— Boon Kia Meng
The Malaysian Insider
Nov 22, 2012
NOV 22 — Humans make history; but never in circumstances and situations of their own choosing. This insightful observation by Marx, as he watched over the social upheavals unfolding in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, is a timely expression on what is happening in Malaysia today.
Have Malaysians ever heard of a group of ordinary, fellow Malaysians — our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, our children — marching slowly but surely, on foot, all 300 kilometres of it, rain or shine, from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka? All united in a common cause: to stop any further environmental degradation in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak, where stopping the Lynas rare earth refinery in Gebeng, and the Murum and Baram dams in Sarawak, constitutes a fundamental demand.
These Malaysian citizens chose to embark on this journey (dubbed “Langkah Lestari”) because for far too long we have collectively as a nation allowed indiscriminate “development” and rapacious capitalistic resource extraction to go on, all in the name of economic growth and wealth creation.
Just witness the rapid decimation of our natural forestry and the displacement of our fellow indigenous Malaysian communities in Sabah/Sarawak and the peninsula. These have become common phenomena and Malaysians know deep inside that the present state of affairs cannot go on indefinitely without irreversible consequences to our common habitat.
It was their spirit and determination that drew me and my friends to join them in their walk for environmental justice. Donning green shirts and a peasant farmer’s hat, we experienced first-hand what ordinary Malaysians can achieve when they organise themselves, a trend that typifies the sea change in people’s attitude and participation in citizenship activism since 2008.
Ordinary mothers arrange lodgings and food distribution, grandpas and grandmas providing moral support with their feet and encouraging words, fathers managing logistic details, while the young, even little children, learn to take their first baby steps in authentic environmentalism and love for the country.
In other words, “Langkah Lestari” epitomises what has been truly essential in any democratic movement for bringing real social change: the twin values of self-organisation and mutual aid. Against these values, no authoritarian state or oppressive regime can stand a chance. Ordinary citizens, learning to organise themselves, little by little, will win the hearts and minds of the majority of the populace.
Make no mistake. The detractors and spokespersons for corporate and vested interests, such as Lynas Corp, will try to justify the viability of their operations on the grounds of economic development and job creation. Malaysian citizens have to judge for themselves whether this “win-win” deal is really beneficial for the country, especially for the residents in Gebeng/Kuantan.
What are Malaysians getting in exchange for the 12-year tax holiday given to Lynas, estimated at RM1.8 billion per annum, not to mention the billions of ringgit of revenue Lynas will generate from these operations? In reality, this is a classic case of neoliberal capitalism in action: the privatisation of profits, whilst socialising the costs, both human and environmental.
In the Lynas case, it is even more farcical, where we have a case of a foreign mining corporation, which is reaping stratospheric profits as a result of the Western Australian mining boom, deciding to externalise its social costs to another country. Instead of acting as protector and guardian of her citizens’ security and well-being, the Malaysian government has abdicated that role for the sake of endless capital accumulation.
It is no wonder that people from all walks of life are seeing through the lies of neoliberal ideology and deciding to leave the sidelines and join this struggle. The patronising dogma of big business that preaches wealth trickling down to the masses is increasingly hollow and losing its ideological hold on the people.
Try telling the Orang Asal brothers and sisters from Sarawak, who are marching daily with their Semenanjung compatriots, on the merits of an unfettered, free market economy that promises prosperity for all. Our indigenous brothers and sisters will tell you about the true face of “economic development”, where countless thousands of them have experienced forced displacement, land grabbing and environmental destruction.
Politicians from both sides wax lyrical about the need for more development and allocation funds for Sabah and Sarawak. They fail to see that uneven development and destruction of traditional forms of living have led to increasing proletarianisation (making them wage-earners, instead of their traditional self-sufficient farming existence) of our indigenous peoples, precisely what a capitalist economy cannot fail but generate.
These are the hard truths made visible by this 300km walk. It forces us to confront the dark, hidden side of our exploitative economy and its unsustainable ecological trajectory.
This brings us back to the significance of this Sunday, November 25, in the history of this nation. The marchers have decided to occupy Dataran Merdeka once they reach there, awaiting the presence of the prime minister and Members of Parliament from both sides of the political divide the very next morning.
Again ordinary Malaysians like them face the arbitrary exercise of state power in the hands of City Hall and the police when the mayor of KL said that no gathering in Dataran is allowed without an application for permit. We know that the upsurge of participation of Malaysians in public protests since Bersih 3.0 is no historical accident. The momentum of people’s movements will only grow stronger and stronger by the day and “Himpunan Hijau 2.0: Langkah Lestari” in Dataran Merdeka this Sunday will be no different. Thousands upon thousands of Malaysians will be there, come what may.
As I sat in the room with our fellow marchers, listening to the children of Bentong sing a song dedicated to their struggle, I felt strangely emotional. It was as if their voices helped us peer into a future of a new Malaysia that is taking shape right before our eyes. Of its shape and detail, no one could tell with any certainty. But one thing is for sure. It will be a Malaysia very different from the present one, burdened by her heavy history of class and environmental exploitation, and ethnic-based political ideologies.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,” the radical democrat Rosa Luxemburg once said. Thank you, participants of Langkah Lestari, for walking and making Malaysians conscious of the shackles that are enslaving us. Thank you, Saudara Wong Tack (the organising chairperson), for reminding all Malaysians that true emancipation lies in our very own hands: “Pilihan di tangan kita!”