Of Rivers and Badly Written Articles

A deconstruction and reconstruction of an article titled “The rivers continue to die” by Nurris Ishak and Nisha Sabanayagam in pages 6 and 7 of the New Straits Times on October 30, 2006 in an attempt to show how inadequate thinking obscures important yet under appreciated points that its material may have to offer.

Today October 30, 2006, the New Straits Times had a “Spotlight” on the pathetic state of our rivers. Nurris Ishak and Nisha Sabanayagam write about how the “Love Our River” Campaign organised by the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) and the Department of Environment “has sunk”; the quoted phrase being a half hearted attempt at striving for something resembling literary wit. I am singling out this article because it exemplifies how a shallow consideration of the issues involved obscures the stronger argument or point that can be made with the same material, or as I like to call it the “dangerous idea” within. What I seek to demonstrate here is that with the same material, I will come up with a more thorough consideration of the issues, extract and polish the stronger points than those two reporters did (as far as I’m concerned, journalism died with M.G.G. Pillai). The inherent lack of quality that pervades the article typifies what passes off as journalism in Malaysia. But I get ahead of myself.

My beef with the article is that it is insipid, shallow, distracting and not searching enough. There were no real attempts at asking why the Campaign failed, or questioning just how reasonable the answers they got from the authorities are, or whether it was a good idea at all in the first place. So let’s start with the latter and a declaration that I knew nothing of the Campaign until I came across the article.

The aim of the Campaign was supposedly “to promote public awareness of the importance of rivers and highlight the critical state of river pollution.” First note just how low the aim was. All it seeks to do is create awareness and show how messed up our rivers are. If the public became aware and lamented about how polluted our rivers were then the Campaign would have been a success. And they couldn’t even get the awareness part right. That the rivers have become more polluted since the campaign speaks for itself.

DID river section director Cho Weng Keong apologetically asserted: “Let’s put it this way. Without the campaign, the situation would have been worse. Since 1993, the population has grown, and with it, more rubbish and more pollution.”

Hey, Mr. Cho, how about I put it this way; why don’t you give me some hard figures to justify what you say, because I don’t believe you. Better yet, how about you just tell us just how much worse it would have been without that Campaign? The reporters then wrote that Mr. Cho quickly added, “It has not got worse or better, the situation has been sustained.” So what is it now Mr. Cho? Is it worse or not worse? And if it has been sustained, what caused it? No, Mr. Cho, put down that glass of water from Sungai Juru, Penang. And yes, Mr. Cho, it is impossible to have facts in violent contradiction to each other exist anywhere other than inside your head.

Now the second thing to note is how there is nothing about how to love our rivers. After being plagued by the awareness that the Campaign has agitated, what as a citizen, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, et cetera, can I do to love, protect and maintain my rivers? What are you guys in DID and DOE doing to help me love my rivers better? Do the local authorities love their rivers too? (read further for answer!)

One would have thought that a Campaign costing millions of ringgit (the article doesn’t say how much) would have spent most of their efforts on this part of the Campaign since this is where the effectiveness lies. If I just stand around telling people I love my rivers but don’t do anything ,then the rivers are still going to get polluted.

The DID and DOE seemed to think once awareness is achieved it would serve as a catalyst and spur development in our society for the preservation and proper maintenance of our rivers. That’s not planning, that’s wishful thinking. But there is not even a mention in the article about this glaring absence from the Campaign.

More importantly, the Campaign proceeded on the premise of wishful thinking when it should have asked the most pertinent question: Who are the biggest river polluters? The reporters know this: “Wet markets, landfills, slaughterhouses, squatters, industrie,s and old houses are the main contributors to river pollution, where their untreated sewage flows straight into the river.” Clearly the DID and DOE should have focused their efforts on these areas instead of the general public because these were the priority. That they went on a general public campaign is terribly puzzling if it were not for one crucial fact. The Campaign’s cost was a lot; at least RM 10 million was spent. And you know that when there are large of sums of money involved, the specter of corruption is sure to cast a shadow on the proceedings.

So where did the money go? The reporters report:

DID section assistant river Ahmad Darus said the department had spent RM 10 million during the campaign on ‘site activities’ which included landscaping – building walkways and gazebos for the public. Between 1993 and 2003, an average of 35 rivers a year were monitored, and gotong-royong and landscaping activities were carried on an average of 23 rivers, he said. In 1993, RM 100,000 was spent on billboards. An additional RM 50,000 was spent in the subsequent years, said Ahmad. More than a thousand awareness seminars were also held in schools nationwide.

In sum, all that money was spent on landscaping, organising cheap ass gotong-royong sessions, billboards, and awareness seminars in schools. He might as well have pocketed all that money. I would like to know which psychologist or consultant the DID and DOE consulted that verified spending money on these “things” would encourage the general public to love and care for their rivers.

In fact, what preliminary studies did they carry out before they decided that these were good ideas? And I can tell you that most of the monies went towards the “site activities” and billboards because that’s where I call the “flashpoint of corruption” lies. Construction and advertising are just two areas of money where kickbacks and corruption often occur because it can be easily camouflaged by inflated costs.

How about using all that money to hire more officers, private investigators, more sophisticated forensic and detection equipment, more boats, or to build stations along the river, etc.; i.e. spending money on more direct and effective measures? And all that crap about gotong-royong and schools is utter rubbish. We know how these gotong-royong sessions are just like panas-panas tahi ayam (hot chicken shit) and that more often than not school kids will forget all those “awareness seminars” the next day.

You will also note that nowhere in the article does DOE or DID claim any blame for the sad state of affairs. Instead, in typical Malaysian fashion, they point at a scapegoat. In this case it’s Indah Water Konsortium (IWK). The article cites a “DOE source” who said, “Some of its water treatment plants do not meets the standards. It has 10,000 water treatment plants and it is expensive to maintain them. IWK needs to upgrade its technology.” Now I don’t like IWK but I think that the “DOE source” has the wrong end of the stick. IWK are down-liners. They already get the polluted water and have to treat it before distributing it.

And for good measure, the DID now claims then claims that “it was fighting an uphill battle [comment: as if fighting downhill were so much easier]. Ahmad said the DID was a lone ranger running a campaign which require the participation of others, including the local authorities and the public.” So clearly, this Campaign was so miserable that not only did the public not help, the local authorities didn’t bother!

“There is no proper commitment from these parties,” complains Ahmad some more. But I think Ahmad should be asking that question of DID and DOE first. What is their commitment to saving our rivers besides spending vast sums of money on activities which have no direct bearing on stemming the polluters? And what about their enforcement activities? How are those working out? Have DID and DOE lobbied for higher penalties for river pollution? There is nothing about their commitment and track record in the article.

Now let me summarise several points that can be extracted from the article: (1) The Campaign was strategically wrong from the beginning (2) Its aims were too low and shallow (3) A lot of money was spent on the wrong things (4) There was no discernable sense or reasonableness in the issues to consider when the Campaign was finalized (5) The people in DOE and DID don’t know what they are doing (6) There’s probably corruption going on in the implementation of the Campaign.

Now, is it any wonder the Campaign was destined for utter, miserable, and conclusive failure? Is it any wonder that there were more rivers polluted since the Campaign began; that more than half of the 400 rivers in Malaysia are stained? With such thorough and complete mediocrity polluting the DOE, DID, local authorities, and media, is it any wonder that our country is deteriorating right before our eyes?

But despite all this, I am pleased with the article on one level. Its insidious mediocrity mirrors the state of our polluted rivers in where we are going and what it will smell like. That’s right people, the future stinks.

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Posts by Fahri Azzat

Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 30 October 2006. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to Of Rivers and Badly Written Articles

  1. Janetlee

    Wow… Fahri Azzat.

    If a Genie tells me that I can have only wish, what would that wish be?

    I would wish that we have as many Fahri Azzat in my life time!!

    :) Janetlee