A visit to Ipoh reveals a bald truth

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Anil Netto visits Ipoh, a city with hidden surprises, and recalls what a local legend once wrote.

Recently I visited Ipoh for a weekend and got a closer look at the city at street level.

Ipoh is an under-rated city with hidden surprises, a rich heritage and some mouth-watering local delicacies such as salted chicken baked in rock salt, hor fun and special white coffee.

Back at the apartment I was putting up in, the hall opened up to the hazy majestic hills rising in the distance, bordering the Kinta Valley. But what was jarring was the bald spot clearly visible from Bukit Kledang, a sizeable portion of which had been cleared for oil palm cultivation.

Increasingly, wherever we go in the country, we can see signs of a certain form of development spilling over into public areas.

While in Ipoh, I couldn’t help recalling how, two decades earlier, the late Fan Yew Teng had fought a lone crusade to conserve karst areas in the Kinta Valley. Most of Malaysia’s limestone deposits are karst, which is landscape underlain by limestone.

Writing back in 2005 for Aliran Monthly, the legendary Fan, who was well ahead of his time, reflected as he struck the keys of his trusty typewriter:

We in the Kinta Valley have been most fortunate to be endowed with some of the most
lovely hills and mountains in the world. We can cut them all down and dot our landscape with limestone scars over the next 50 years, or we can fill them with music and meaning and mystery and beauty — for our eyes, our minds and our souls — forever.

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Ironically, the hills we neglect and exploit and slash today have all the substance and potential of bringing back the glory days of the Kinta Valley and perhaps even Perak itself. Make your choice.

One thing we can be sure though: if our hills perish, we will perish too. I believe in
the cosmic dance of karma.

A friend of mine who lives in Pahang sent me video footage of a herd of elephants and even a tiger along the road – and he wondered if the loss of their jungle habitat had caused them to be displaced.

More and more communities – and creatures of the land and fish in our coastal waters – are being affected by the relentless quest for “development” at all costs.

While our present model of corporate-led development, laced with race-based policies, has uplifted many from poverty, it has also concentrated wealth in a minority, leaving large segments of the population struggling to cope.

Now there are calls to ditch race-dominated policies in favour of a needs-based approach. That couldn’t be more timely – but it probably does not capture the whole picture.

Various groups especially marginalised groups have been at the frontlines in recent weeks. Problems arise when corporate-led development comes into conflict with local communities over shared resources – which really should be for the Common Good.

Take two recent examples involving the forests and the seas:

The Orang Asli, who are the guardians of our forests, have periodically found that plantation and logging companies have encroached into their ancestral lands. When they put up blockades, they invariably find themselves arrested – even though the disputes over the land have not yet been resolved.

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If we are talking about needs-based policies, then the Orang Asli certainly need their land for their subsistence and livelihood. Their survival is intimately linked to the land – after all, their ancestors have lived on for centuries.

Similarly, fishermen too have borne the brunt of land reclamation and sand-mining. These fishermen are at ground zero in the conflict over another shared resource – coastal waters teeming with marine life.

These waters are a valuable source of sustainable food supply – fresh fish at relatively affordable prices for local communities. This should be conserved – not degraded, if not destroyed in the name of “development”.

Other groups of people who are often forgotten in our development model are the migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers – who also contribute to the national economy.

These groups too have their own needs – especially the children of refugee families who are unable to go to school, through no fault of their own.

Foreigners are often discouraged from seeking treatment in hospitals due to the much higher charges imposed on them.

Another way to meet the needs of the ordinary people, including migrants and refugees, is to ensure that public hospitals, schools and universities are adequately funded.

Many retirees too do not have enough to live on in their golden years as the cost of living has soared.

Remember that most people are paying taxes even if they may not earn enough to pay income tax – after all, most people, including foreign workers and refugees are also paying sales and service tax. So it is only fair that everyone has fair access to these essential services.

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So needs-based policies should cover a broad ambit – not just the poor, but also the marginalised and forgotten. And not just people but all creatures of the earth as well as the larger ecosystem.

As Fan, living in his beloved Ipoh back then, said: “We have to remember that there is such a thing called ‘Nature’s Revenge’. When we ill-treat nature, when we mess with nature in the name of development through greedy exploitation for sheer profits, sooner rather than later, we will have to pay.”

This piece was first published in the Herald weekly.

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