Malaysia: Building solidarity in a time of climate crisis

June 1, 2023
Cheong Huei Ting PSM
Clearing land and trees to build highways has made floods in Malaysia much worse. Inset: Cheong Huei Ting

Green Left’s Chloe DS spoke to Cheong Huei Ting, Central Committee member of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and Coordinator of the PSM’s Environmental and Climate Crisis Bureau. Huei Ting will be attending the Ecosocialism 2023 Conference in July in Naarm/Melbourne.

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Last year’s floods displaced tens of thousands of Malaysians. What has been the government's response?

The floods are getting worse. They used to subside after three days, but now it's getting more serious. After two hours, the floods can reach really high levels. Many lives and properties are destroyed by the floods.

What the government has announced in the budget is a series of measures to deal with the flood, including building more infrastructure to handle it, [and] allocating more emergency forces.

But we think it's not enough. This should have been done earlier.

[I]n this recent budget they focused a lot on electric vehicles — including giving a lot of tax incentives to support EV adoption and charging facilities … We don't think this is a very smart choice to deal with the climate crisis. Malaysia already has a very serious problem of traffic congestion that results in a large amount of carbon output.

One of the reasons these floods are getting worse in both urban and rural areas is that in urban areas, they keep clearing land to build highways and other car-centric infrastructure. Clearing trees and making way for roads means destroying precious water catchment areas. Whenever there is a heavy downpour, there's no place to store the water, that's why floods happen really quickly.

We think that the government should reduce the investment in EVs — the amount allocated for EV adoption (RM90 million) is huge — and we think that they can divert those resources for [flood] mitigation and building more resilient communities to handle other potential disasters like drought, landslides, and more.

In last year’s floods the community response [was] very important because sometimes, if you are trapped at home due to the flood and the emergency forces can't reach you in time, that's where you have to rely on community forces to get you out.

Tell us about the solidarity spirit of #KitaJagaKita (We Take Care of Us)

The #KitaJagaKita campaign began in 2020 during the COVID quarantine period ... A lot of low-income families, manual labourers who earn daily wages or those who don’t have a stable income — couldn't go out to work [during COVID, they] had no income at all. On top of it, these marginalised communities don’t have much social security or even extra income to rely on.

So this campaign started off as a “white flag” movement: let’s say you have kids to feed at home but you have no income, what you do is hang a white flag outside of your house and if neighbours (or aid groups) see it, they will donate food to you. This is a community effort to help each other.

During the floods [at the end of last year], we used this hashtag again to call for community efforts to help the flood victims. We saw a delayed response from a lot of irresponsible politicians, which pushed people to mobilise their own resources.

People with four-wheel drives and boats [made them available to] volunteers to save victims. Other than that, people would [organise] fundraising to buy food, clothes, and other necessities for the victims.

To me, this is a rare display of community solidarity efforts. In Malaysia, especially now with our polarised political climate, we need more efforts like this. The current political climate is very fragmented, with religious extremism [and] racial polarisation.

It's a very important reminder that when the climate crisis gets worse, we only have each other to rely on.

What is the PSM's view on the security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States (AUKUS)?

We have not discussed a lot about this yet. But on behalf of the PSM, our standpoint would be that we are against military buildup, we are against nuclear war and any form of international violence.

As a Southeast Asian country, we are caught in between all these global superpowers that are fighting for influence. The US-China trade war has had an impact on Malaysia's economy because China is one of Malaysia's major trading partners. The government has been treading this line very carefully. They don't explicitly say “we want to stand with China” or “we want to stand with the US”, they are staying neutral.

Tell us about the housing crisis in Malaysia.

Where I am now in Kuala Lumpur (KL), particularly in urban areas, house prices are rising very rapidly. A lot of my friends have taken out huge loans to buy houses.

Another main problem is: our country is stuck in a middle income trap, and wages have stagnated for years. Despite house prices rising so rapidly every year, our income doesn’t keep up with the price inflation. So, people are taking out these huge loans [and] half of their income goes to paying off these loans … it could be 20- to 40-year loans.

Recently, Malaysia announced that they raised the basic minimum wage to RM1500, but it's still not enough. A few years ago, Malaysia’s poverty line income was revised to RM2208 per month, yet the minimum wage still couldn’t keep up.

In PSM’s election manifesto, we call for the government to build affordable housing for low- and middle-income groups, combat property speculation activities and channel resources into government low-cost flat maintenance.

All this while, the government doesn’t have proper planning, because they are just leaving it all to the free market. Property developers come in and build huge buildings — mainly luxury apartments for the purpose of investments … and for rich people to buy them up.

So that's why we call for the government to build more affordable housing. And also we want to propose that the current government housing needs to be improved and upgraded every year.

From what we see, these government apartments are in a very bad state. Not maintained, not fixed regularly, there are a lot of issues. Last week, there was a case in KL, where one of the walls (made of wooden panels) of a public housing unit constructed in the ‘60s got blown away because of huge thunderstorms.

So you can see how vulnerable we are to all this extreme weather. Once again it links to the climate crisis. Our current infrastructures are not strong enough to handle such extreme weather. So we need to regularly upgrade current government housing and build more affordable housing to deal with the whole housing crisis in Malaysia.

Can you tell us about the Orang Asli (Indigenous) communities?

The indigenous communities in Malaysia face [similar] problems as in Australia. They are being displaced from their lands; they don't have much support from the government and not enough compensation; plus all this huge corporate influence on their lands.

Malaysia is a country that relies a lot on its natural resources, such as palm oil, timber logging, petroleum extraction [and more] … these Indigenous communities are being displaced whenever corporations want to clear the land to make way for palm oil plantations or development projects.

But the Malaysian government isn't doing much to support them; although they do have a special government department to protect the rights of the Indigenous people, it's often not enough as it does not represent the voices of most Indigenous communities.

The current laws we have always side with corporations. Corruption is also a huge issue in Malaysia, as are unfair laws and regulations — these two things are always threatening the livelihoods of the Indigenous people here.

[PSM’s] environmental bureau, which I'm in, works closely with the Orang Asli communities. We are also in this coalition of NGOs, activists and also individuals called Gabungan Darurat Iklim Malaysia, which means the Climate Crisis Coalition of Malaysia.

We want to centre the Indigenous peoples' demands, and their solutions to tackle this climate crisis. Because all this while, they are often forgotten from mainstream narratives about protecting the environment.

Although, constitutionally, they are recognised as the original people of Malaysia, they have special rights and all, but still, compared to the Malays, they are forgotten. They also face other issues like forced conversion to other religions and being promised development aid in return.

Any last comments?

As someone in the Global South, it can be difficult to have hope, when your country is facing extreme weather such as heatwaves and extreme floods, and the Global North doesn't seem to care.

I joined PSM so that I have a community that shares the same ideology, so it keeps me hopeful — especially when you see party members fighting for and helping out different communities and getting involved in all these different causes. It does give me hope … this is why I joined the PSM. I don’t want to sit down and watch the world crumble. I want to do something.

What I hope for Malaysians is that — because Malaysians have a very negative view of left ideology — we have to integrate more of these political ideologies into our daily conversations. You can't separate politics from all these issues that we face, everything from environmental issues, racism, to the housing crisis.

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