HE’S not quite what I had in mind when it comes to being an environmental champion. Nondescript and looking very much like your resident Chinese uncle you’d come across (and immediately forget) in a kopitiam, Akata Yang Khuan Chi is anything but typical – once you get to know him. And I find myself having to adjust my expectations of what a green hero looks like.
No dashing cavalier mouthing off pithy phrases about saving the world. No worldly-wise ‘David Attenborough’ sage giving a lecture on why we need to protect our forests. He’s neither. The only apparent “green” thing about Yang is his olive green shirt. At least he’s dressed the part, I reason to myself. Bulging unfashionable fanny pack strapped around his waist notwithstanding.
His weather-beaten face breaks into a wide grin as he extends his hand out in greeting. “I’m Akata,” he says simply by way of introduction. And then there’s silence. He waits for a question. I wait for a ‘save the world’ introduction. We get neither, and I’m not sure who’s more disappointed. “Well I’m no green hero!” he protests with a nervous chuckle, shrugging his shoulders.
But then again, no one sets out to be a hero or champion. At least not Yang. In search of something meaningful, he found his footing in the field of sustainability and the former mechanical engineer hasn’t looked back since. Green farming, organic produce, sustainability are words he bandies in his role as an advocate for environmental sustainability. A far cry from his not-so-distant past, where he says bluntly: “I earned a lot more money!”
Far from his home down south in Johor, Yang is in town to collaborate with GMBB Mall – a new creative mall located in Jalan Robertson, Kuala Lumpur – to promote a “Green is Good Market” where over 40 local and international vendors will be selling ‘green-friendly’ products and where Yang will be conducting educational and interactive workshops focusing on environmental sustainability.
BIRTH OF A HERO
Born in Kedah, Yang tells me he didn’t set out to be a mechanical engineer. “Back in the days, I didn’t have much of a choice really,” he says, confessing sheepishly. “I didn’t do well in my Bahasa so I couldn’t enter Form 6!”
The eldest of the family, Yang was sent to a polytechnic school in Ipoh to pursue his studies, and so that’s exactly what he did, he shares, with another shrug of his shoulders.
“We weren’t well off,” he reveals. “My father was a newspaper vendor, and I usually helped deliver his papers before heading to school.”
Life was pretty unremarkable. “Back then, you just want to get a good job and earn lots of money,” he says pointedly.
He moved to Kuala Lumpur and worked there for a couple of years before heading to Johor, where he ran a business with his university mate, designing and building industrial ovens.
If I’m waiting for an interesting “turning-point” that changed his outlook completely, I don’t get it. There’s no dramatic story, no ‘coming of age’ moment. I look disappointed and Yang looks uncomfortable.
“I loved being in nature,” he offers finally, hoping to appease my disappointment. He tells me he signed up and took part in many of the outdoor programmes that were organised by the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sports.
“I learnt kayaking, rock climbing and took part in a whole load of outdoor activities,” he recalls, smiling. But the activities ceased when he moved down south after five years in the capital city.
Moving to Johor, Yang focussed on his business and building his family. “Life was pretty much clear cut back then,” he says, adding candidly: “I got married, and I had children – two girls and a boy. It was all about making money and raising my family.”
But eventually, he tells me, he decided to change his outlook and venture into something more meaningful. “I worked in an eco-resort and soon decided to dabble into environmental education,” he confides.
That’s quite an about-turn, I comment. He agrees, replying: “You begin to notice how the environment is being degraded slowly. Our lives aren’t getting any better and I figured, why not change?”
Surely there was a turning point, I insist. “You can’t have just thrown in the towel on your business and go green completely!” I exclaim. “I kept my business running,” he corrects me. Then he goes silent. “It was my father,” he says finally. There’s a catch in his voice. Silence again, as he collects himself.
“My father had Alzheimer’s,” he confides, breaking the silence, eyes glistening. Yang was the primary caregiver and watching his father’s eventual decline and finally succumbing to the degenerative disease after more than a decade, had him questioning his own life path. “Your perspective tends to change after losing a parent,” he explains softly.
What is money, when the quality of life is lost to illness? “I realised that life was too short to chase after money,” he muses, adding: “I wanted to change my life and pursue something more meaningful.”
His mum is now battling the same disease, he reveals, his voice heavy with emotion. “My siblings and I recently had to make some hard decisions about her care,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes when we think of how they (his parents) managed to raise us four siblings, but we’re finding it so tough to take care of them now.”
His mother is now bedridden, being cared full-time by professional caregivers. He grows pensive as he tells his story, and then after a moment’s silence, he reiterates: “I had to do something meaningful.”
A MEANINGFUL LIFE
Doing “something meaningful” didn’t come easy, he admits. “My wife wasn’t very happy of course!” he says, with a rueful laugh. “Who wouldn’t be upset when the income isn’t as lucrative as before?” Yang joined an eco-resort for a year, where he got the experience of running a sustainable business.
“It wasn’t difficult,” he insists, adding that his mechanical engineering background enabled him to understand the technical rudiments that went behind running a resort. “For example, I could understand the mechanics behind running a hydro-generator because of my engineering background. Still, it was a learning curve but I enjoyed it.”
His first-hand experience in being a caregiver for over a decade led him to research about organic farming and the effects of pesticides on the food we consume. A range of chronic health problems, he says, have been linked to exposure to pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. “When I think of my parents, I sometimes wonder if their condition had anything to do with the food they consumed through the years,” he says heavily.
Synthetic chemicals, he explains, are found in nearly everything we touch and consume. But some chemicals can be potentially harmful and a number of experts are anxious about possible long-term health effects of our everyday exposure.
Says Yang: “You can reduce your levels of exposure to these chemicals but you can’t completely eliminate these exposures because some of them are found in environments we can’t control.”
But there were things within his control, he says. He planted his own vegetable patch at home and soon got himself linked with organic farmers around his vicinity.
“I did my own extensive research on organic farming and I also enrolled in courses on permaculture and agriculture to equip myself with knowledge,” he recalls, adding: “The more I learnt about sustainable farming, the more I wanted to share that knowledge with as many people as possible.”
He soon crafted little tours for students to be introduced to the mechanics of organic farming. “I brought in kindergarten and primary school students into farms and showed them how food is grown,” he tells me proudly.
Through his school tours, he adds, the students build a real connection and relationship with the world in which they live. If children don't have this relationship, if they don't feel the soil in their hands, then it really doesn't matter to them. They won't care where their food comes from.
Shares Yang: "If we're really serious about teaching green issues, not just climate change and energy consumption, but actually understanding the whole process of how food is actually produced, then they’re not going to make considered choices in what they eat and what they buy.” And we have to start educating them from young, he insists.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
I could tell that education remains a venture that’s close to Yang’s heart. After all, he picked his name “Akata” because he wanted his students to call him by a simple name. “I didn’t want them to call me teacher or ‘uncle’!” he exclaims with a laugh. The name “Akata” in Balinese means “not artificial”. “It somehow resonated with me - so it stuck!” he explains, smiling.
He organised a platform to sell organic produce called the “Green-U Market” and even dabbled in sustainable farming himself. “When opportunities present themselves, you just grab hold of it and try,” he remarks. In recent times however, Yang has ventured into yet another aspect of organic farming.
He joined Medini Green Parks development, an urban green space which boasts of two major forest landscapes – edible park and heritage forest. “It’s an exciting venture,” he reveals excitedly. “The message of sustainable farming is now reaching a larger audience.”
Tucked in the heart of Medini city in Iskandar Puteri, Johor, the Medini Green Parks aims to promote sustainable farming, as well as providing a green sanctuary of sorts for Malaysians – Johoreans, especially.
“I gave up my farming to take up this new adventure,” he says.
So no more farming? I ask.
“Still got!” he replies blithely. “It’s taken on a different angle now that I’m part of the management team for the park!” The 57-year-old hasn’t looked back since.
“People said I was crazy when I first wanted to do something meaningful,” he says ruefully. “My income dropped quite a bit when I ventured into this field. But then I ask myself, how much money does it take to make your life meaningful or happy?” He pauses before answering his own question: “Money can’t buy you happiness or good health.”
Nothing in his life was mapped out or planned, he insists, saying: “It’s simply a case of making a change and trying to live as authentically as you can.”
As his name would suggest, Yang is all about making a difference the best he can, without artifice or illusions of grandeur. Even if he wears a fanny pack and doesn’t remotely look the part of an environmental advocate, Yang is content to spread the message of green sustainability in any way possible. And sometimes, that’s exactly what green champions do.
GREEN IS GOOD MARKET
Where: GMBB Mall, No.2, Jalan Robertson, 50150 KL
When: July 20 to 21
WORKSHOPS LED BY AKATA AT GMBB MALL:
21 July |2.30pm – 4pm | RM40
Allow people to create a micro-ecosystem to better understand how the eco-system works and hence appreciate the environment better.
20 July | 7pm – 8pm| RM35
Participants will choose a few herbs and flowers to pound onto a piece of unbleached fabric. This workshop makes you explore using your five sensory senses and learn the other attributes of plants such as the use of natural food colouring and essential oils/fragrance.
Organic Tempeh Workshop
21 July |11am – 2pm|RM90
Learn to make organic tempeh, a local heritage high protein superfood using a traditional and zero-waste method. You will learn how to dehusk the bean, apply the ragi (tempeh starter), then wrap it in the foraged Simpoh Air Leaf. This workshop is suitable for adults only.