley is not alone.

In the past year, nearly 30 young Malaysians – some still teenagers – have been arrested in Hong Kong for being drug mules on behalf of international syndicates; and experts say the arrest numbers are just a fraction of those who actually make it through.

With drug production in South-East Asia’s infamous “Golden Triangle” region hitting record highs in the past year, the number of mules being recruited to transport drugs could grow even higher across Asia, and Malaysia – the region’s low-cost airline hub – appears to be the perfect transit country.

Drug syndicates operating in Malaysia have been using Facebook pages and WeChat groups with devastating effect, luring impressionable young people with “paid holidays” (like the one Shirley went for) or part-time courier jobs. Some openly say the job involves drugs.

If the mules get arrested, they are left to rot in prison while the syndicates get off scot-free. All communications are done using fake profiles on chat apps, so the recruiters can’t be traced.

Posing as a potential mule, a R.AGE undercover journalist (left) secures a meeting with a drug syndicate recruiter.
Source: R.AGE

After receiving a tip-off from a lawyer and a prison chaplain in Hong Kong, investigative journalists from R.AGE started looking into this increase in drug mule activity and working with the families of the arrested mules to find out more about the syndicates. Through its investigations in Malaysia and Hong Kong alone, the journalists were able to uncover syndicates which were sending mules to Vietnam, China, South Korea, Taiwan, the Middle East, Australia, and even as far as Brazil and Peru.

The team then went undercover, posing as potential drug mules to meet with the syndicates’ recruiters, in hopes of exposing their tactics – which range from friendly recruitment to brutal physical force. Little did they know, their investigations would eventually help expose a dangerous drug trafficking network, with connections to a dealer in Hong Kong.
But it all started with a series of prison visits in Hong Kong.

Shirley, now 18, told R.AGE her story from behind a glass panel at a Hong Kong prison. She was supposed to be graduating high school this year. Her Facebook page is full of photos of her and her friends from school. None of them know what happened. Only her parents and a few close relatives were clued in.

“I told her not to go,” said Shirley’s mother, her voice trembling as she spoke from their home, in a small town two hours south of Kuala Lumpur.

They haven’t moved anything in Shirley’s room, the bigger of the two rooms in their home. It’s also the only one with a window, so the parents offered it to her. “She’s such a sweet child – her grandmother’s favourite, and popular with all her schoolmates – but she started mixing with these ‘friends’ on Facebook, and now they’ve ruined her life.

“She begged me to let her go with them. I felt bad because we never had the money to bring her for a holiday overseas, but I still said no. In the end, we just couldn’t stop her,” said the mother.

Her parents, too, had never been on a plane. Despite surviving on a combined RM3,000 a month, they spent almost all their savings making two trips to see Shirley in Hong Kong, desperate to find evidence that could help her case before she is sentenced.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I just cry myself to sleep every night thinking about her,” said the mother. “Just one trip – her first time on a plane,” said her father ruefully. “Look what it has done to us.”

“I believe I was set up (to be arrested),” said Shirley. “I was the one to take the fall. Why else would they only plant 700g on me? That seems like a very small amount.”

Shirley has not heard from the 15-year-old friend who recruited her. He was on the same trip, but on an earlier flight. As far as she knows, he’s back in Malaysia, safe and sound. Other mules tell us it’s a common diversionary tactic – keep the authorities busy with one or two arrests, while the majority pass through.
“I believe I was set up (to be arrested),” said Shirley. “I was the one to take the fall. Why else would they only plant 700g on me? That seems like a very small amount.”

Proving that in court, however, seemed an almost impossible task for her parents. The syndicate had burned all traces of their involvement, and the parents didn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer.

Although Shirley eventually pleaded guilty to avoid trial, the group of undercover journalists’ investigation behind this story put a dent in local drug syndicates’ operations by exposing their mule recruitment methods.Their work has helped raise awareness about Father John Wotherspoon’s work, a prison chaplain from Hong Kong on a mission to expose drug mule recruiters in Malaysia before they ruin any more lives. With the help of corroborative intel from Father Wotherspoon and families of incarcerated drug mules, a drug lord dubbed as Shanker was detained under the Special Preventive Measures by narcotics officers in February.

Another three senior figures in his syndicate were arrested as well. However, much remains to be done, like many others the teenage recruiter who made Shirley a drug mule is still at large.

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the families involved.

This story by Ian Yee and Shanjeev Reddy was originally published by R.AGE, the Star on June 24.


BEHIND THE STORY
Drug syndicates operating out of the infamous Golden Triangle in Myanmar have been flooding Asia with record levels of synthetic drugs, with Malaysia a strategic transit point — particularly for the recruitment of innocent young mules. Undercover journalists from The Star’s R.AGE team followed the trail of information left by the mules and their devastated families to track down the syndicates’ recruiters, and found enough information to help Malaysian narcotics officers make several arrests, crippling at least one drug mule network. Their work, which included a hidden camera sting operation on a mule recruiter, helped stem the tide of Malaysian drug mule arrests in Hong Kong — another strategic transit point for drug trafficking, according to experts. It also helped create widespread awareness about the drug mule syndicates’ recruitment strategies. In the months after R.AGE’s investigations, there were zero Malaysian mule arrests reported in Hong Kong, according to one activist; compared to the over two dozen that had been arrested in the nine months before. Then, on May 2019, another two arrests emerged. R.AGE is now working with the arrested mules’ families to provide information that could help the mules’ cases in court, and is planning a follow-up campaign to tackle drug abuse.

A Minister on a Mission

As the world awakens to the enormity of the plastic waste crisis, Malaysia’s Yeo Bee Yin has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s most vocal champions for biodegradable plastics and a new circular economy.

Earlier this year, the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), together with her inspection team, discovered 450 tonnes of contaminated, low-quality plastic waste that was brought into the country illegally in shipping containers.

The containers, Yeo said, had originated from Australia, the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China and Bangladesh, and were en route to illegal recycling facilities in Malaysia to be processed in an environmentally unsafe manner. Yeo estimated that they would find 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste once all the containers were inspected.

“Although people have started to segregate their waste, 90 per cent of the plastic waste in the world is actually not recycled,” Yeo shared with Asian Scientist Magazine from her office in Putrajaya, the government district south of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

“Instead, this waste goes from developed countries to developing countries like Malaysia, and ends up being dumped in some way or recycled in illegal factories.”

REPLACE, THE FOURTH ‘R’

While plastics account for only 10 per cent of the total waste humans generate, they constitute approximately 90 per cent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, equivalent to 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on every square mile, says the United Nations Environment Program.

At the current rate, a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum estimated that plastics will outweigh all the fish in the ocean by 2050. And since it is impossible to rid the oceans of plastic waste and microplastics, the problem needs to be tackled at the source.

Since being sworn into office on July 2, 2018, Yeo has made plastic pollution a key policy focus. Besides plastic straws — 500 million of which are used every single day in the US alone — the problem also includes disposable plastic bottles, packaging, construction materials and other industrial uses of plastic.

“The only thing we cannot do is say, ‘there are problems to the solution, let’s go back to business as usual,’ because you already know business as usual will not be sustainable in the future for Malaysia, and for the world,” Yeo said.

Malaysia is ranked 8th in mismanaged plastic waste, behind China in first place, Indonesia in second place and the Philippines in third place, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2015. This statistic has not gone unnoticed by Yeo, who, on October 31, 2018, announced a 12-year roadmap and legal framework towards eliminating single-use plastics in Malaysia by 2030.

In phase one of the plan, single-use plastic bags will cost consumers a nominal 20 sen (US$0.047) per bag. In states such as Penang, supermarkets, department stores and pharmacies have gone a step further and stopped dispensing single-use plastic bags altogether.

The 20 sen cost is not simply punitive, Yeo said, pointing out that recycling plastic waste isn’t exactly free either.

“Hydrocarbon-based plastics have proven to be very difficult to recycle—many of them have to be recycled illegally to make it work (for the contractors financially). People need to pay not just for the cost of production, but also for the cost to recycle the plastics (in an environmentally safe manner).”

Yeo’s 12-year roadmap thus calls for research into new materials for bioplastics.

“We are seeing that with reduce, reuse, recycle, the recycle part is really not working for plastics. So perhaps we need a fourth ‘r,’ which is to replace it, and to replace it, we need a lot of science,” Yeo said.

“What sort of materials can we use to continue packaging because you still need packaging? How do we find a material that is environmentally friendly? Biodegradable bags have a lot of science (behind them). For some of them, the strength of the biodegradable bag is not good, and some of them don’t decompose.”

STEPPING UP INDUSTRY RESEARCH

Citing a 2015 World Bank report that showed Malaysia spent only 1.3 per cent of its GDP on research and development (R&D), Yeo wrote on her personal blog that “this (statistic) is even lower than the average R&D spent in low- and middle-income countries.”

“When I first came in as a minister, I found that most of our grants are given to academics. Most of our R&D (funding) was spent on academics and higher education … but it’s not solving the problem; it’s not helping our economy,” Yeo told Asian Scientist Magazine.

“Historically, only 8.6 per cent of R&D funding in Malaysia was spent on industry research. We now want 50 per cent of (grant funding) to go to research collaborations with industry, or at least market-driven research,” said Yeo, adding that the four strategic areas her ministry is focusing on are halal food science, Islamic finance, health and wellness, and Industry 4.0.

Yeo also wants to create a pipeline of researchers to industry and raise the proportion of researchers in the private sector from the current 12 per cent today.

“There used to be a huge disconnect in Malaysia between scientists and the economy. We want to completely change how this works. And we’ll start very small; we’ll start by shifting our government researchers to industry for free for this year.

NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR YEO

After being elected into office, Yeo was christened as one of the “Top 10 People Who Mattered in Science in 2018” by UK-based science journal Nature. In 2019, she was appointed a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Could Yeo use her twin platforms of rising public popularity and policy making to shape the destiny of plastic use in the region?

Indeed, Yeo has ambitious plans for Malaysia to lead a new plastics circular economy in Southeast Asia.

“For the next three years we are developing a circular economy—how do we have a circular economy, not only for plastics, but also for electronic waste, like batteries? If we start changing our lifestyle to become more electrified, batteries need to be in a circular market.”

In parting, Malaysia’s plastics reformer spoke philosophically of the challenges in front of her, which include raising Malaysia’s renewable energy target tenfold by 2025 and implementing the 12-year roadmap to banning single-use plastics.

“The only thing we cannot do is say, ‘there are problems to the solution, let’s go back to business as usual,’ because you already know business as usual will not be sustainable in the future for Malaysia, and for the world,” Yeo said.

This story by Dr. Juliana Chan was first published by Asian Scientist Magazine on July 19.


BEHIND THE STORY
In a male dominated field, Yeo Bee Yin stands out as a young female minister handling five portfolios. Her background in chemical engineering is unusual, making her an example of how a scientifically trained person can have an impact on politics. With climate change high on Yeo’s agenda, these factors led the Asian Scientist team to approach the Minister to find out what difference the unconventional individual sought to make. “One of the less well-explored areas in climate change coverage is the disparity between how it will affect developed vs developing nations. Malaysia, with its recent change of government, was in a unique position to come up with a new way of addressing that challenge,” said Dr Juliana Chan, editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine. Widely read and shared online, the article raised awareness about the Yeo’s plans to address plastic pollution in Malaysia.

The Road to Radicalisation

The Road to Radicalisation is a story told of ‘Hani’, a wife and mother of three children whose husband, ‘Azmi’, gets caught and charged for terrorist activities related to IS or Daesh. Hani is candid in telling us her entire story from how Azmi first got involved, persuading her to move to Syria, right till his arrest. 

When people think of producing a documentary, the thing that always comes to mind is the extensive shooting, recording and editing process. But rarely do people think about the commitment that the documentarians make towards finding the right subject and then gaining their trust. 

The Road to Radicalisation is a story that Ezra Zaid and I told of ‘Hani’, a wife and mother of three children whose husband, ‘Azmi’, gets caught and charged for terrorist activities related to IS or Daesh. Hani is candid in telling us her entire story from how Azmi first got involved, persuading her to move to Syria, right till his arrest. 

It took me a while to identify Hani. Ten months to be exact. Ezra and I tried to make contact with ex-detainees, current supposedly active ‘terrorists’ and even their lawyers, but were never successful. We came close several times, but when it came down to going on the record, these people would always back out and bail. 

It was frustrating. Then, on the tenth month, I met Hani. 

It took Zan Azlee (above) ten months to identify ‘Hani’. Source: Zan Azlee

A friend who works at an NGO that provides legal assistance to those who can’t afford it contacted me and said that he might have someone who would be willing to talk to me. It was a woman whose husband had recently been arrested for being involved in IS. He explained to me her story and I got the number and the next day, I gave her a call. 

Hani was very hostile in the beginning. She yelled and screamed at me accusing me of wanting to take advantage of her story to make money. She even threatened to sue. I let her cool off for a day then I texted her politely and continues to explain why we thought it was important to tell her story and how it would benefit others. 

I almost gave up. But then, after a week, I get a call from her. I answered the phone excitedly and then she started talking. She said she had done some research (ie: Google) and found out that I actually am a journalist and that she was impressed by my anti-establishment viewpoints. 

Then, Hani said that she had spoken to her best friend about the documentary and that we wanted to interview her. She told her friend my name and, lo and behold, her friend and I were friends back in university! Her friend told her that I can be trusted and that she should tell us her story. That did it and Hani agreed! What luck! 

And that’s how we got the story to The Road to Radicalisation. Hani didn’t hold back and told us everything. We hear how she disagreed with her husband and fought with him, how her children suffered after his arrest and how she is conflicted in disagreeing with her husband and still loving him and wanting to be a loyal wife. 

She tells us all this in hopes that it will help people to understand how to fight extremism and how to deal with the situation of losing a loved one to it as well. Now, aside from the documentary being broadcast on radio and available online, it is also being brought on tour around the various universities in Malaysia. 

We engage with students after screening the documentary and we discuss issues related to religious extremism, conflict, and indirectly, multiculturalism, pluralism and human understanding. These screenings and discussions have become a safe space where these students are able to speak and have discourse without prejudice or being judged. 

Since the programme was broadcast on BFM89.9, the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) under the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs got in touch with us to explore the possibility of showcasing the Road to Radicalisation documentary with their respective collaborators. This included a request from the Malaysian Prisons Department, who expressed interest in airing the programme to prison detainees as a part of their rehabilitation programme. 

This is something we, the documentarians, and Hani are extremely proud of. 

This story by Zan Azlee and Ezra Zaid was originally published as an online podcast by BFM 89.9 on 4 October, 2018.

BEHIND THE STORY
Now, aside from the documentary being broadcast on radio and available online, it is also being brought on tour around the various universities in Malaysia.
We engage students after screening the documentary and we discuss issues related to religious extremism, conflict, and indirectly, multiculturalism, pluralism and human understanding. These screenings and discussions have become a safe space where these students are able to speak and have discourse without prejudice or being judged.
Since the programme was broadcast on BFM89.9, the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) under the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs got in touch with us to explore the possibility of showcasing the Road to Radicalisation documentary with their respective collaborators. This included a request from the Malaysian Prisons Department, who expressed interest in airing the programme to prison detainees as a part of their rehabilitation programme.

Pricey problems with medicine

There is a global “war” being waged in the health industry.

Civil societies and several governments in poor as well as rich countries – including Malaysia – are up in arms over pharmaceutical companies setting prices so high that some life-saving drugs are beyond the reach of many.

The concern over astronomically expensive drugs and the lack of accessibility has reached the World Health Organisation (WHO) level, and access to medicines and vaccines is expected to be among the top items on the agenda at the 72nd annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, beginning on May 20 (the assembly ends on May 28).

Sofosbuvir (400mg) was priced at US$8,939 (RM37,767) for a standard 12-week treatment regimen upon launch in China in November 2017, but generic alternatives are available for US$249 (RM1,052), a potential 98 per cent price reduction enabled by this decision, it says.

Geneva-based Health Policy Watch says that the WHO’s executive board in January held a lengthy debate on a road map for access to medicines, and now it will be put before the assembly.

On Feb 1, Italy proposed that the WHO set international standards for drug-pricing transparency. It has asked the assembly to adopt a resolution that would require drug makers to disclose their R&D and production costs, as well as prices charged for medicines and vaccines.

The proposal sent to governments on April 29 had 10 co-sponsors and Malaysia is one of them; the rest are Italy, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, and Uganda.

Italy’s proposal “has generated significant discussion and may be overshadowing the focus on the WHO roadmap to access to medicines, vaccines and other health products,” says Health Policy Watch.

Skirmishes already began on May 7 at informal negotiations ahead of the assembly.
Several developed countries have proposed amendments to Italy’s proposal that activists claim will make it confusing, weak and useless in many areas. Some countries have also sought to postpone discussion of the proposal.

Following such resistance, more than 100 civil society organisations and health experts sent an open letter to WHO member state delegates on May 9, urging them to oppose harmful proposed changes to the resolution.

The proposal will give the WHO and national governments a strong mandate to collect and analyse data on drug prices, R&D costs, clinical trial results and costs, the patent landscape, and more, says the letter.

“At a moment when the public is looking to their elected governments to address the crisis in the pricing of new drugs and other biomedical inventions, the WHO has been asked to do something important: improve the transparency of markets for biomedical products and services,” says Knowledge Ecology International’s (KEI) director James Love on its website.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations warns that the Italian proposal could lead to unintended consequences for the capacity of companies to offer preferential pricing to developing countries, and that it must be seen from diverse perspectives.

It urges WHO and its member states “to conduct careful analysis of the potential benefits and risks to patients and to health systems, particularly for less developed countries, in addition to future innovation,” the Health Policy Watch reports.

The federation says its industry has responded to concerns raised in the proposal, citing its Principles for Responsible Clinical Trial Data Sharing, and the Patent Information Initiative for Medicines as examples.

RADICAL MOVES THAT TUMBLED PRICES

In the last few years, some countries have resorted to drastic legal action to gain access to affordable drugs.

Malaysia came to the forefront of this issue when, in 2017, it became the first country in the world to impose a compulsory licence to gain access to the cheaper generic version of the hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir for about 400,000 of patients.

The hepatitis C virus affects about 71 million people globally, over 66 million of whom are not being treated, according to the WHO. This is despite the fact that 95 per cent of people with hepatitis C can be completely cured within two or three months of beginning treatment.

The compulsory licence is provided for under the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. It allows for the generic version of a drug to be imported or manufactured while it is still under patent protection.

Malaysia was placed under a lot of pressure for the move, prompting the Health Ministry, on Feb 25, to urge the WHO to look into the pricing system of medicine by pharmaceutical companies.

The hepatitis C virus affects about 71 million people globally, over 66 million of whom are not being treated, according to the WHO. This is despite the fact that 95 per cent of people with hepatitis C can be completely cured within two or three months of beginning treatment.

Last August, China compelled a pharmaceutical company to withdraw unmerited key patent claims on the sofosbuvir base compound. With 10 million people in China living with chronic hepatitis C, the ruling opens the door to affordable generic treatment ahead of the patent’s expiry in 2024. The base compound patent on sofosbuvir was granted in China in 2009.

A nonprofit that specialises in uncovering unfair patents, Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge (I-MAK), estimates that treating just 15 per cent of China’s hepatitis C patients with generic drugs would save US$13 billion (RM54.9 billion), with a massive US$87 billion (RM367.5 billion) saved if all patients are treated.

There is a growing global momentum to challenge unmerited patents to ensure more people can access life-saving treatments, I-MAK says.

Sofosbuvir (400mg) was priced at US$8,939 (RM37,767) for a standard 12-week treatment regimen upon launch in China in November 2017, but generic alternatives are available for US$249 (RM1,052), a potential 98 per cent price reduction enabled by this decision, it says.

China is also overhauling its healthcare system to provide better access to quality drugs and treatment for its population.

In December, news agency Bloomberg reported that the government had asked 11 major cities to band together to buy drugs in bulk through a tender process to bring down prices.

PATENT PROBLEMS

It’s not just developing or poor countries that are struggling with high drug prices.

In the United States, 18 lawmakers wrote to the US Department of Health and Human Services in February last year to consider issuing a compulsory licence for expensive hepatitis C treatments because rationing high cost treatment was harming the country’s public health.

“It is morally repugnant when ailing patients are forced to choose between filling that next prescription or putting food on the table, because they can’t afford both. It is morally repugnant when patients are forced to skip doses.”

On Feb 5 this year, President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, called on Congress to contain the rising costs of prescription medications, saying it is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries.

I-MAK exposed drugmakers’ abuse of patent law in the United States in 12 bestselling drugs in 2017.

To protect themselves from competition, drug companies file hundreds of patent applications – the vast majority of which are granted – to extend their monopolies far beyond the standard 20 years of protection granted under US patent law.

I-MAK says the average number of years blocking generic competition are 38, years blocking patent applications are 125 and the average price hike since 2012 is more than 68 per cent.
The US Senate Finance Committee launched a bipartisan probe to examine drug pricing in the United States and the rising costs for consumers and taxpayers.

During the hearing on Feb 26, the committee censured a drug company that had, in 2017, spent around US$11.5 billion on dividends, stock buybacks, marketing, sales and administrative costs – roughly triple the amount it spent on R&D.

It also lambasted another company for increasing the price of insulin from less than US$100 in 2010 to nearly US$300 last year (the company raised prices again this year).

The committee also said that in 2017, a portion of a CEO’s multi- million-dollar bonus was directly tied to sales of an arthritis medication.

“Over six years, the company doubled the price of a 12-month supply from US$19,000 to US$38,000 .

“Can patients opt for a less expensive alternative? No they cannot,” it said, adding that the company protects the exclusivity of the drug like Gollum with his ring (referring to the character in the Lord of the Rings series).

“It is morally repugnant when ailing patients are forced to choose between filling that next prescription or putting food on the table, because they can’t afford both. It is morally repugnant when patients are forced to skip doses.”

Top executives from the seven largest drug companies were also hauled up before the committee to explain the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs.

On May 15, the committee tweeted again, saying: “@HHSGov is starting to look into drug company middlemen that take millions from taxpayers. But more needs to be done to prevent these middlemen from using schemes like ‘spread pricing’ to take big profits while taxpayers get stuck with the check.”

(How spread pricing affects the consumer: a pharmacy benefit manager company pays a pharmacy a minor amount for a drug but charges the health insurer that employs it much higher prices; the insurer in turn will charge its customers higher premiums to cover its costs.)

THE COMPARISON METHOD

In Europe, issues relating to external reference pricing was reignited by an unprecedented meeting in Brussels in mid-April that brought together national pricing authorities with drug companies, patients, payers, physicians, and civil society.

A decade ago, EU national authorities conceived a scheme known as Euripid to boost their negotiating powers with pharmaceutical manufacturers by exchanging pricing information among themselves. (One country compares the price of a drug in several other countries to derive a reference price that is then used to negotiate the product’s price in that country.)

Pharmaceutical companies say this could hinder drug access since companies tend to delay the launch of products in countries with the lowest prices, to counteract the downward pressure in price-comparison baskets. The industry is also pushing back against Euripid’s ambitions to shift its focus from list prices to net prices, PharmExec.com reports.

Now, with more countries holding pharmaceutical companies to account, more intense debate is expected at the WHO assembly on May 20.

More transparent pricing and a redirection of how medicines are sold is urgently needed.
Buying most products and services is a choice – but you can’t choose not to buy medicine, so if you need that patented drug to save your life, you have to find some way to cough up the exorbitant price.

This does not work, especially on a global scale, where millions lack access to the treatment for certain infectious diseases that continue to spread, setting up a vicious cycle. This is a free market failure that must be addressed.

The fight for price transparency saw fruition in May, when the concern was discussed at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

The drug price transparency resolution proposed by Italy for the WHO was adopted. Although diluted, civil society organisations and many countries were glad that it had made an inroad and the initial resolution serves as the first step in bringing greater disclosure of prices.

The resolution covers all health products, which include medicines, vaccines, medical devices, diagnostics, assistive products, cell- and gene-based therapies, and other health technologies.

This story by Loh Loon Fong was originally published on May 19.


BEHIND THE STORY
The issue of access to drugs is not just a Malaysian issue but a global one. In fact, concern over astronomically expensive drugs and the lack of accessibility has reached the World Health Organisation (WHO) level. Written by the Star journalist Loh Loon Fong, the article gives an overview of the concern communities around the world have with high cost of drugs and the need to address the market failure relating to maximising of profits. For the past three years, Loon Fong consistently advocated for fair and lower drug prices. Her stories on high drug prices were part of the global effort to spur governments to get the issue addressed at the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA), including this article published on May 19, the day before the WHA.

Malaysia one year after Pakatan Harapan rule

I risk being labelled as a Pakatan Harapan apologist but I’ll say it as it is anyway.

Under the Pakatan Harapan rule, the media in Malaysia is enjoying freedom as never before and that’s a fact.

I agree with a Malay Mail Online report published in May which said that after a year of Pakatan Harapan rule, the

Malaysian media is going through some positive developments as the new government repealed or set aside many of the archaic laws seen stifling press freedom in the country.

Since Pakatan Harapan took over Putrajaya, said the report, Malaysia has jumped up 22 notches in the World Press

Freedom index and has been ranked 123 out of 180 countries listed in the index.

This is based on figures obtained in May of this year.

Nothing great you might say ? Or just a small achievement? Maybe.

But it is still a big deal considering how the media in Malaysia has never been free before and was always suppressed.

As the Malay Mail Online sees it, the Malaysian media could heave a breath of relief as the mainstream media no longer has to wait for instructions of “wahyu” from Putrajaya to conform with the political narratives of the day.

Content presentation and headlining are becoming more sensational too, in a bid to capture the attention of a new generation of readers.

In July 1961, the Umno leadership sent a party strongman from Terengganu to meet Utusan Melayu editor, Said Zahari, to demand Utusan submit to its four pronged “surrender terms.”

Utusan Melayu was previously an independent newspaper which Umno wanted to control. But Said – or Pak Said as he was fondly known – together with his journalists wanted to ensure Utusan Melayu continued to be an independent national newspaper, uncontrolled by a political party.

Pak Said, who I regard as one of the best journalist in the world, had always felt that only with a free policy could Utusan Melayu “ be the voice of the people, fighting for the interest of the people with sincerity integrity and courage.”

But Umno wanted Utusan Melayu to be different. It wanted Utusan Melayu to belong to Umno and to serve it only.

Hence on July 21 1961, Pak Said led his journalists and other workers of the newspaper to launch the famous “Mogok Utusan Melayu “or Utusan Melayu strike.

Sadly the strike failed and lasted 90 days . Umno had won.

Malaysia’s media landscape could have been different had the strike was successful.

But with Umno’s victory, Utusan Melayu was never the same again. True, the company grew to be Kumpulan Utusan Melayu and boasted an array of publications like Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo!

But it became subservient to Umno – serving the party’s needs and demands .

However, I see Umno’s victory in taking over control of Utusan as somehow paving the way for other political parties to wrest control of other newspapers.

Like MCA and The Star and MIC controlling the now defunct Tamil Nesan newspaper. Just to name two. Naturally there are others.

The nation’s media outlets would be free of political party control had the Utusan strike succeeded in stopping Umno back in 1961.

Many – including journalists – had expected Pakatan Harapan to intervene by sending “its own people” or editors perceived to be pro -Pakatan Harapan to the media organisations to introduce Pakatan Harapan friendly editorial policies .

But, all that did not happen.

The editors who were running the show left on their own accord or upon advise of their own board of directors.

The Pakatan Harapan government did not meddle into affairs of the media.

For one it would have involved them buying shares from their political rivals and proxies; something the Pakatan Harapan did not want to do, obviously.

The other factor that held it back, was its promise to be committed in ensuring a free press.

Paris based organisation Reporters without Borders acknowledged press freedom received a breath of fresh air in

Malaysia after Barisan Nasional lost the general election in May last year.

It noted journalists and media outlets that were previously blacklisted were today able to work without fear of harassment.

As the Malay Mail Online sees it, the Malaysian media could heave a breath of relief as the mainstream media no longer has to wait for instructions of “wahyu” from Putrajaya to conform with the political narratives of the day.

For online news portals like Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight, the positive developments unfortunately have “little” effect on them.

This is not to say they are not appreciative of the freedom they are given but even in the Barisan Nasional (BN) days of media shackling, these portals have always toed the line.

A long time media watcher agreed that news portals are continuing to report as if in the BN government era but “ they seem to be more for ‘sexy’ news of daily going-ons instead of incisive reporting”.

It’s the so called conventional media that is “enjoying” this new found freedom. At least they ought to be.

Under the Pakatan Harapan rule, the media in Malaysia is enjoying freedom as never before and that’s a fact.

After all, they now can report on both sides of the divide. But admittedly they tend to be “cautious” or impose self censorship with regards to so called negative stories about the current government.

At times, these portals even indulge in “apple polishing” Putrajaya as well
like in the “good old days of (the) BN”.

But as pointed out by a journalist friend – who do you blame for this ?

It is worth noting that the mainstream media, owned by parties linked to the opposition are still “at it” – serving the interests and pushing the agenda of their owners or should I say “political masters”?

Furthermore, they get away without being apprehended.

Whatever the agenda, mainstream media – according to the media watcher – is “struggling to stay afloat and trying to avoid the fate of Utusan.”

News publishers continue to lose readers who used to pay to read news in print but now prefer to access news for free online.

However, some online portals are already charging for content while some are contemplating putting up paywalls.

Obviously financing is a very big element but as Malaysiakini rightly puts it, “ independent media cannot survive without independent financing”.

Just how can the media get independent financing ?

While they grapple with that complex task, the media watcher advises media outlets “to buck up and connect with the people.”

If they fail to do so, they might eventually “go the Utusan way.”

That in a nutshell are the two big challenges faced by the media today in the midst of more pressfreedom .

Oh yes don’t forget, there’s always social media where everybody seems to be a journalist.

Not to mention fake news which unfortunately many love to swap for real news.

But I believe that real media will eventually prevail.

The article by Mohsin Abdullah will be published on Sin Chew Daily on Sep 28. Mohsin Abdullad is a Malaysian veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.

Malaysia polluted by imported waste

Just imagine this: plastic milk bottles infested with maggots find their way to Malaysian shores after their contents are consumed by Australians. Also being dumped on our soil are plastic bread wrappers that originate from Canada, Japan and France.

That’s not all. Industrial electric cables disguised as copper from the United Kingdom and stacks of damaged electric and electronic cables are covertly heaped onto Malaysia.

Plastic cups used for drinking zam zam water in Mecca , Saudi Arabia, also end up in this country.
Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste are dispatched to Malaysia every year, part of which is stuck in hundreds of containers that have remained unclaimed in several ports in Malaysia.

Malaysia will send back hundreds of containers containing garbages to its countries of origin in the near future.
Source: fotoBERNAMA(2019) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Recently, the Royal Malaysian Customs Department in Penang detected 265 containers of plastic waste that have not been claimed since January this year. At Westports in Port Klang, 152 containers believed to be filled with contaminated plastic waste have also been lying unclaimed.

Sources told Bernama that the relevant parties were reluctant to claim the containers for fear that the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) would take stern action against them in its effort to restrain other countries from treating Malaysia as a dumping ground for their waste.

There have been instances when a container carrying waste is registered as coming from China but in reality, its contents are from France.

Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam are known to serve as the world’s ‘garbage bins’ as they receive waste from several developed countries like the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, Belgium and Canada.

The situation worsened after China imposed restrictions on the import of recyclable paper and plastic in January 2018. This resulted in more waste being diverted to Malaysia. Some 750,000 tonnes of plastic waste worth more than RM483 million (US$115.5 million) entered this country in 2018, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. China’s import of waste dropped from more than 600,000 tonnes a month in 2016 to 30,000 tonnes a month since January 2018.

Thailand has also taken action to stop the import of plastic waste while Vietnam has introduced tight control pertaining to this matter as it does not want the country to be used as a garbage bin by developed nations.
Recently, Malaysia was among the 187 countries that were signatories to the amendments to the Basel Convention to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated. The amendments will be enforced on Jan 1, 2021.

FOUL SMELLING, ROTTING

Why does Malaysia have to take on the burden of disposing of all that foreign garbage, most of which are shipped from developed countries?

Apparently, both the exporters and importers involved label their consignments as “waste for recycling”. The reality, however, is very different as the bulk of the imported waste materials is not fit for recycling.
According to sources, not all the waste materials that enter this country come in hygienic conditions; on the contrary, they reek of rotting garbage and are infested with worms.

Containers in Port Klang, Malaysia, are filled with plastic waste from around the world.
Source: fotoBERNAMA(2019) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

One source said it was obvious that the recycling companies importing the waste were willing to turn a blind eye to the environmental pollution they were causing as a result of separating, cleaning, burning and disposing of the plastic waste that cannot be recycled.

“The ‘reward’ they get is only 60 sen for each kilogram of waste that is supposedly processed,” said the source.
The source added that even if the waste is recyclable, it has to be separated and cleaned thoroughly, which would require plenty of resources such as clean water.

“Waste that cannot be recycled will end up being burnt in the open. This can lead to carcinogenic toxic fumes being released into the environment, like what happened in Jenjarom (Selangor) recently.”

Malaysia’s soil and waterways also face threats from pollution during the cleaning process when water from the waste seeps into the ground. “In some cases, the waste is dumped on abandoned land or in the forest and left there,” said the source.

ILLEGAL FACTORIES

The situation worsens when recycling companies without their own waste processing premises hand over this task to factories that operate illegally all over the country, especially in areas located close to the ports.

“Selangor is among the states that have many illegal factories. Despite taking action such as closing down their premises and taking them in court, the owners (of the illegal factories) easily find new places to operate from,” said the source.

In its effort to curb environmental pollution, Mestecc has ordered 148 illegal plastic recycling plants to cease operations between January and April this year. These factories include 33 located in Jenjarom that had contravened the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

Malaysia’s Customs officers taking samples of plastic waste from one of the containers in Port Klang, Malaysia.
Source: fotoBERNAMA(2019) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Since May , the ministry has inspected 123 containers carrying solid waste from the United Kingdom, United States, Japan, China, Spain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France. These containers gained entry into Malaysia via approved permits (AP) issued by the National Solid Waste Management Department.

Sixty of these containers, filled with 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste, will be shipped back to the country of origin after thorough inspections by the authorities.

Mestecc Minister Yeo Bee Yin said 10 out of the 60 containers would be dispatched to the country of origin within 14 days. The ministry had previously ordered five containers of waste to be shipped back to Spain where they originated, she said, adding that the action was taken under Malaysian laws, including the Environmental Quality Act.

DIFFICULT TO DETECT

One of the pressing challenges faced by the ministry in ‘repatriating’ the imported waste is detecting the country of origin.

There have been instances when a container carrying waste is registered as coming from China but in reality, its contents are from France.

According to sources, certain unscrupulous middlemen alter the Bill of Lading (BL) to confuse the authorities and make it difficult for them to ascertain the container’s country of origin. In the shipping industry, making alterations to the BL, such as the name of the exporter and country of origin, was a normal practice to ‘smoothen business transactions’. As the link between the exporter and importer of the waste, it is the middleman helps to tweak the information as desired by his clients so that the consignment lands in the importer’s country.

Many plastic waste exporters also evade the Harmonised Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) by exporting using the 3920 code for solid waste such as plastic plates, sheets, films and foil strips. HS is a global system of classifying products that are traded internationally. To hasten the export process, these exporters avoid using the 3915 code for plastic waste, which also covers pens and scraps, because they would then require an AP.

Based on the industry’s practices, it is clear that many people are willing to commit fraud to gain from the global plastic waste trade, which has an estimated annual market value of US$5 billion.

To prevent the further pollution of our country, both this industry and foreign countries need to clean up their act.

This story by Nur-ul Afida Kamaludin & Ali Imran Mohd Nordin was first published by Bernama on June 7.


BEHIND THE STORY
Curious about why Malaysia was labelled as one of the world’s worst countries for plastic pollution, reporters Nur-ul Afida Kamaludin and Ali Imran Mohd Nordin went behind-the-scenes to uncover the true cause. Published on June 7, their story exposes the irresponsible actions of some foreign countries in making Malaysia their dumping ground. Most importantly, it reveals a systemic problem underlying global plastic waste trade, which has an estimated annual market value of US$5 billion. For Nur-ul Afida Kamaludin, journalism acts as a tool in providing citizens with information that would benefit them as a community and society as well as being a watchdog of the government. By informing society, she hopes to raise awareness among the people about the dangers of waste, if left unaddressed.

Exposing an international human trafficking network

They are sold a dream – of a ticket to study and work in a foreign country, but after spending their family’s entire savings, they are caught in the harsh reality of being trafficked and trapped in a constant cycle of exploitation and extortion.

Thousands of young Bangladeshis have been trafficked to Malaysia through obscure private colleges and their unscrupulous “agents”.

Some pay over RM 20,000 (US$4,781), equivalent to three years’ wages in Bangladesh, for the agents to secure student visas and admission into these bogus colleges.

But that’s just the beginning of the exploitation.

When they arrive in Malaysia, the victims realise the colleges don’t offer any real classes, they can’t work under student visas, and there are often additional “fees” to be paid.

Many have no choice but to work illegally under inhumane conditions, creating a cycle of exploitation where they have to earn enough to repay their debts and buy a ticket home, or pay the agents again to renew their student visas so they can work another year.

“I can’t go home, because my family spent all their money on the agent fees.

“Now I need to work here to pay for my father’s medicine,” said one victim, 24, whose father has suffered two strokes.

An undercover journalist from R.AGE (right) meeting with suspected ‘student traffickers’ in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Source: R.AGE

The team met up with agents while posing as factory managers looking for cheap labour, infiltrated the colleges, and followed the trail all the way to Dhaka, Bangladesh. One agent told our journalist he works for a “Datuk” who owns a college in Kuala Lumpur, and that he has trafficked over 8,000 Bangladeshi students to Malaysia.

“Bangladeshi students are easy and quick money,” said the agent, who is Nepali.

“Bring in 200 or 300 of them, then distribute them (among the colleges), then you’ll make your money.”

Many of these victims live and work not far from the glittering lights of the Klang Valley’s major towns, hidden and suffering.

“Our living conditions here are worse than the garbage dumps in the slums of Dhaka,” said one victim, now a construction worker living in a makeshift ghetto in Cyberjaya.

His family had to take a loan to pay for his “studies” in Malaysia, for which they pay 21,000 taka (US$248) a month in instalments.

He now earns around RM1,500 a month.

“In my college, there were around 200-250 Bangladeshi students, but only 30-35 have renewed their visas (to continue studying).

“Where the rest are, we don’t know,” he added.

During the course of its investigation, R.AGE met over 30 student trafficking victims, and found almost 30 colleges that showed signs of having worked with student traffickers.

When a R.AGE journalist posing as a prospective student went to one of these colleges, an employee quietly warned him against signing up.

“If our own people (Malaysians) come, I’ll tell them not to study here,” she said.

“Look around, the whole place is empty! I wouldn’t want any Malaysian students stuck here.”

“Our living conditions here are worse than the garbage dumps in the slums of Dhaka,” said one victim, now a construction worker living in a makeshift ghetto in Cyberjaya.

An earlier report by The Star revealed a large number of foreign students arriving through dubious colleges in 2013. The Ministry of Higher Education revoked the international student licence of four such institutions in 2015.

Since then, a further 26 institutions have had their licences revoked or not renewed.

Though many of these colleges can no longer enrol international students, they continue to operate by channelling students to other affiliated colleges.

“We do have something like a collaboration, a group of companies,” said the Nepali agent.

“We have a language centre and four colleges, all are like ‘joint-venture’ companies.”

He also claimed that he enrolled 3,000 Bangladeshi students at one of these colleges, but R.AGE found its campus to be nearly deserted.

“I came here to study. Only to study. But now, my dream is dashed,” said one victim.

First published on Aug 14, 2017, the series of reports on the exploitation of Bangladeshi college applicants, which includes a Peabody Award-nominated documentary series Student/Trafficked, led to a crackdown on the practice by the Malaysian government.

It’s about time someone spoke up about student trafficking, the Bangladeshi community said.

“All of us appreciate that R.AGE took this step to show what many Bangladeshi students go through,” said Bangladeshi Student Union Malaysia president Mohammad Ziaur Rahman Zia about the documentary series.

Mohd Hafizuddin, a bartender, said he wished the series had been launched before he came here. He paid RM15,000 to an agent to enrol for a diploma in Multimedia Applications, and only later realised the college was a sham.

“If I knew it would be like this, I wouldn’t have come,” he said.

Over two dozen colleges/institutions had their international recruitment licenses revoked, and the number of student trafficking victims from Bangladesh has since drastically reduced after R.AGE’s coverage.

“The Malaysian government has not been issuing visas to colleges for the past year,” said Abdur Rahim Khan, CEO of Bangladesh Malaysia Study Centre (BMSC). BMSC is one of the more established student recruitment agencies in Bangladesh, and specialises in sending students to Malaysian higher education institutions.

“This is good, because college students don’t go to Malaysia to study – only university students do,” he claimed.

Colleges and universities were also encouraged by the Higher Education Ministry to apply anti-trafficking guidelines proposed by R.AGE, of which five colleges and universities pledged to implement in December 2017.

However, despite the then-Home Minister himself pledging to bring those involved to justice, no syndicate leaders were arrested in connection with the investigations.

This story by Elroi Yee and Shanjeev Reddy is a compilation of articles from Aug 14, 2017 to March 12, 2018 that was originally published by The Star.


BEHIND THE STORY
In late 2016, reporters from The Star’s young investigative team, R.AGE, uncovered a new form of human trafficking in Malaysia’s private colleges. An international network of “education agents”, college owners, and allegedly corrupt government officers had been working together to exploit young victims – mainly from Bangladesh – by promising them a quality Malaysian tertiary education, before exploiting them for cheap labour through debt bondage. The team, made up of 14 journalists and documentary filmmakers, spent over a year undercover, systematically unravelling the syndicates’ operations by posing as factory managers looking for cheap migrant labour, and recording their conversations using hidden video cameras. First published on Aug 14, 2017, their series, Student/Trafficked, helped the Malaysian government clamp down on trafficking syndicates while providing evidence and measures to all stakeholders to implement anti-trafficking procedures. The team continues to advocate for the tens of thousands of victims that are said to remain in Malaysia, now mostly undocumented and driven to the fringes of society. “As far as we know, none of those at the top of these trafficking syndicates have been brought to justice. “But just as important, we urge the new Government, especially the Home and Education ministries, to consider measures to help the victims either restart their studies or return home with dignity,” said R.AGE deputy executive producer Elroi Yee, who led the Student/Trafficked investigations.