Interview: Pioneer Malaysian eco-activist Gurmit Singh on dealing with people’s apathy

With over 40 years of experience, Gurmit shares insights on struggles and progress.

“Maybe the problem is that we’ve been told too many times by the media and advertising to go for convenience, even if it’s at the expense of the environment.” — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Back in 1973, a 31-year-old Gurmit Singh K.S. rubbished environmental activism as a “Western-fed notion”. But less than a year later he was not only convinced of the cause, he became the first president of watchdog organisation Environmental Protection Society, Malaysia (EPSM). He eventually also went on to form the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (CETDEM).

For over four decades now he has been an instrumental figure in bringing environmental causes to the forefront.

From demanding the declassifying of information on pollution, to protesting poor radioactive waste management near townships, to advocating for better transportation policies, Gurmit’s struggles have opened many people’s eyes to how environmental issues are interconnected with other forms of inequity and that it deserves everyone’s attention.

We catch up with Gurmit at CETDEM’s office in SS2, Petaling Jaya, to talk about going up against the apathy of others, the state of pollution, and supporting causes beyond our own personal struggle:

Q: How do you feel about people’s efficiency in mobilising today?

I think there are more people beginning to organise. In the old days, everything was top-down and it was difficult to get people to join you. But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore with social media.

Even something as simple as organising a petition to get 20,000 signatures. That was impossible for us to do in the past. When we used to go out physically to collect signatures, no one would want to give their identification details out of fear for the authorities.

Q: You mention in your memoir that overcoming the public’s apathy was a tough struggle for EPSM. Do you think people are as apathetic today?

I think the apathy is still there. People don’t seem to realise that the stresses on the environment has increased tremendously as population has grown, and as our economy becomes more modernised and intensive. But people’s attitude towards managing their rubbish still hasn’t changed.

They say it’s about changing people’s mindsets. But how do you change the mindset? This is a situation for which I have no real solution.

Latest stories

“Understand the problems you are fighting, and see whether other people are fighting the same issues. Link up.” — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Q: What do you think is perpetuating this?

Maybe the problem is that we’ve been told too many times by the media and advertising to go for convenience, even if it’s at the expense of the environment.

People only become concerned when they personally feel threatened by something. So broader issues like climate change, they don’t feel personally threatened until their house gets flooded or something. So that has been the weakness from then until now. We haven’t progressed beyond the “not in my backyard” syndrome — if it’s in my backyard, I’ll fight it, once it’s gone, I don’t care.

Q: Waste has always been a large part of your advocacy, and you started before plastics was as apparent a problem as it is today. What’s your opinion on plastic pollution movements?

Yes, we focused on rubbish as a whole. Of course plastics was one of the rubbish components, but we didn’t fixate that much on it at that time, because I think the amount of plastics being used or thrown away wasn’t that much at the time. It grew as packaging grew.

Perhaps activists focused on plastics can build up their case so that it links to other environmental issues. People might not care as much about plastic packaging because some people might see it as trivial, but if you can link the affects of plastic pollution to something that affects them directly, then they will be more aware.

Q: Similar to your focus on waste management in the past, when you directed the attention to the Klang River?

We started looking at pollution in the Klang River because at that time we knew there was a report that had come out that said that it was polluted, conducted by a foreign consultant. But the government was not releasing the report. So we went out to collect samples from the Klang River ourselves. To basically challenge the government, and challenge the OSA (Official Secrets Act). So we were fighting multiple issues on different levels.

Latest Buildables

“Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist” was published in 2017. The front cover is of Gurmit on World Environment Day 1979, after a demonstration of how a bicycle can be a more efficient mode of transportation, by racing against a car from Petaling Jaya to Taman Titiwangsa.

Q: What would you say are immediate actions people can take that can have the biggest impact?

Being aware of your ecological footprint. The concept of ecological footprint didn’t exist 20 years ago, but it’s been developed now. You can go online and read up on it. It’s the amount of water you consume, the electricity you use, and the waste you generate. Be aware of it, and see if you can reduce your energy.

CETDEM conducted a study on 50 households in Petaling Jaya ten years ago. We found out that 70% of the energy used by these households was on transport. A car running on petrol generates about 2.4kg of CO2 every time you burn one litre of petrol. So, changing your mode of transportation can make a real difference. But it is also inconvenient to change due to the fact that the public transport system is not adequate.

Q: What advice do you have for younger activists?

Understand the problems you are fighting, and see whether other people are fighting the same issues. Link up.

Collaboration is very important. Solutions may not be identical, but you could provide mutual support. We need to strengthen other people’s causes because all our issues are connected.

Q: Where do you think someone new to advocacy and activism should start?

First know your rights, then exercise your rights. A lot of people don’t seem to care about their rights. I think they should be more forthcoming in saying “we have rights”.

Stay up to date with CETDEM’s activities over on their Facebook page. You can get a copy of Gurmit’s “Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist” over at Areca Books.

Related stories

Latest Sedunia Missions

Latest Buildables