Interview with Chong Tek Lee and Lam Choong Wah by Dan Abril
Established in 2014, Gabungan Anti-Insinerator Kebangsaan (GAIK) is the result of different organizations uniting to oppose the construction of waste-to-energy (WtE) incinerators across Malaysia.
These four organizations: Selamatkan Bukit Payong, Gabungan Anti Insinerator Cameron Highlands, Jawatankuasa Anti Insinerator Tanah Merah, and Jawatankuasa Bertindak Kuala Lumpur Tak Nak Insinerator (KTI) joined hands determined to convince the Malaysian Government to put an immediate halt to the development of WtE facilities and to instead adopt a more effective and sustainable waste management strategy: Zero Waste.
At the time it was founded, GAIK faced three mega-incinerators. The group managed to succeed in halting the construction of one of these incinerators. However, the Malaysian government hasn’t stopped pushing for WtE incineration and has plans to construct at least one mega- incinerator per state. Today, GAIK is an alliance of 10 individuals and 5 non-government organizations (NGOs) still united in their fight against incinerators.
We had the chance to sit down with GAIK Committee Member, Lam Choong Wah and one of GAIK’s founders, Chong Tek Lee and during our discussion, we explored GAIK’s beginnings, their current actions, the difficulties they face, and their goals and visions for the future.
What are GAIK’s main campaigns?
We are primarily focused on anti-incineration campaigns and Zero Waste.
We are still a small organization and there’s only one partner organization, which is also a GAIA member, Zero Waste Malaysia, that works on Zero Waste so we’re also working on getting more non-government organizations (NGOs) and concerned individuals to get involved.
Since WtE incinerator proposals mostly happen in densely populated areas, we approach residents and help them mobilize against these “monsters”. For the Malaysian government, burning waste is the fastest solution to waste and people should oppose it – as much as we can.
What are GAIK’s biggest achievements and accomplishments?
We successfully lobbied against the construction of a WtE incinerator in one state. In Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, after a series of protests, we managed to convince the authorities to not move forward with the project and then in Johor, the authorities are still carrying on with but we lodged a report at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and urged the commission to probe the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government over their awarding of contracts for incinerator projects. Then in 2019, We also organized a large forum focused on Zero Waste and anti-incineration and planned to have more similar events after.
What challenges are you facing and how was your work impacted by the COVID crisis?
Since we are a very small organization, our resources are very limited. It can also be difficult to locate WtE proposals in the country. Currently, there are at least 13 WtE proposals – one for each region. When one proposal is rejected by residents, the government only moves to another location.
Right now there is one being proposed in Selangor State and is planned to accept garbage from neighboring regions.
It is not always easy to go against these proposals. People are not always ready to fight these “monsters”. People can be scared as authorities take the identification numbers of residents.
The pandemic made it more difficult for us, all our activities were put on hold and so our targets were not met. It is only now – after three years – that we have become fully active again.
What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?
We have a significant problem with single-use plastics (SUPs). We try not to use SUPs such as straws or plastic bags but some tourists and non-Malaysians still need to be aware about the immensity of plastic pollution. Yes, SUPs are used everywhere but you have to lose things to gain better things. There will be a ban on SUPs by 2025 but it needs to be developed further and we need to work with the government on that.
Another issue is that the waste trade is still happening. We often receive news from WhatsApp groups but these are not widely publicized. China, a developing country, was able to ban it. Malaysia is also a developing country and we should also put a stop to this practice because we pay a lot more in terms of environmental damage. A lot of these waste exports end up in landfills. Some activists are trying to put a stop to it but owners of facilities accepting waste exports can have so much power and be able to prevent people from even entering their area.
How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next few years?
We need to increase the number of people and organizations joining us. There are a lot of people practicing Zero Waste but they are not organized. Currently, GAIA members The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), Zero Waste Malaysia, and the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) are potential GAIK members. We need to be united to be strong since it is not easy to go against authorities. That is the solution that we would like to achieve: for GAIK to be a show of force.
We are praying that the Malaysian government will listen to the people and work with them. You cannot go far if your government does not cooperate.
What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now?
What goes on in another country affects us. Like in Singapore, they burn waste and the smoke from their incinerator goes to Malaysia. Unfortunately, there are no organizations in Singapore to oppose incinerators – the government is too harsh.
In some countries, people are too poor and are too worried about their bread and butter that they cannot think about environmental issues. We are hoping that soon, we can all work together as a region and address our persistent environmental issues.
Do you collaborate with partners in other regions? If so, how?
We work with organizations such as GAIA. We joined GAIA’s Regional Meeting in Vietnam last April. We met up with a lot of GAIA members and saw we can build a coalition with other Southeast Asian countries to launch Zero Waste or anti-incineration campaigns. We believe that there is power in numbers and alliances such as GAIA are important. If you want to learn, you need to learn hand-in-hand with other people.
How does your work on waste relate to social justice?
This is really hard for me to answer but then also remember that rubbish is collected and transported to other areas. This is not healthy for receiving communities and so are the working conditions for those involved. Change cannot happen overnight and we think we are helping with our Zero Waste strategies.
Who do you admire most in environmental work (in your country or in the world)?
We admire Greenpeace Malaysia. They work really hard! Mr. Heng Kiah Chun of Greenpeace is particularly admirable. If something comes up, it takes only one message to our group and all NGOs are quick to respond.
To know more about GAIK and their campaigns, you can visit the We Anti Kepong Incinerator on Facebook. The group is actively engaged in campaigns and initiatives to oppose the construction of the incinerator and raise awareness about its potential environmental and health impacts.