Hornbill Unleashed

November 16, 2012

Sustainable Development: Is Malaysia doing enough?

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:00 AM
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Lonely Moai statues against a backdrop of desolate landscape. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)JJ TAN 

Consider this – the Easter Island, home to a remote civilisation that has long since died out, its barren landscape watched over by ancient stone statues. Whether they were gods or guardians, we may never know, and it doesn’t matter now. It wasn’t always like this, the island was once covered in trees and flourishing bird colonies. Within a span of 400 years, the trees and birds were gone – harvested to extinction.

And the people soon followed.

The Moai statues of the Easter Island with their sad stories left a deep mark in my mind. It is not the image of starvation and death from overexploitation that haunts me. It is the thought about how the occupants of such a remote island failed to sustain their civilization that serves as a grim reminder. If a civilization on a small island that must have been so aware of their isolation couldn’t achieve sustainability, how will we who live on this vast island called Earth fare better?

To secure our future, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Here is one such question: Do you think that Malaysia is doing enough? To be more precise, are we as a nation, doing enough to ensure the sustainability of the country’s development? This question resonated within me but I struggled to answer.

It is all too easy to answer such a question based on one’s immediate judgement. However, such conclusions are often based on memories retrieved that may be shaped by one’s biased recollections and by exaggerated incidents highlighted by the media. Examples of such recent highlights are plentiful: the success of planting 28 million trees, the LYNAS dispute, illegal logging and even the relentless haze choking parts of the country. As Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

I believe that this question needs to be answered and it needs to be answered slowly. It needs to be answered because without a solid idea of where we stand, a strategic course cannot be plotted; it needs to be answered slowly because a misinformed plan may well be worse than no plan. I believe the lonely Moai statues of the Easter Island would gladly take a break from being slowly eroded by time and nature to testify to that.

In this article I will take a stab at it by assessing a few arbitrary parameters. Obviously, the selection of these arbitrary parameters is subjective and I am by no means implying that this assessment is either scientific or complete – it is simply my limited answer to the question.

To justify the parameter selection (they are arbitrary but not baseless), a definition of the sustainable development I have in mind would be necessary. The cliché that is the Brundtland definition of growth that does not compromise future generations is far too broad and complex. Instead, I focused on two complementary elements: living within our biocapacity and reducing our ecological footprint.

Having established the parameters, let’s dive into some data about our country’s ecological footprint. Figure 1 below is a reproduction of selected countriefootprints compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for the year 2012 with Malaysia highlighted.

Figure 1: Ecological footprint per capita in units of global hectares (gha); Interactive graph available atwwf.panda.org for data on all countries.

Figure 2: Definition of categories in ecological footprint calculation from wwf.panda.org 

As of 2012, Malaysia’s ecological footprint per capita is about 4 global hectares (1 gha representing the productive capacity of 1ha of land at world average productivity). In other words, on average, each of us requires four hectares of productive land to sustain our current standards of living. At first glance, it may seem that we are not doing too bad in terms of resource usage – however, the concept of our planet’s biocapacity would put things in better perspective.

To help explain Earth’s biocapacity, just imagine that you are a lone castaway on an island where the only source of food you have is a small lake with a hundred fish in it. Imagine also that you have the appetite of Hercules and need 10 fish a day just to sustain yourself. Luckily, the fish in the lake are very productive and they reproduce at a rate of 10 new full grown fish a day. Therefore, whatever fish you consume will be replaced by new fish and you will have an amazing life being king or queen of the island with turtles as your subjects.

However, if you decide to eat 15 fish a day because they are simply delicious or because you are a terrible cook, there will be a deficit of 5 fish a day. Therefore, assuming the rate of fish replenishment miraculously stays the same even though there are less fish day by day, you will run out of fish in 20 days and subsequently starve to death on the 27th day. Consuming 10 fish a day is similar to the lake’s biocapacity. For Earth, WWF estimated it to be 1.8 hectare per person in 2008. That figure would be lower now considering that Earth’s population has increased.

Another angle from which to gauge Malaysia’s performance in terms of sustainability is to explore the country’s change in ecological footprint and biocapacity over time. Thankfully, the Global Footprint Network has done the hard work in compiling the relevant data, which is reproduced below in Figure 3. As is illustrated clearly in Figure 3, on a per capita basis, the country’s ecological footprint has exceeded its biocapacity since around 1995.

And with steady increase in population and improving health care, the downward trend in biocapacity per capita is likely to continue on its current trajectory. This means that unless significant changes occur, the trends are likely to continue and our biocapacity deficit will likely continue growing.

Figure 3 tracks the per-person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity in Malaysia since 1961. Biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices and population size. Footprint varies with consumption and production efficiency. Source: Global Footprint Network website, country trend section.

With all the above in mind, how is Malaysia doing?

Perhaps some may argue that we are doing quite well considering what some other countries at the top are consuming. Some may argue that it has been a fair price to pay for increased prosperity and improved living standards or that the increase in footprint is part and parcel of economic growth. Some will point to possible flaws within the assumptions used in calculating both biocapacity and ecological footprint or inadequate data. Looking at Malaysia’s footprint data alone will also likely bring about the usual criticism that it ignores the effects of international trade.

Personally, I think all of the above are secondary. They may well be sound arguments but they are secondary to the fact that the Earth is one. I believe that we will collectively experience the effects of each country’s actions or inaction. Think of it as collective punishment. The Earth is one means that every country needs to contribute as much as it possibly can regardless of past contributions; it means that none of us are isolated.

For example, the Maldives will still be among the first to be submerged even if they reduced their footprint to zero assuming sea level rises continue; overfishing in a country will cause its neighbour’s fishermen to suffer as well. A consolidated global effort is not an option. Similarly, Malaysia needs to do all it can while encouraging others to do the same, even though we may not be the worst offender in terms of biocapacity deficit.

The fact that we only have one Earth means that we cannot afford to choose inaction or half-heartedness, regardless of possible doubts in the methodology used to assess carrying capacity or ecological footprint. The risk is too high. To borrow a term used in banking, research and assessment done on the subject have been done on ‘best effort basis’. Changes and improvements may well arrive (as they almost always do, even radical U-turns) but to not intensify efforts for footprint reduction globally is a gamble taken against the welfare of future generations. Delaying via inaction is akin to increasing the leverage taken on this gamble.

So how do I think Malaysia is doing? I think we could be and should be doing more.

It seems that there is an obvious area where we can make significant ecological footprint reductions. That is our carbon uptake footprint, of which fossil fuel burning is a large contributor. I have always found our slow pickup in solar energy generation puzzling. Consider the pieces: Malaysia is the fourth largest photovoltaic (PV) module producer globally; we have 6 hours of daily sunshine on average with no significant seasonal reductions; yet only 0.1% of our energy is generated from solar energy according to the country’s Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA).

In fact, the National Renewable Energy Action Plan of 2009 is only aiming for 6% of our energy to be from renewable sources by 2015. Although we seem to be on track towards achieving this commendable target, for a country of our natural resources, I think we are not being ambitious enough. This is one area where I think that Malaysia can do so much more. There are of course many ways that we as individual consumers can help. For example, just following the reduce, reuse and recycle framework will do wonders for the environment.

We need to do more today to secure our future. But just whose responsibility is that? As Michael Jackson puts it, “Who am I to be blind?” So let’s start with the man in the mirror.

JJ is an Engineering Science student at the University of Oxford who believes that everyone can make a difference.



  1. Its a false assumption to say that the people of Easter Island had perished leaving behind their stone statues because nobody knows that for sure. Those bizzare stone heads and faces should be regarded as another of World Wonder. But to conclude that the people of ancient times living there had perished because they destroyed the trees on the Island is hanging an imagination up too lofty without bearing to real facts. And after all this whole Earth has so many unexplanable findings. So better leave them “unexplanable”.
    In saying this do not mistake me: I share the concern for the unprecedented environmental degradation brought about by human greed. Alas in Malaysia such concerns don’t bring about changes. After all even submarines we don’t need and Altantuya’s death in so bizarre and mysterious circumstances including the court trial that followed that turned out conviction of murder on two guys who had not been shown their motives, these don’t cause any ripple. Perhaps another ‘sodomy’ might just make the trick!

    Comment by Anek — November 17, 2012 @ 3:25 PM | Reply

  2. Sustainable development is one which is controlled resulting in survival of plants, species, animals and an environment which is still friendly to those who are still around. There is little destruction of the environment. This is my crude understanding of sustainable development. Foremost, sustainable development does not aim to satisfy merely environmentalists but ultimately our children and grandchildren who would also like to see pitcher plants in the real or famed belian trees in Sarawak. Are we up to this? The answer is definitely no – a big no. A decade from now Sarawak will 12 dams with the same dimension like Bakun, no more pitcher plant and certainly no more giant rafflesia. Appropriately it is just called development without sustainable. Sarawak is the biggest state with the biggest forest and a bountiful flora and fauna, alas we might have to import wooden furnitures from Indonesia. Honestly I do not know what those in the corridors of power are doing.

    Comment by professor dee — November 16, 2012 @ 10:36 AM | Reply


    From the archaeological guess work, the Easter Islanders must have spent more than they produced on extravagant projects!

    In time, their economy collapsed and they migrated to New Zealand and Hawaii. That is the best scenario guess work.

    We see the lasting evidence of their follies and legacies on the island as tourists if not on the internet.

    This instantly focuses our minds on Malaysia.

    Malaysia under UMNO for 49 to 55 years is similarly run into the ground with vast scale corruption and is predicted to go bankrupt by 2019.

    They are bleeding Malaya and their Sabah Sarawak colonies dry. They will leave behind a changed country indeed. Local Sabah people will also vanish…. So will the Dayaks……you know why

    Perhaps with their stole zillions, UMNO elites have long worked out their bolt holes like say Saudi Arabia some where in the Middle East countries where they stashed the loot.

    This will suit them fine as they seem to think Malay culture is Middle East culture and have superimposed this culture over the Malay identity.

    Taib has already got Lebanon.

    Comment by Anon — November 16, 2012 @ 9:20 AM | Reply

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