GURMIT Singh, 66-year-old environmental activist, says, “There’s never been any stage of my teen or adult life when I wasn’t part of some organisation.”
A prominent student leader in the 1960s and 1970s, Gurmit is former secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia (Hakam). He got into environmental advocacy in 1974, long before caring about the environment became fashionable (though one may argue that, in Malaysia, the environment still isn’t getting the attention it deserves).
Gurmit served the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM) as president for two decades until 1994, but remains an adviser. He is currently chairperson of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (Cetdem), a non-profit committed to “improving environmental quality through the appropriate use of technology and sustainable development”.
The Nut Graph met with Gurmit at Cetdem’s Petaling Jaya office — a partially solar-powered, terrace lot-sized green lung — to talk about where he’s from, what he’s seen, and where he wants us to go.
TNG: We are all pendatang. Where are you from?
Gurmit Singh: I was born in Penang, on 3 November 1942. This was during World War II, when we were occupied by the Japanese.
My parents were first-generation migrants from Punjab. My father came here to work in the police force in the mid-1930s. After WWII ended, my father decided to send my mother, me and my younger sister back to India, thinking that things would be more peaceful there.
But we arrived when the Partition of India and Pakistan started. Punjab was at the heart of the Partition. There were horror stories: of dead bodies being chucked to one side of the Partition, bodies sent to the other side. In 1948, I was back in Penang. I was six.
When I was in school, my classmates were a mixed crowd. They were mostly Chinese, and there were some Indians — but there were very few Malays. I think the profile remained the same until I finished my Upper Six in 1962. In school, especially after 1957, I kept thinking, hey, we should all be Malaysian, we should be Malaysians.
After school in Penang you went to Universiti Malaya…
In 1965, I entered the UM campus. It was very different from what it is now. It was more multiracial, more democratic. The student union was very active, and students had full say on how to run it; it definitely had more freedom than the current groups.
I got involved with the Universiti Malaya Students Union. From there, I was nominated into the National Union of Malaysian Students, or PKPM, and was elected vice-president. In that capacity, I was sent for international meetings.
At that time, there were two international student groupings. One was the International Students Conference (ISC), which was claimed by some people to have been Western-dominated. The other was the International Students Union, which was basically Soviet-dominated. The PKPM happened to be on the steering committee of the ISC. In February 1969, during a meeting in Leiden, Holland, which I attended, the ISC was dissolved: there was no funding for us, and very little political support.
When we came back, there was a feeling — at least among the Asian and Australian students — that we should at least form an Asian students movement. Around April 1969 we convened the inaugural meeting of the Asian Students Conference (ASC) in Kuala Lumpur. It was hosted by PKPM. It was agreed that the ASC’s secretariat would be located in KL.
And that was a month before May 1969.
I actually voted on the day of the elections. Then I took the train back to Penang because it was during the university vacation. We arrived by train and the ferry took us across. But when we arrived in Georgetown, we were told that there was a curfew. They just dumped us at the jetty. This was on 14 May. They told us: “Sorry, there’s a curfew, you find your own way home.”
I was flabbergasted. Then I decided, okay, I’ll walk lah. What choice did I have? My parents, who lived in Batu Gantung, didn’t have a telephone. The streets were deserted. It was something like seven or eight in the morning. When I walked past the Esplanade, I saw a big sign showing all the election results for Penang, and it said that Gerakan had won the state elections. I was quite happy.
My parents and I were confined to the house for the next 10 days. They say there were some riots in Penang, but I personally didn’t see anything.
How did you take up environmental issues? What is the most pressing challenge?
When I was president of the Graduates Society, one of our members, an engineering grad, had come back from the United Kingdom after a course, saying: “Hey, we should get involved in the environment.”
I said, “Ah, what is that?”
But the more I looked into the issues, the more they appealed to many of my other concerns. The environment is more than conservation; it involves issues that look at root causes: corruption, inefficiency, lack of disclosure.
The initial idea for the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM) was to act as a watchdog for the (then-proposed) Environmental Quality Act 1974. One of the first issues we worked on was pollution of the Klang River. We had found out that a report by a British consultant for the Malaysian government had found the river to be quite polluted — but our government had not released the report. We had to shame them to do so, by doing our own sampling of the river, in 1975.
That has been one of our perennial problems: the government hoards information, and does not release it. It’s your taxpayer’s money. Why should such information be confidential? You don’t have to release the whole report — but at least release the findings, and what you are planning to do about it. I remember one minister of agriculture, who — when this issue of transparency was raised in the papers — said, “The moment you elect us into Parliament, we are no longer accountable to you.”
Nobody reacted to that. I was the only one who said, “What? A minister saying that?”
I think that has been my grand old battle.
What do you think of Malaysia, today?
I think my greatest disappointment is that, even after 51 years of independence, we haven’t developed a bangsa Malaysia. I would describe it being about mixed marriages, people not discriminating against each other, getting along.
Over the years, it upsets me to see this segregation according to race, and between Muslims and non-Muslims. It upsets me that people are so conscious about differences. We never used to think: is this cup halal or not? Does the person making coffee eat pork or not?
And an overemphasis on the outward forms of religion has become very pronounced. Tudungs have been quite unnerving, for me. During my campus days there was no such thing as the tudung. Nobody wore them! If you brought someone from then to now, he wouldn’t know whether it was the same Malaysia he grew up in.
My parents were very happy to get citizenship, but I think they applied for their children’s sake. To me, this is my home. I never really picked up Punjabi as a language. If you want to believe in the importance of your mother tongue, fine — but I don’t feel deculturalised. In fact, I resent being reminded that I’m Indian, or Punjabi. People should be dealt with as individuals.
This is my hope for Malaysia: that a day will come when we have real multiculturalism, when you don’t have to specify your “race” and “religion” in a government form.