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Spreading the message

Updated Tuesday 15th June 2010

From COP15: President of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia and editor of the ECO newsletter, Nithi Nesadurai, talks about his work in the Malaysian NGO sector.

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Copyright The Open University

Please note: This interview was recorded in a noisy environment, which may affect the clarity of the contributor's words.

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Nithi Nesadurai: And my name is Nithi Nesadurai. I’m President of the Environmental Protection Society in Malaysia. I’m here as part of the Climate Action Network. And what I’m doing in Copenhagen is that I’m the Editor of ECO, the daily newsletter of the Climate Action Network which is published every day at the climate negotiations.

Interviewer:
And how long have you been in this business?

Nithi Nesadurai: Well I do this, the work I do on environment is all voluntary. So I’m actually a public relations consultant where the role I play as president of the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia is a voluntary one.

Interviewer: So how did you first get interested in environmental issues?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Well, just by accident really, and this is already now twenty-six years ago when I joined the NGO which I currently head. I just started working life and I wanted to contribute something back to society, and I was wondering and I thought that the NGOs are the way to do that. I wanted to know which NGO. I was thinking of which NGO to join and I felt that an environmental NGO would be the right one to join, and I was absolutely right.

Interviewer: So it’s actually quite interesting, why did you feel that the NGO route would be more productive than the policy route or the activist route? Not to draw too many lines but.

Nithi Nesadurai: Well in a way the NGO route was also the activist route and. Well that was the sort of avenues which were readily available for interested people in Malaysia.

Interviewer:
How is the situation in Malaysia in terms of environmental degradation? Is it quite acute or is it not? Can you talk about the Malaysian situation?

Nithi Nesadurai: Of course, yeah, sure, I mean as a rapidly industrialising nation there are certainly a lot of stresses on the environment. You know, there’s a whole argument of development versus conservation. So unfortunately a lot of the priority has been given to economic development without too much environmental consideration. Although I think with the pressure that the environmental NGOs have been putting upon the Government I think this kind of attitude is slowly changing. There’s a more holistic understanding of development which also incorporates environmental protection and social development now.

Interviewer:
What do you mean when you say holistic?

Nithi Nesadurai: Holistic is basically not looking at development in a purely economic and monetary sense. That it also incorporates the need to protect the environment because if we basically go and impact the very environment where we live then we can’t have economic development.

Interviewer: So what do you see is the number one pressure affecting environmental degradation in Malaysia right now?

Nithi Nesadurai: Well climate change is a major issue. Then we’ve got the whole broad range of all the pollutions, the deforestation to a lesser extent now and of course a very high energy intensive consumption lifestyle.

Interviewer:
That seems to be a pattern that we see in many countries, they’re unwilling to develop their lifestyles in order to achieve some sort of sustainable development. Do you believe that sustainable development is an oxymoron or that it is in fact a real process?

Nithi Nesadurai:
I strongly believe that it’s a real process and this is a concept my organisation in particular champions in Malaysia. I’m a strong believer in it and I know that it can be done. It’s just that, you know, previously policymaking has not been very transparent. There hasn’t really been that kind of stakeholder consultations which there should have been. But I think again this is changing, the consultation process is much more sophisticated now and it provides more opportunities for NGOs like ours to give our inputs.

Interviewer: What would you say is the impact of technological developments on that consultation process?

Nithi Nesadurai:
What?

Interviewer:
Technological developments, so social media and with the swiftness of communication that we have, has there being an impact on the consultation process?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Totally, totally. This has generated change in unprecedented manners especially in the political arena. In our elections last year these sort of the new media in particular led to unprecedented change in the electoral landscape, and I think this is also the reason why there’s more than ever youth getting involved and getting seriously concerned about climate change in particular and the 350.org would be a very good example of that.

Interviewer:
And so can you talk about the role that, the way that your NGO uses technology in order to impact this process, is this something that you personally or professionally do? Do you blog, do you Twitter, do you Facebook?

Nithi Nesadurai: Yeah. Basically our organisation again is 100% volunteer run. So we’re a bit slower in these tools and all that. But we’ve just basically gone into the Facebook as a means of attracting members. We haven’t really gotten into the twittering and the blogging yet.

Interviewer:
Let’s go back to Copenhagen for a second. What do you see happening around you here that gives you hope or gives you despair? What are some of the main trends that you see emerging from this week’s negotiations?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Actually there’s very little to see where hope is concerned. You know, we’ve come here that the only way that we’re going to progress in a manner where the climate is cared for is for the major emitters to come here and make declarations on how much cuts they’re going to make in their emissions by 2020 and by 2050. This has not being forthcoming. Particularly the US continues to be a stumbling block and because of the dynamic to keep the United States within the system this is leading to all kinds of positions which are unsatisfactory in the sense that the European Union will not take a move until they know what the United States is going to do. So all this is not very good for the climate unfortunately. So if you look at it from that sense, I mean the goal here’s to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. To do that we need at least more than 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 by the industrialised countries. We are nowhere even close to that target, unfortunately, so.

Interviewer: We have a few days left, what do you think might happen in those few days?

Nithi Nesadurai: Well, I think there may be a change for the positive when the heads of state and the heads of government turn up, because I think that they know that, again because of all the new media tools, the technology tools, the world has, there has never been such a significant environment meeting I think ever in the history. You know, the world is really watching Copenhagen. And I think the leaders will realise if they come here and they walk away with a weak deal they’re going to be held accountable and shamed by the people. They can’t fool people anymore. The people, the world is watching and they need to deliver.

Interviewer:
That actually sounds like a very optimistic message at the end of the day.

Nithi Nesadurai: After the sort of a message of gloom. But, you know, at the end of the day I think if you leave it to the government representatives to come up with a deal on our behalf it’s not going to happen. The only way government representatives are going to come if they get the directions from their political leaders, and that political for the political leaders, the political will, will come from the public. And this is where we have a very significant role to play. We can’t just let our government bureaucrats do the best for us; we need to make sure they do the best for us.

Interviewer:
And what do you see, when you look into the future, when you look at say the next one year, five years, ten years, what do you see is the main trends emerging?

Nithi Nesadurai:
With regard to?

Interviewer: With regard to environmental issues and advocacy?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Well I think water shortage is going to be a critical issue. We’re going to be faced with this very strange situation where we have water shortage on one side and floods on the other, you know floods and droughts. And I still see a trend in energy consumption increasing as well, which actually has sort of deleterious effects on the climate.

Interviewer:
Who do you think has the largest role to play in regulating energy consumptions, is it private sector, public sector, civil society, politicians, where do you see them?

Nithi Nesadurai:
I think, well basically the policy has to come, clear policy has to come from the Government in the first place, and I think the private sector, if it sees the policy is clear and strong, it will respond.

Interviewer:
Can you tell us a little bit about the Malaysian case? What the policy situation is in Malaysia right now?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Certainly. The policy with regard to, see if I refer to climate in particular, it’s being developed. It is not sophisticated at all; in fact there really is no policy at the moment. Although things I think again are beginning to change and, as a result, I think what has happened in Malaysia is that the private, again because of the pressure being put on by NGOs, the private sector’s decided to lead without waiting for a signal from the Government. So, for instance, the property developers have come out with a green building index, so as a means of introducing energy efficiency into the building sector, and if you look at the World Energy Outlook 2009 they highlight that it’s through energy efficiency that you’re going to get about, you can get up to about 67% in emissions reductions.

Interviewer:
Across the country?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Across the, well this is a global figure, so it’s across the globe actually.

Interviewer: That’s a remarkable figure.

Nithi Nesadurai:
Yeah. So there’s a tremendous role for technology, and I’m glad that in this instance the private sector has taken the lead. Of course the other part is the motor vehicular emissions reductions. That will be a bit harder.

Interviewer: What do you see is the best form of connection between the private and public sectors? How do you see a facilitation of that?

Nithi Nesadurai: Well I think that the way I mean, I would like to see public, private, civil society consultations as well as with academia. And the only way is to have mechanisms where the relevant ministries or departments have open dialogue maybe two or three times a year as a matter of practice. That’s the way I see it happening.

Interviewer: Would your organisation be willing to host this dialogue?

Nithi Nesadurai:
We certainly would and we have done in the past where we’ve taken the lead.

Interviewer: And what were the outcomes?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Quite positive, you know, I mean I think there’s a lot of good meaning, but then it always comes down to the implementation. And that implementation leads to directives from the very top political elite; I mean from the Prime Minister downwards.

Interviewer:
So you would say you have to have both the top down and the bottom up?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Very much, very much, yeah. From the bottom, I mean I’m a great supporter of the bottom up approach because that’s where you can see results very quickly. You see results and it’s very motivating. And that’s where you can actually build the base to create the political will. At the same time, if you approach the people at the top, and they understand what you’re talking about, they could bring about change in manner, you know, with the stroke of a pen, by the stroke of a pen.

Interviewer: And how do you see regular elections in which administrations come and go affecting the process? Elections can be very dangerous things?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Yeah, well, you know, I mean we have the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy with a civil service which is independent of the ruling political parties. So I think, you know, having a two party system for instance where one changes from election to election is all right because at the end of the day it’s the civil service which sort of implements the policies.

Interviewer:
Let me ask you one last question, that’s slightly from left field. Would you describe for us your own personal landscape, the landscape in which you grew up?

Nithi Nesadurai:
Yeah, certainly. I’ve always been very conscious of the environment, and I think a lot of the thinking, a lot of the influencing on my own values have come from my parents. When I was ten years old the whole family decided to become vegetarians, and then we’ve always been very conscious of energy, you know, keeping and minimising the use of energy in the household and water. No organic waste leaves our house; it all goes into a compost. And I also have decided to work from the house so that I don’t have to spend, do the commute and thereby save a lot of petrol. We’ve done a survey where of the energy consumption in a typical Malaysian middle class household 72% of it comes from actually their petrol, more than your, of course in Malaysia air conditioning is a big cost, more than your air conditioning, more than your refrigeration, more than your water heating, 70%. So this also highlights the crying need for an important public transport system, which we don’t have.

Interviewer:
Which is a dialogue between also architects and planners?

Nithi Nesadurai: Indeed, indeed.

Interviewer:
Does your NGO reach out to architects and planners?

Nithi Nesadurai:
We do very much. We were the first organisation to introduce the concept of Local Agenda 21 in Malaysia, which is an action blueprint for sustainable development at the level of the local community, and when you do that invariably the first group of people you come in contact with are the planners, the architects, the engineers and the municipal administrators, municipality administrators.

Interviewer: Sounds like a remarkable conversation.

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