|Pragmatic approach: While Dr Wan Junaidi has been busy reviewing and beefing up the country’s environmental laws, he also wants to see a change in public perception.|
To mark National Environment Day on Oct 22, Sunday Star gets personal with Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar about issues close to his heart – keeping Malaysia green and keeping its people united.
AT 70, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar is sharper than most folks half his age. And, he looks it, too.
Despite his office in Putrajaya being rather warm, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister almost always looks dapper in a tailored suit.
Over two decades in politics has seen the Santubong MP from Kampung Pendam, Sarawak, transition from a public works technician to a policeman, lawyer, Deputy Speaker and Deputy Home Minister, before assuming his new role in July last year.
Since the self-described “emotional poet” took over the ministry, he’s been busy beefing up the country’s environmental laws. From water security and clean air to biodiversity protection, Dr Wan Junaidi has been going through tomes of archaic legislation with a fine tooth comb.
“There will be many more laws coming up, I can assure you,” he says. Clearly the man means business.
Malaysia, he says, can hold her head up high against neighbouring countries because “we’re signatories to many major regional and international treaties and conventions”. But with his legal background, Dr Wan Junaidi knows only too well that the devil is in the details.
The problem, he says, is that we haven’t translated these commitments into local law. Look at biodiversity protection, he says. “We’re a party to the biodiversity convention but we don’t have a law protecting our own backyard. That’s why the Access and Benefit Sharing Bill to protect our natural resources is going to be tabled in Parliament next year.
“If we fail to do this, international law cannot become part of Malaysian law. We cannot do something that’s beyond the laws passed by our Parliament. That’s why when I was appointed minister, the first thing I did was to look at the laws – many of which were outdated.
“How can something drafted in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s deal with the problems of today? Laws are created to solve problems. Once the problems cease to exist or worsen, we must amend the law.
“For example, RM1,000 in the 1970s was a hefty fine, but today, it’s nothing. Courts must be able to impose deterrent sentences. Otherwise, a punishment becomes irrelevant.
“If our laws had been reviewed and updated regularly, it would have solved so many of the issues we’re facing today,” he says, lamenting how the Land Acquisition Act 1960, Strata Titles Act 1985 and National Land Code 1965 needed urgent attention.
The Land and Mines Department, he says, has incurred the wrath of the rakyat because owners of some 300,000 flats and apartments built in the 60s and 70s are without strata titles. People were angry and they blamed the Government.
“I pushed hard for these laws to be amended to make it easier for you to get your strata title, and to make sure that you’re compensated if the Government wants to acquire land underneath your home to install public amenities like pipes and cables.
“When you own land surface, you also own everything up to the sky and right to the bottom. You should receive something if there’s any underground development by the Government.”
You’re responsible, too
“But no matter what laws I introduce, or how big my enforcement team is, effective change can only happen with public awareness because how many people can we catch?” Dr Wan Junaidi asks.
The biggest challenge, he feels, is changing public perception. Malaysians don’t get how important protecting the environment is. They think it’s the Government’s job.
Having a comprehensive legal framework and manpower for enforcement are challenges, but apathy’s a tougher nut to crack.
“We don’t have the capacity to enforce the law as strictly as we want to, so our people don’t care. Illegal sawmills are mushrooming – especially in huge states like Sarawak where there are thousands of hectares of land. They think, ‘Others are getting filthy rich from timber concessions. Why are they special? What’s wrong if I steal a few trees?’”
A hazy affair
The only way to permanently clear the air of transboundary haze is for Indonesia to ban slash-and-burn activities on agricultural land, Dr Wan Junaidi opines. Otherwise, to contain the haze, they must immediately deploy firefighters when a fire breaks out. He, however, denies that Malaysia is “soft” when dealing with Indonesia.
“The best way to deal with them is diplomatically. We broke the biggest impasse in August when Indonesia committed to the ‘haze-free Asean by 2020’ roadmap.
“Indonesia had initially refused to get onboard because another country was taking a very confrontational stance. But I told my officers to keep engaging with them. On the morning of the meeting which I chaired, I joked and kept everything light – as if we were among friends. It was such a pleasant surprise when Indonesia finally agreed.”
Last year, Singapore passed a law allowing regulators to fine or sue individuals or companies for activities leading to haze in the city-state. And in August, Johor Health and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Ayub Rahmat urged the Federal Government to be firm with Indonesia over the haze issue, questioning whether Malaysians can claim compensation from Indonesia if they fall sick due to the haze, and if we could sue Indonesia.
Explaining how saving face is important among Asians, he says threats of lawsuits will never work.
Nor will interfering with Indonesia’s internal affairs.
Proof that the soft approach works is evident this year with Indonesia taking steps to lessen hotspots in the country.
It’s been a sunny September with mostly clear skies so far, unlike the hazy days during the same period last year.
Sarawakians fight as Malaysians
Last year, Sarawakian Federal Cabinet ministers came under fire from Sarawak DAP secretary Alan Ling who had called on them to resign for failing to get equal recognition for the state at the national level. But the critics, Dr Wan Junaidi argues, have never been in the Government.
Such accusations are politically motivated, he insists.
“It’s sad when people think we’re not doing our job just because we don’t shout about it. I don’t see any DAP YBs coming to ask for projects in my constituency.
“They don’t know how much we’ve contributed. Once we’re made a minister, we’re part of the federal set-up that administers this country. We look for ways to assist the less-developed states but we cannot just be championing our homestate,” he says, stressing that many important projects like the Batang Lupar bridge – which will be the longest bridge in the country once completed, the RM241mil Batang Sadong Bridge that’s nearing completion and the RM16bil Pan Borneo Highway have been approved for Sarawak.
He feels it’s unfair to compare infrastructure development between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak. East Malaysia, he says, has low density population with a huge land mass.
“Sarawak is only slightly smaller than the entire peninsula. The peninsula can have all sorts of roads because there’s toll. Here, it’s funded by the Government.
“Only once in my political career was I ever disappointed and that was when despite having a Sarawakian Education Minister for two terms, we couldn’t even build one school in Sarawak.”
Unity isn’t propaganda
The doting grandfather’s warm hazel-grey eyes light up when he reminisces about the early years. Sarawakians, he says, don’t believe in propaganda – unity should come naturally. Having a pagan father live with his Christian and Muslim children in the same house is common there.
And, when Chinese New Year, Christmas or any festive season comes around, everybody celebrates with week-long open houses, he says.
“When I was studying in England, all the Sarawakians would sit together. But the Malays, Chinese and Indians from the peninsula would gather in racial clusters.”
“Sarawakians don’t care about colour, language, culture, religion and labels. It’s how we live. It’s real.”
Quite the charmer, he continued to walk the talk even when it came to dating.
Dr Wan Junaidi, whose wife is Chinese, shows up for every Chinese New Year reunion dinner if he’s in town and takes turns with his brother-in-law when it comes to hosting duties.
“Growing up in Miri, my ex-girlfriends were Orang Ulu, Iban and Eurasian. I was very fair and had brown hair. I was quite a good-looking chap. My first Malay girlfriend was an actress from the peninsula. I still have all the pictures,” he chuckles.
“As far as Sarawakians are concerned, religion is a personal matter. There is no moral police to tell us what’s wrong or right,” he says. Isn’t that the way it should be? - The Star