Agenda 21 – Civic Engagement and the Environment Challenge for Malaysia

Address by Anwar Fazal at the National NGO Forum on Environment at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 8 March 1997.

Assalamualaikum! May Peace be Upon You All.

I start with the word Peace because more than anything else it is the core of the spirit of community. It forms the only basis of meaningful solidarity. The solidarity of Peace is built not just on the absence of war. It is more the positive, constructive building and nurturing of three dimensions:

  • Peace with ourselves
  • Peace with mother earth
  • Peace with all over living things and with the profound and infinite space we call the Universe.

Today, unfortunately, we live in a world when this Peace is severely shattered, decimated by the evil forces of violence, waste and manipulation.

Agenda 21 the global plan of action to promote a sustainable development adopted under the auspicious of the UN by 172 governments in Rio in 1992 was a watershed event in humanity’s struggle for that Peace. Over 2500 recommendations challenged us to action.

Sadly and tragically, despite noble efforts here and there, there has been overall, a big let down and a great betrayal of the hope and vision that all of us were inspired by. To some, the “Spirit of Rio” has left a legacy that is more like the debris of that other Rio event, the Mardi Gras. I am a little more optimistic. We definitely did cross an important threshold and set some critical global norms and frameworks but the struggle and journey for transformation has just begun.

How Fares the Environment?

The environment continues to deteriorate. The economic resources that were to be applied to the vision have not been forthcoming.

The world functions in unjust and inequitable ways that continue to disempower people, community and nations through political blackmail, the scourge of militarism and unbridled globalisation competing in fields that are unfairly skewed and players that are grossly mismatched.

What Can We Do?

As Malaysians, as citizens of a nation that stands out as the south’s confident and constant champion on many issues, as leaders of the “green” cause, we have a special responsibility for action.

I like to share 21 challenges that I believe are the pressure points on which action will need to be focussed and from which we can build the strength of civil society groups.

The 21 Challenges

  1. The challenge of the Holistic approach – Unfortunately so much of work on the environment is fragmented and disintegrated. We need new planning and policy frame works and leadership that embodies this. We have to break down bureaucratic and territorial mindsets. We also have a draw from our spiritual traditions and I particularly commend for your reading a book “Ecologi dan Islam” just recently published by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)

  1. The challenge of Partnership – We are not going to make transformational changes if we do not accept that all sectors – the “prince”,  “merchant”, “citizen”, “mandarin”, etc. – will have to work together in cooperative and consensual ways. It is not going to be easy when sheep and wolf have to meet. There will be differences but we will have to manage conflict in constructive ways.

  1. The challenge of Sustainability – The long term aspects, the generational aspects are still too easily ignored. We need to understand the critical linkage between ecological, social and economic sustainability.

  1. The challenge of Economics – We are all too much stuck into short term financial returns. Natural resource accounting and external cost accounting must become the norm and be part of training of the new generation.

  1. The challenge of Growth – Growth can be “good” and can be “bad”. The UNDP’s Human Development Report 1996 describes five kinds of “bad” growth:

·         Jobless growth – the overall economy grows, but fails to expand job opportunities.

·         Ruthless growth – the rich get richer, and the poor get nothing.

·         Voiceless growth – the economy grows, but democracy/empowerment of the majority of the population fails to keep pace.

·         Rootless growth – cultural identity is submerged or deliberately outlawed by governments or destroyed by the global telecommunications revolution.

·         Futureless growth – the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

6. The challenge of the Long View -Everyone should read the book “Our Stolen Future” co-authored by Theo Coburn, Diane Dumanowski and John Peterson Myers. It provides a frightening scenario of “a chemistry culture” gone wrong - babies born with stubs, alligators with shrunken genitals, declining human sperm counts, etc. - a pattern that tells us that so-called “acceptable levels” may not really help us. We are now having to deal with “endocrine disrupters” which are more potent at small doses than large ones.

7. The challenge of Integrity -Value systems based on sound ethics are central to a fair treatment of the environment. Corrupt practices, money politics, “check book” environmental impact assessment and the 'buying' of researchers and stakeholders can create a culture of dishonesty.

8. The challenge of Brown Issues -Too often green issues - forests and biodiversity- get colourful attention. Greater attention is needed for Brown issues - relating to garbage, our quality waste management and the impact of transportation and other infrastructure project. With rapid and merciless urbanisation, these issues are going to need attention the citizens will demand. I commend for your study “The Istanbul Declaration” which was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements last year. Cities, and urbanisation generally, has a deep often-virulent impact on a vast environment area, what is called its “ecological footprint”.

9. The challenge of Globalisation - Environmental issues transcend boundaries as the haze from neighbouring fires or a nuclear plan in controversial terrain painfully suggest .We have to be proactive internationally. We cannot be secure just by taking care of our national environment. Ecological boundaries transcend political boundaries. We must become more assertive and demanding of international action. We need to strengthen our capacity to deal with international instruments. In particular, we have to be alert about the impact of trade on environments, and especially on the operations and impact of WTO, the World Trade Organization.

10. The challenge of Global Equity - the issues of global bio-piracy and extraction of resources from the South to the North and other inequities have to be addressed more assertively.

11. The challenge of Lifestyles -Nothing will make a greater difference than fundamental changes in our lifestyles in relation to resource use. We are only still mostly cosmetic in our approach and there is a clear lack of leadership and commitment everywhere.

12. The challenge of Activism - We need to speak out without fear or favour and to organise groups and actions around issues. No social movement has made transformational change without courage and action. This however must be done without resorting to violence. Gandhi said it best. “I object to violence” he said, “because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary - the evil it does is permanent”.

13. The challenge of Localisation - We have to get communities and local authorities to develop local Agenda 21. Until we have a movement from below, the environment will be seen as a bureaucratic abstraction or a fringe endeavour.

14.The challenge of Security -Militarism and armaments are among the greatest destroyers of the environment. From land mines to chemical weapons to nuclear arsenals. We have to develop security systems locally and globally that works towards arms reduction and constructive conflict resolution.

15.The challenge of Genetic Engineering – “Dolly” the cloned sheep has stirred a debate against human cloning. The ethical and legal issues are enormous and we must speak out about the immorality of a science going out of control.

16.The challenge of Water -It has been authoritatively said that the wars of the next century may be “water wars” - wars over water rights and water wrongs. The use of water and wetlands - the wombs that are the cradle of much life are being threatened. A new “Water Ethic” is necessary.

17.The challenge of Garbage - The more the garbage the sicker the civilisation. Landfills and incinerators are not going to help us fully. They either postpone the problem or create another. We have to start eliminating garbage at the product design, process and use level. If not, garbage will ultimately consume us. Just in the Netherlands alone, it is estimated that it will cost US$ 3.2 billion to US$ 5.6 billion to clear toxic dumps and landfills. We don't want to leave such a legacy to future generations. We will destroy their environment, and bankrupt them!

18. The challenge of Information -Information can be expensive. Too often we have to pay for it, but much about ecology is known and free. We have to learn to access it and spread it through the popular domain so ordinary people can benefit from it. A nation wide system of “eco-information” centres and media links can help. We need an “eco-line” as we have a “health line” but hopefully more cheaper and more easily accessible.

19. The challenge of Gender -Today is International Women's Day. We know the economic, physical and social impact of a degrading environment is higher on women. We need to prevent “poisoned wombs” (which is the title of another important book on the environment). Women are also playing a cutting-edge role as environmental leaders in many countries. More women in Malaysia must be encouraged to come out and speak out.

20. The challenge of Eco-Literacy -We need to build eco thinking in a functional way in our schools beginning with kindergartens. Schools must be designed to be eco-friendly. Eco literacy also is more than tree planting and used-paper collection. A greater diversity of “do-able” action must be developed.

21. Lastly, the challenge of Leadership -Society is like fish - it rots from the head down! Leaders at every level will need to begin to make a commitment to help us move forward towards sustainable lifestyles. If our leadership is confusing, contradicting, or clearly careless, then we must not be afraid to speak out.


Malaysia has many good qualities and many things we can be proud of. We are  leaders in many aspects including some of our environmental actions. We need not be defensive about our practices but at the same time we should not hide our inadequacies and failings. You cannot lie about a deteriorating environment. It speaks for itself eventually and forcefully.

I like to end by paying tribute:

  • a tribute to the many courageous environmentalists in this country. We have some of the world's outstanding people but we still do not have enough.
  • a tribute to the many people in government especially the Ministry of Environment who have had the integrity, the competence and courage to undertake their job, often in difficult political and under-resourced situations. The State of the Environment Report of the Government is an example of world quality work.
  • a tribute to the Malaysian media, to the many journalists who have spoken out strongly on environmental issues since Rio. The quality of environmental reports has been outstanding, but of course it continues to be hazardous business.
  • a tribute to those in the business sector, not many, but a growing number, who are making green products, supporting green processes and working sincerely towards a sustainable future. We need more of such green entrepreneurs.

Lastly, Malaysia is guided by “Vision 2020”. Today we are clearly at an environmental threshold. If we are not careful, we can lose control and go down paths from which there is no return or return at great expense. We are in the danger of having a blind spot in our “Vision 2020” if we do not give genuine attention to Agenda 21. “Vision 2020” gave us nine challenges. Perhaps the time has come to add a tenth challenge - the challenge of Sustainable Development, where the caring of the environment becomes an essential part of the caring society.

We need now a Malaysian Council for Sustainable Development to take us forward together in partnership into the next century. Then, perhaps, Agenda 21 can take root in this country in a way that will mean real things for real people, and make a difference to the environment.

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