MYD Retreat

It all started with the desire to be a part of something meaningful.

Being a fresh graduate from the UK and coming back to Malaysia meant that I could turn over a new leaf. I decided that I want to be involved in anything environmental-related. But starting anew has its challenges and one of it is finding a group of people who share similar interests. Then again, I suppose it’s not much different than finding a society to join in university.

The first time I heard about the Malaysia Youth Delegation (MYD) was during the BB4SCP event in December when one of the delegates was invited by WWF-Malaysia to give a brief talk. MYD is a part of the non-governmental organisation Power Shift Malaysia (or formally, Persatuan Belia Perubahan Iklim) that deals with climate change advocacy and mobilisation. Members of MYD track the Paris Agreement negotiations and engage with the government ministries to basically ensure that they keep their promises.

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At the BB4SCP event in December 2016

Some weeks later in January, they posted an event on their Facebook page – the Post-COP22 forum. As I wanted to learn more about how the Paris Agreement relates to Malaysia, I decided to attend the event. After listening to the panel of speakers, I got to have a little chat with Mr Nithi Nesadurai, the president of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia and took a photo with Dr Gary Theseira, a climate change negotiator from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. That forum sparked an interest in being a part of MYD because I figured that if I wanted to be a part of a movement, I should be a part of a group that does substantial work.

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Those who attended the post COP22 forum (photo by Power Shift Malaysia)
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Dr Gary is the one in the middle with the grey tie (photo by Power Shift Malaysia)

And so, I brushed up my knowledge on the UNFCCC structure as a whole and waited for the time to apply for MYD. That time came, I applied, got interviewed and got invited to the Retreat. Mind you, the application process took me quite a number of hours over a couple of weeks to prepare because I’m rather a perfectionist and I needed to fully understand what I’m signing up for.

The Retreat

On the 15th of April, I drove about an hour to the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus in Semenyih. The purpose of this MYD Retreat was to allow the applicants to have a taste of what being a part of MYD is like. The first day was mostly about introductions, knowing what role MYD plays, what other programmes are being done by Power Shift Malaysia, and what the bloody hell the UNFCCC actually is so that we were all on the same page.

Even though it was mostly presentations throughout the day, I didn’t feel bored at all. It’s most probably because it was a two-way street all the way. It was very relaxed and informal, but we took the subject matter seriously. The presenters were very patient with our questions and I could see how they were very keen to answer them without judgement.

I’m so glad that all of us – participants and organisers – got along very well from the get-go. I guess this proves the point that you can get along so easily with like-minded people. We each hold on to the core value of caring for the environment, so that was the line of connection we had regardless of our differences. We knew that to make a change, we need to work together and help each other out. So, it’s like giving a lift instead of pushing each other off a cliff.

Mind Blown

There was just so much information showered upon us that I couldn’t blame anyone for feeling a bit overwhelmed. But all the information was necessary and it was only the tip of the iceberg. There’s definitely a lot more going on in the climate change negotiation process, and so I think the info presented during the Retreat was either meant to scare us or motivate us. For me, it’s definitely the latter.

I think the most challenging talk for us to process was the one given by Chee Yoke Ling about the disputes between Developed and Developing nations on the climate change negotiation. Yoke Ling is one of the members of the Third World Network (TWN), “an independent non-profit international network of organisations and individuals involved in issues relating to development, developing countries and North-South affairs”. So she’s a BIG deal. I was told that other international youth environmental organisations would die for a chance to meet any of the TWN members. In that case, I consider myself lucky.

Before the Flood

This documentary was screened at 8pm on the first day. This was my second time watching it and I felt quite the same way as I did the first time – angry, frustrated, sad and a bit sceptical. The science is clear, climate change is happening, the solutions are available, and yet as a community, we are still reluctant or slow to change. I get that it’s difficult and that it means altering a bit of your lifestyle, but if we don’t take the initiative, future generations will suffer. That means your children and grandchildren unless you decide not to have children. In any case, I hope you can spare some love for Mother Nature.

Broga Hills

On Sunday morning around 7am, we went to Broga Hills, which was about 5 mins away. This was also a part of the agenda and one that I was most excited about. This was my first time hiking up Broga Hills and I absolutely enjoyed every bit of it! We climbed up until the 2nd viewing point that was 1,150 ft (350.5 m) above sea level. I was quite out of breath by then but felt so accomplished that I sang to the tunes of Sound of Music.

Along the way, we picked up rubbish left by careless people. One of us had thought to bring a black garbage bag. This person knew that there would be trash up there because he had climbed the hill at least 7 times and sadly, there is always rubbish.

The view from atop was a mix of hills and lowland. I could see the majestic hills disappearing into the blue horizon. The lowland area had a mix of trees, shrubs, oil palm plantations, bare red land, and houses. Not very scenic, in my opinion. But I guess the feeling of being on top of the world sufficed in silencing any other subjective thoughts.

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Sharing Session

The rest of the afternoon on the second day was spent listening to the MYD members talk about their experiences going to the COP events and asking them other burning questions we had. I liked the afternoon session because it was personal and insightful.

From this session, I gathered that being the ones representing the youth of Malaysia on an international level is no easy task. There are lots of challenges such as having to attend as many plenary sessions as possible, reporting whatever information gathered on the spot, and dealing with unexpected circumstances such as delayed flights or rejected visas. And as Adrian Yeo, a co-founder of Power Shift Malaysia and MYD, said, “sleep is optional during COP”. Sounds intense!

Not The End

My contribution towards the climate change movement has only just begun. I know that I’m firm with my decision to persevere in this endeavour and I hope to work with the rest of the prospective MYD members in preparation for COP23 in Bonn this year. It’s going to be tough, I know, but as long as I have friends around me to hold me accountable, I’m sure I will work it out. I must always remember that this is not a one-man show. To change something so significant requires teamwork.

And I think I’ve found my team.

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Elephant Sanctuary

On the 31st of December 2016, my cousin and I visited the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang, Malaysia. It was my first time at an elephant sanctuary. Before this, contact with wild animals was in zoos or tourist areas. The last time I actually saw an elephant was a few years ago in Cambodia, and I didn’t just see the elephant – I rode on it.

That was obviously before I had any knowledge of the act of Phajaan or breaking the elephant’s spirit where humans would torture the animal so that it becomes submissive. And that’s how tourists are able to ride on elephants without being killed by the otherwise mighty elephants.

Zoos vs Sanctuaries

When learning about animal abuse, I also learnt about the existence of animal sanctuaries, which are somewhat different than zoos. An animal sanctuary is purely a place for animals to live in their natural habitat, be it forest, savanna, or even just a grassland for domesticated animals that have been liberated such as cows and pigs.

Zoos are commercialised places that keep wild animals in cages for display to the public. Depending on the management system, zoos can be beneficial or destructive to the animals. There are zoos that have a more open concept with large land space and may act as sort of a sanctuary for injured animals. But most zoos are places where wild animals are purposely caught and kept in cages to be publicly displayed for “education” purposes.

I’m not condemning all zoos, as there are ones that actually care for the animals. But the fact is that the universal concept of a zoo is more on exhibition rather than conservation. So until there’s a certain universal law on zoos to make sure the animals are not abused or starved for our viewing pleasure, then I will continue to be sceptical about zoos.

In fact, not just zoos but any establishment that claims to care for wild animals, as this visit to the Elephant Sanctuary has taught me. I understand that a sanctuary may have fences installed for the safety of both elephants and humans. Sanctuaries are mostly under-funded and so they do need donations from tourists. Therefore, certain safety measures are needed to put in place so that humans do not disturb the animals and the animals do not freak out and injure humans.

And what I expected at the very least was that there would be no elephant rides or shows. To my surprise, there were both. The rides were at least limited to only the rangers who take care of the elephants. I could see that this was necessary to guide the elephants, say, from their feeding area to the river for bathing (as you can see in the pictures). One of the rangers also told me that some “breaking” were done but not in a cruel way. He didn’t say exactly how but I just have to take his word that not much torture was imposed.

Well, at least rides were not allowed for tourists anymore, I believe. Before this, I think they did have elephant rides for tourists because if you google this place you may see pictures of tourists riding on elephants.

There was an elephant show, but my cousin and I didn’t stick around to watch because we needed to leave and I couldn’t bear to see it. It’s obviously purely for the entertainment of the tourists. And who knows maybe the rangers had allowed a couple of people to try to ride an elephant during the show.

Relocate or Get Killed

It’s kind of a tragic conflict really. I do believe that the rangers and caretakers of the sanctuary are doing their best to protect the Asian elephants, hoping that they’ll breed and grow in numbers. The rationale for keeping them in enclosures within the sanctuary and not letting them go into the adjacent forest is to protect them from poachers and development. Due to human development, the elephants had to be taken away from their homes which will be destroyed, and if they do not relocate the elephants, there may be a high chance of them being killed by poachers, as the cleared areas become means of access for poachers.

I guess it all comes down to governance. This country puts a much higher priority on economic growth rather than conservation of wildlife and forests. Poaching is a huge issue here and the laws and their implementation are not strict enough, in my opinion. And as the ranger pointed out, funding from the government is scarce, which shows how much care they have on the welfare of wild animals. The people, too, are not entirely faultless. I believe in people power and when there is demand there will be action. Unfortunately, there is not enough demand for conservation as perhaps not many cares about this — it doesn’t relate to them.

But of course, there is still hope. I know that there are people who genuinely care and are doing their parts in wildlife conservation. Things are happening behind the scenes that even I may not know about it. But I know that work is being done. It’s just whether other parties would cooperate or not. My hope is for the majority of the people in any country to just be educated about how our collective actions have impacted wildlife, understand why conservation is important, and develop empathy towards animals.

“There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings – but they are communities like you.” (Qur’an, 6:38)

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