Why keep silent?

By R. Nadeswaran, The Sun

THIS was the headline in The Telegraph two weeks ago. The article went on to say that new satellite imagery has shown, with demand for palm oil, land has been cleared indiscriminately. “We never knew exactly what was happening in Malaysia and Borneo,” the newspaper quoted Alex Kaat from Wetlands International as saying. “Now we see there is a huge expansion (of deforestation) with annual rates that are beyond imagination.”

A report commissioned by the Netherlands-based Wetlands International says Malaysia is uprooting an average 2% of the rainforest a year in Sarawak, its largest state, or nearly 10% over the last five years and most of it is being converted to oil palm plantations. The deforestation rate for all of Asia during the period was 2.8%. The Telegraph was not the only newspaper that published the findings. Newspapers all over the world cited Wetlands’ figures in their reports. In the last five years, 872,263 acres of Malaysia’s peat lands were deforested, or one-third of the swamps which have stored carbon from decomposed plants for millions of years.

The report from The Telegraph was published on Feb 1. To date, there has been no response from the Malaysian end – the High Commission or the many government agencies that have offices in London manned by highly-paid Malaysian officials. So, for the readers of the newspaper, the assumption is that “Malaysia is destroying its forests for economic gains”.

For long our leaders have said that the Western media is biased and that there has been a concerted effort to discredit palm oil by certain quarters who are interested in pushing for soya oil and other substitutes. That may be true, but is the content of the report true? If so, it must be justified and if it is false, the newspaper must retract its claims.

Then, the elementary question is: Why have we not responded to The Telegraph and given our side of the story? Why have we not talked about controlled felling and the re-planting that our leaders and industry captains have been shouting about for several years? If the claims are false, why hasn’t someone called the Wetlands International’s bluff?

Someone has decided to “keep quiet” until people forget about the reports. But with negative reports appearing periodically in British newspapers, issues like this are not forgotten. On the contrary, they are brought up at regular intervals.

Last week, we had newspapers reporting on the crackdown on Valentine Day celebrations. The Telegraph went with this heading: “Malaysia plans Valentine’s Day crackdown on immoral acts”. It said: “Several Malaysian states are planning a crackdown on “immoral acts” during Valentine’s Day as part of a campaign to encourage a sin-free lifestyle.”

But what it did not say was that the law invoked for the so-called crackdown is not applicable to non-Muslims but it did say: “Authorities will take action against those caught in the dragnet, under Islamic laws that run in parallel with the civil justice system in Malaysia.”

True or false? Is it a parallel system for all Malaysians? Why has no one clarified or pointed out the error? And many people in the UK are convinced that with such strict religious laws, they would not want to come as tourists. The myths and mistakes are causing unnecessary worries to would-be visitors. Religious parties will argue that “we don’t need tourists in our country if they can’t follow our practices”, but the fact remains that tourism brings in billions to the nation’s coffers.

So, while Matrade (Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation) is spending millions in food carnivals which benefit only the restaurant operators in Britain who pay UK taxes, scant regard is being paid to the basic ingredient in Malaysian food – palm oil. Matrade defends its food promotions by saying that this helps sell more Malaysian food products. In view of the negative reports on palm oil and destruction of forests, will they be still interested in palm oil-based food?

The bottom line is that if falsehoods and half-truths are not challenged and put right, the people will continue to believe them and form their own opinions. “We’ll wait and see” is an acceptable principle in the bureaucracy, but don’t wait until it is too late!