Interviewed by Dr. Lee Khai Ern
Prof. Dato’ Dr. Mazlin Mokhtar is a Professor in Environmental Chemistry. He is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Innovation Affairs) of the National University of Malaysia (UKM). He is also the Chairman of the Environmental Quality Council. His research expertise is in Sustainability Science and Governance.
1. How did you get involved in researching the environment and sustainable development?
A strong calling to pursue solutions for pollution and environmental degradation propelled my team and me to conduct research in environment and sustainable development. Most analytical environmental chemists and scientists carry out good research but relatively few are involved in planning and decision making processes. Good governance and management for sustainable development requires reliable and validated scientific data to enable informed decision making and the implementation of best practices at all levels by all relevant parties. Research and innovation in environment and development is also important to improve education and awareness programmes to realise Malaysia’s goals of sustainable development. Research is also vital to ensure the integration of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to propel communities towards sustainable livelihoods and prosperity.
Research on environment and sustainable development should involve academic researchers, stakeholders from government agencies, ministries, and businesses, NGOs and CBOs, communities and villagers in order to share knowledge and experiences. This would enable efficient transfer of knowledge, goals and strategies as well as financial support which is necessary for sustainable development goals to be achieved. Education systems must also be improved on a continuous basis.
Our beloved country is one of the top 12 most bio-diverse countries in the world. Natural resources are aplenty and the environment is beautiful. These must all be protected for the sake of ensuring safety and security of our future generations. This includes our neighbouring countries and economic regions of Southeast Asia, Asia Pacific, and beyond.
However, atmospheric spaces and geospatial boundaries are very difficult to be separated according to administrative jurisdictions nowadays, given the pace at which globalisation is happening. It seems like the world is getting smaller with the advent of technology and its modern applications. This is another important reason why we need active research in environment and sustainable development. Society and technology must create a safe and harmonious environment for everyone. However, this is easier said than done. Many good policies are challenged because they are incompatible with the ways we live and conduct ourselves every day. Issues of ethics and moral values must also be embedded in our research endeavours especially on matters pertaining to environment and development, given that the world’s population is expanding rapidly, and our carbon, water, and ecological footprints are burgeoning. We are now living in the era or the geological epoch of “Anthropocene”! Business as usual is not an option. Hence research on environment and development must happen in all corners of the world and at all levels of our societies and communities.
2. What are the environmental challenges that Malaysia is facing now?
Environmental challenges facing Malaysia now would include environmental pollution and degradation, and unwise uses of natural resources whilst the country is developing. Sustainable development is challenging when other economic and educational issues are unresolved, such as the increasing gap between the rich and poor and the shunning of STEM-related subjects amongst the younger generations of Malaysians. That is why the proposed new economic model is good and very timely. Malaysians remain steadfast in pursuing higher incomes; but to do it in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and ensuring a near complete inclusivity remains a big challenge.
3. Do you think Malaysia is doing enough towards sustainable development in general?
Not enough, I think. Individually and collectively, I think we still have not done enough for sustainable development. Nevertheless, there are success stories and initiatives that are moving in the right direction.
When we compare ourselves with some developed and developing countries, we are still lagging behind in some aspects, for example indiscriminate solid waste throwing and dumping is still happening. Also, water pollution and irresponsible discharges of industrial effluents is still occurring. Many blame the lack of education or insufficient enforcement, but those who are guilty of such acts include those who are aware but who shirk their responsibility to enforce and implement proper practices and regulations due to negligence.
We have not done enough if drains are still clogging and flash floods are still occurring when there is a downpour. Surely we have not done enough when environmentally sensitive areas and zones are being mercilessly exploited for short term gains. There are many more such examples that would show that we have not done enough. We do have good government policies and laws, but effective implementation, monitoring, reporting, evaluating, and continual improvement remain a significant challenge.
Business and industry associations must be willing to proactively guide and move communities and societies toward sustainability, and step up actions to enforce environmental protection and rehabilitation. The private sector has an abundance of clever and competent professionals and practitioners that can lead many great efforts and programmes to protect and safeguard the environment, and to ensure wise utilisation of the natural resources. The principle that prevention is better than a cure should be exercised by all. If one knows of the detrimental effects of one’s factory operation towards the environment and natural resources then one should ensure that the factory refrain from discharging pollutants into our environment.
Many NGOs and CBOs have obtained funding from internal and external sources to work with communities and societies to realise goals of sustainable development on the ground. But again, in many instances the effects are scattered and not sustainable. Academia and teachers must also do more in terms of modifying the teaching processes and content to ensure our educational system produces citizens that are aware of and willing to work hard for sustainable development.
4. What would your advice be for Malaysians to work towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
Let’s put our egos and differences aside and work together to protect and safeguard our environment whilst we are developing. Experts and practitioners from all disciplines and sectors must plan, implement, monitor, and review their practices, striving for the ethical and sustainable treatment of the environment. We must be willing to take up and share leadership at various levels and be ready to do multiple tasks at any particular time. Leadership by example must be the order of the day, today and for many more days to come. Things must begin with our own individual selves and our communities and societies. The buck must stop with each and every one of us!
Good integrated and holistic approaches and initiatives for sustainable development such as the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM), Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), Integrated Lake Basin Management (ILBM), Global Geopark, Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), etc. must be supported with greater participation and involvement of communities. By bringing together knowledge and expertise from STEM and SSH we should be able to realise the objectives of sustainability science for sustainable development. Transdisciplinary research must happen more frequently at local and higher levels to complement the ongoing multi and interdisciplinary approaches. These multi-centric approaches must support the sustainability science agenda for good planning, decision making and policy making.
In short, the SDGs should be embedded in all aspects of development and embraced not only by policy makers, but also by all members of the society in this journey toward sustainability.