IF a picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words, then the New Straits Times’ startlingly brutal depiction of the horrendous devastation of Cameron Highlands merits at least ten thousand drops of tears of anger, frustration and despair because those entrusted to protect our precious natural heritage have betrayed our trust.
The wanton destruction of the environment and the disregard for human life all bear the hallmarks of human greed; we were jolted out of our complacency and forced to see corruption in all its ugliness.
No longer do we think that corruption is none of our business; no longer do we dare say, “Why all the fuss when only two parties are involved, the giver and the taker?” And no longer will we be able to dismiss the fact that there are victims whenever corruption rears its head.
The Cameron Highlands tragedy, both in human and environmental terms, has turned corruption on its head. The pristine hill station of the 1960s and 1970s is now a distant memory. My annual Christmas break was usually spent with my family in Cameron Highlands, with its promise of bracing mountain air and country walks in quiet, salubrious surroundings. This yearly ritual, sadly, started to lose its appeal with uncontrolled development that rapidly changed the character of the place.
Overnight, Cameron Highlands, the country’s premier Little England that once had trout in its mountain streams and rose bushes in every garden, took on an ominously grotesque aspect. It was transformed into a noisy, gaudy and boisterous bazaar that could give Petaling Street a good run for its money. I have not been back there for more than thirty years, preferring to treasure in the deep recesses of my memory the Cameron Highlands that I once knew and loved.
The recent tragedy has, as expected, produced a slew of responses, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. In my long and eventful existence, I have heard a few ideas that are clearly beyond the pale, but nothing has quite prepared me for the proposal, that I suppose, could only have been conceived in the cluttered mind of a politician: to plant a million trees over a three-year period as part of a programme to rehabilitate Cameron Highlands that many believe to have been damaged beyond redemption.
I say with all due deference to the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Datuk Seri G. Palanivel, that we are not talking about transplanting hair on a vain politician’s head — a painful enough process as some who have resorted to this treatment will tell you.
A million trees? The mind boggles at the very idea. Audacious and out of the box, yes. But is it doable and at what cost? All this leads me to ask why, with all the empirical evidence staring them in the face, didn’t our enforcement officers do what they were employed to do — enforce the law, plain and simple?
There were quietly whispered hints of “interference from above”, which puzzles me quite a bit because the “Yellow Letters”, according to the sultan of Pahang himself, did not come from the palace because, for one thing, they were not written on the official palace note paper and did not bear his signature. Who is it then that enforcement officers were pointing the finger at?
Whoever the exalted personage might be, he must be exposed because it is vitally important to show our people that there is one law for all. The sultan’s standing and reputation, no less, must be protected and not to be trifled with.
The drama that unfolded on the slippery slopes and the silted valleys of Cameron Highlands has brought us face to face with the debilitating effects of corruption on society.
The reality on the ground is not a pretty sight. It is corruption writ large: if that does not turn our stomachs, then I suggest we deserve more of the same. The time for whinging is over. It is about time we took ownership of the fight against corruption and its attendant problems. I do not think it would be wise to leave such an important matter as fighting corruption especially to politicians. There is no need for elaboration.
Pahang, of course, is not alone of the Malaysian states that can claim a long history of illegal logging and land clearing. Stories, both anecdotal and factual, of corruption in forestry and land offices up and down the country are legion. Sabah and Sarawak occupy top spots in the forestry corruption league table. But, that is a story for another time. It is refreshing to hear the new chief minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, warning illegal loggers that stern action would be taken against them and that he would not tolerate corruption in his administration. I am not, in a manner of speaking, about to put the champagne on ice, and neither am I holding my breath. I do not know of any head of government anywhere in the world singing his heart out in praise of corruption. All politicians would have us believe that they are part of the solution. I should like to see the colour of their money first.
Returning to Pahang, I wonder why enforcement agencies who are paid to prevent these breaches of the law have allowed the situation to get so wildly out of control? The short answer, on the evidence that has long been in the public domain, is that the State of Pahang has been ‘captured’ by influential, almost always, titled crooks with loads of money, howsoever acquired, to seduce greedy and corrupt public officers. If they had only carried out their duties honesty, a great deal of the damage could have been prevented, and the good minister of one million trees would have saved himself a few blushes, and the treasury a lot of money.
A royal commission should be set up now to inquire into the state of corruption in the country as a whole. It is in the country’s interest to gauge accurately the true reading of the nation’s corruption barometer, so that we would not be wasting time and money treating symptoms because we have no clear idea of the root causes of corruption in national life.