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A Fish Rots From the Head Down: State Corruption Wreaks Environmental Havoc in Malaysia

Following a corruption scandal involving the prime minister, Malaysia faces economic and environmental turmoil.

Severe environmental pollution off the coast of Kuantan in Malaysia, suspected as a result of the work of uncontrolled mining of bauxite, could threaten marine life and local residents. (Photo: karlstury /

“A fish rots from the head down” – a proverb often cited by analysts and whistleblowers – rather perfectly illustrates the situation in Malaysia at present.

Following a corruption scandal in which Prime Minister Najib Razak was indirectly accused of misappropriating approximately $700 million from 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, Razak has promptly fired what appears to be half of his government – including the deputy prime minister and the attorney general in charge of investigating the allegations – citing a wish to create a “unified team.” Conveniently, those fired were the very individuals questioning his legitimacy and guilt.

The past 12 months have plunged Malaysia into a quagmire of corruption and economic turmoil. The country’s currency, the ringgit, has plummeted to a 17-year low. Investors are fleeing. The stock market has fallen off a cliff and the country is Asia’s worst performer over the past 12 months. Razak appears wholly unconcerned if all his workers fell off a cliff, too, as the country’s human rights record remains characteristically awful.

And while the United States took Malaysia off its list of worst offenders in the realm of human trafficking in July, moving Malaysia to the “tier two watch list” on the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report, this decision was widely viewed as a political one to smooth the passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement between the United States and 12 other nations, including Malaysia. There have been few actual improvements on the maligned palm oil plantations and in putting an end to the trafficking business. This bureaucratic fiddling is hardly going to help Malaysia improve its image of corruption, particularly in the wake of Razak’s alleged monetary indiscretions.

As if economic turmoil and human rights disasters weren’t enough, Malaysia is also repeatedly shooting itself in the foot with its environmental policies – or, perhaps more accurately, its lack of environmental policies. A spate of unregulated mining and logging is depleting Malaysia’s natural resources, supporting the human trafficking racket and creating long-term problems Malaysia will have to face one day.

Following Indonesia’s ban of raw resources exports in January 2014, an unregulated and illegal bauxite mining industry came into existence within Malaysia to fill the gap. Malaysia now exports a high quantity of bauxite ore – the main component of aluminum – primarily to China. Forecasts predict the nation will ship approximately 10 million tons of bauxite ore to China in 2015, a huge jump from the 1.27 million tons it exported in the first nine months of 2014.

Illegal bauxite mining, or in other words, mining that lacks any monitoring and health and safety guidelines, is well-documented as a hazardous activity to human health and the well-being of the environment. The practice of illegal bauxite mining has no regard for the sustainability of the industry, and contributes significantly to deforestation and marine contamination, threatening the biodiversity of the Malaysian environment.

Equally worrying, the dust released from the mining process has been proven to cause cancer if not treated carefully. The byproducts (most considerably the “red sludge,” which is known to have radioactive qualities) have a tendency to find and pollute water sources, including the food chain that exists within them. In regulated industry, bauxite ore byproducts undergo stringent waste management procedures in an attempt to mitigate their radioactive nature. The same cannot be said for unregulated industry; it is very possible that current levels of illegal bauxite mining are polluting Malaysian water sources with dangerously radioactive material.

Malaysians are calling on the government to put in place health and safety guidelines to constrain the environmental devastation caused by the illegal industry. Upon instruction of Prime Minister Razak, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was scheduled to visit several bauxite-mining locations in Kuantan in August 2015 to decide their future.

However, in a not-too-shocking comment, Pahang First Minister Adnan Yaakob hinted at the rationale behind a decision to continue operations at bauxite mines in the Kuantan region. He suggested that the state government took the matter seriously, but “could not close down the bauxite mining operations immediately since it also generated income for some people, [including] lorry drivers, workshops owners and small hawkers around the bauxite mining operation areas.” While acknowledging that part of the problem stems from truck drivers who do not adhere to regulations and use public roads for the transport of the bauxite ore, polluting everything from shops to homes of their way, a solution has yet to be proposed.

Following Jaafar’s prime-minister-appointed visit, the illegal operators and mines, of course, have yet to be shut down. What was that about fish and rotting?

Endemic corruption and the destruction of the environment are intricately linked. Without proper regulation, sustainable development will be thrown aside in favor of get-rich-quick schemes, at the cost of human life and the protection of the environment. Such regulation cannot occur until the government takes a good, hard look at itself, making changes to stamp out corruption in leaders benefiting from these profit-driven exploitations.

Malaysia may soon realize it is sinking into polluted waters and has no trees left to build a raft to stay afloat. It may also soon run out of workers to paddle the country’s corrupt and powerful. But at least it will have the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and a tier two human trafficking status, courtesy of the United States.

Malaysia has the opportunity to develop in more sustainable directions, but until the prime minister accepts responsibility for the current crisis, launches a legitimate and transparent investigation into the corruption allegations and promotes sustainable growth and development for the nation, the country will be tarnished with a bad reputation, a degrading environment and fleeing investors.

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