The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring back in 1962 launched the international environmental movement; one can only wonder what book she would come up with if she were alive to witness the present developing world.
Thankfully, her life’s work inspired a generation of staunch environmentalists around the world over the next few decades. Yet in a world where politics, celebrities and other matters dominate the news and social media, renowned environmentalists and their efforts are neither attractive nor offensive enough to garner public attention.
This is also the case with Malaysia, my native country, blessed with tropical biodiversity and ample natural resources but under threat from continuing urban development. Although public environmental awareness has significantly improved in the country, the lack of genuine action and individual initiatives to address the situation is alarming. The few, ineffective, individual efforts to tackle environmental issues do not mask the general “selfishness” regarding the issue, points out Gurmit Singh K.S., a prominent Malaysian environmentalist and social activist.
It was World Environment Day on June 6, 1979, when he donned a gas mask and raced a car with his bicycle for 12 miles across Kuala Lumpur to highlight air pollution and traffic problems in the Malaysian capital. Nearly 40 years later, the photograph of him on his bike with the gas mask became his most iconic photo and eventually the cover for his memoir, Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist.
The book is obviously unlike Carson’s Silent Spring, which is focused on environmental science. Rather, it is an honest account of Gurmit’s life and journey as an environmental and social activist. While it is a short, straight-to-the-point account of his life, the message he tries to deliver extends far beyond environmentalism. He took almost five years to finish the manuscript amid his busy schedules, constantly dogged by concerns that nobody would want to read such unexciting subjects. He feared that the average individual would turn indifferent once the word “environment” is expressed.
He tells his tale from the moment he was born in 1942 to Punjabi parents in Penang Island, during World War II when the Japanese invaded Malaysia (then Malaya).
“I never really picked up Punjabi as a language.” He recalls during an interview in 2009, regarding his roots. “If you want to believe in the importance of your mother tongue, fine – but I don’t feel deculturalised. In fact, I resent being reminded that I’m Indian, or Punjabi. People should be dealt with as individuals.”
During his school days, he was an active scout and frequently went out with his friends on bicycles to discover new places in the environment. From a young age he was taught by his mother not to waste by recycling cloth flour bags into bedsheets.
Initially an electrical engineer by profession, he graduated from the University of Malaya in 1970 after encountering a few impediments due to his zealous activism in university affairs. By the time the Malaysian government enacted the Environmental Quality Act in 1974, Gurmit had met people from various scientific backgrounds during his job at the Rubber Research Institute and was ultimately drawn to environmental affairs. That was also the year he founded his first NGO – Environmental Protection Society, Malaysia (EPSM), from which he officially began his environmental activism career and never looked back.
About 10 years later in 1985, he would establish another NGO – Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (CETDEM) – which he chairs to this day. CETDEM’s slogan, ‘Always Promoting Sustainable Development’, sums up their ambitious but challenging objectives – to improve environmental quality through appropriate use of technology and sustainable development.
His decorated CV speaks for itself; of the many awards he has received, notable ones include the 2013 MDG 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability Award from United Nations Malaysia, the Green Catalysts Award in 2015, and most recently the 2018 Merdeka (Independence) Award in the environment category.
His outspokenness about environmental and social causes led to a turbulent relationship with the authorities; nonetheless he maintains his humility outside his field of work. I had the pleasure of attending one of his speeches during a CETDEM public forum in 2015, and although we had only a brief exchange of words, he came across as a relaxed and caring individual.
What about the current situation in Malaysia? Environmental NGOs are on the rise, awareness campaigns are overflowing, and countless projects are being introduced to address the unending issues. Yet the results are still to be seen. He reiterates that Malaysians are very good at starting new things but are dreadful at maintenance. Perhaps he is also pointing out the “one-off” projects and practices regarding the environment that have surfaced in the past.
“Everyone thinks planting trees is great. But they forget that trees have to be maintained.” He said during his book launch in 2017. “I now tell people that ‘I will support your effort if you check every six months to see if your trees are alive’”.
With a population of 32 million, it takes tremendous and dedicated collective effort to produce results on improving environmental matters. Beneath the celebrated multiculturalism, biodiversity and great food, there are political scandals, discriminations and selfishness. How are we supposed to focus on maintaining individual environmental responsibilities with so many other distractions playing behind the scenes?
“Too many people are selfish. But we must look beyond ourselves. And we must all take action to solve environmental problems, because governments alone cannot do it. The power is with the people.”
On social issues, he hopes “that a day will come when we have real multiculturalism, when you don’t have to specify your ‘race’ and ‘religion’ in a government form.”
Now 75, he is still visible on the activism front and is a man of his word – living a life with minimal ecological footprint. He resides with his wife, Tan Siew Luang, an organic-farming advocate, in a house equipped with solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system, a composting site and recycling spots. Today, with heavy traffic obstructions a trademark of the capital, he owns no car and depends on public transportation, walking and cycling as modes of travel. Continuing what he started nearly 40 years ago, this is clearly something close to his heart. Of course, he doesn’t expect everyone to live exactly like he does.
“We can all make a difference in however small a way. Don’t buy too much and refrain from buying unnecessary things, bring your own bags when you go shopping and so on. People always tell us they admire us, but they do not do anything on their part to save the environment.”
Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist was published almost a year ago in April 2017, and though concise, the core message is still significant for readers: Malaysia needs to overcome selfishness and tackle environmental problems with determination. Whether you are a fledgling environmentalist or someone with an ambition to better the world, this book is a sincere account from someone who witnessed his country’s relentless march towards industrialisation, and how his resolute passion shaped his journey.