Green is the Agenda!

A comprehensive environmental policy to make Penang’s future sustainable and green is on the way.

Climate change is here. Penang was hit by one of the worst floods in its history on November 4 last year. The 15-hour storm paralysed the state, causing huge floods and uprooting trees. A record 372mm of rainfall was charted, with winds blowing at 64kmph, and all worsened by a high tide.

Many attributed the freak weather, among other factors, to the effects of Typhoon Damrey in Vietnam. Seven lives were lost, while 12,662 victims from 3,068 families were evacuated.

Penang then quickly got down to the hard and painful work of recovery. The state government allocated RM100mil to help the flood victims and organised relief efforts throughout the state.

For the last 30 years, fighting climate change has become a longterm goal for cities all around the world, and Penang is no exception. Hence, in March last year, the Penang State Economic Planning Unit, Penang Green Council (PGC) and Penang Institute mooted the Penang Green Agenda (PGA), a two-year policyplanning project aimed at formulating strategies and building resilient communities in Penang to meet and adapt to future environmental challenges by 2030.

Seberang Perai Municipal Council workers clearing flood debris at Taman Seri Rambai, Bukit Mertajam.

The Agenda will incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 interrelated global goals adopted by world leaders in 2015 at an historic UN Summit. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and the general public.

Datuk Dr Leong Yueh Kwong, chairman of the PGA advisory committee and member of PGC’s board of directors, explains the reasons for forming the PGA: “One of the reasons is to look into the forthcoming threats of sustainable development and to develop and adopt three main strategies, which are adaptation, mitigation and resilient measures and policies to reduce the impact on the population.” The School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is appointed to drive the one-year stakeholder consultation.

Public Involvement

A participatory approach is taken to develop the Agenda. PGC began stakeholder consultation in mid-2017, including holding a focus group discussion, a public survey, roadshows and a symposium in January this year, to ensure all stakeholders in Penang are closely engaged.

Assoc.Prof. Dr Saidatulakmal Mohd, deputy dean of USM’s School of Social Sciences and leader of the consultant team, explains that “the downside of participatory approach is that it is time and resource consuming, and information validity relies on the key informants.”

Using a participatory approach, a public survey was conducted.

She adds: “We assist PGC in gathering stakeholders’ opinions, which comprise the key players in governmental offices, industrial sectors, developers , entrepreneurs, NGOs and the public. PGA is going to be a comprehensive and holistic agenda that is not confined only to issues about the environment, but all the 17 SDGs so that we know what the people’s concerns are. However, the hardest part is to get the public involved in creating PGA.”

PGA will rope in technical experts and scientists to look into sustainability aspects of Penang, which includes developing sustainability indicators. Scenario analysis will also be conducted to assess the impact of environmental issues on the state. Leong explains: “We will try to develop three worst environmental crises scenarios – for example rising sea levels, storms and food security – and three best environmental scenarios with solutions, for example green technologies, innovation and so on.

“The Agenda emphasises sustainability. We look into the broader, longer term, and at more integrated ways that are sustainable. We will identify the main issues that affect Penang, making it part of the Agenda, and set up working groups to look into these issues in a more technical way with better planning, data analysis and etc.”

Addressing the Issues

Both Leong and Saidatulakmal highlight two worrying trends.

The first is Penang’s rapid development. An uptrend in business activities and development projects has been observed in recent years as the state’s attractiveness and liveability continue to attract human capital.

Assoc.Prof. Dr Saidatulakmal Mohd.

Existing policies and enforcement must be reviewed, tightened and loopholes eliminated. Environmental Impact Assessment reports, paired with public consultation, should be done to address issues raised by residents. On the positive side, the concept of green buildings has been catching on in Penang over the past few years, with more new properties constructed in line with the Green Building Index certification.

Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, published in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Dr Hezri Adnan, an appointed member of the UN’s International Resource Panel, explains: “The Brundtland Report seeks to reconcile the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. Essentially there are two central ideas – ensuring basic needs for the poor and downtrodden, and recognition of the environmental limits to economic growth.

“The main conflict between theory and practice lies in the challenge of adapting a sustainable development ‘form’ to the ‘function’ of governments. Environmentalists advocate a proper management of critical ecosystems. Economic planners reemphasise the importance of sustaining wealth that does not compromise social equity. In practice, many political trade-offs have to be made because policies are never established in a vacuum. This situation leaves many stakeholders feeling unhappy with the mainstream model of economic development. Whatever we do, there is bound to be winners and losers.”

Secondly, a paradigm shift is needed. “People are becoming more aware of climate change now, but they do not realise that they are the contributors themselves,” Saidatulakmal says. “Based on the interim report with the primary stakeholders, they do not have adequate knowledge of the environment. Some of them have never heard of SDGs or environmental policy. Nonetheless, the participating stakeholders have reached a consensus that development in Penang is moving too fast.”

Hezri explains the prerequisites for a paradigm shift to happen in a society: “First, governments and societies need to recognise that sustainable development is a systemic policy challenge that is broader than environmental protection or conserving iconic species like tigers and orang-utans.

“Second, to articulate appropriate responses, there is a need to act institutionally based on precautionary principles. We cannot entirely depend on an individual organisation to troubleshoot an environmental disaster after it has happened; rather, we must articulate whole-of-society responses and not just rely on one particular government agency to address sustainable development.

“Finally, there is an urgent need to stop focusing on rhetoric embedded in policy statements without finding the best ways to deliver and implement sustainable development solutions. The federal environmental expenditure in the annual budget is meagre, and the appropriate technical resources to handle unsustainability problems are mainly absent at the state level.”

Moving Forward

The state government has driven many green initiatives and achievements which are laudable, but more can be done. Existing data on temperature and rainfall are no longer suitable with current weather patterns, and existing planning policies and guidelines are no longer adequate to address climate change challenges.

There is a need for rigorous policies at the local level; this entails coming up with a comprehensive environmental agenda for the state – an agenda that combines both environmental protection and economic growth to achieve sustainable development.

While urban expansion improves infrastructure and generates economic opportunities, sustainable development seeks to attune economic growth with environmental protection. Stakeholder consultation is crucial in formulating the PGA – the outcome is vital to develop strategies and local action plans, and will provide policy makers with a better understanding of public views and concerns on environmental challenges in Penang.

Dr Hezri Adnan.

A symposium on Sustainable Penang, titled “Can Penang Be Made Sustainable By 2030?”, is slated for January 15 and 16. It is to foster a multi-stakeholder discussion, which includes government agencies, academicians, NGOs, local communities and the private sector to identify current and future environmental challenges that should be addressed in Penang. It will also present the SDGs to the stakeholders and suggest targets and goals that should be prioritised to enhance the environmental sustainability of Penang.

The symposium is another milestone in the decisionmaking process as young professionals, distinguished speakers and state leaders such as Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Committee Chairman Chow Kon Yeow, state Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee Chairman Phee Boon Poh, the Mayor of Penang Island City Council Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, meet with key stakeholders of Penang to generate input and discuss the approaches and initiatives that should be implemented to make the state green and sustainable by 2030.

As Penang aspires to become a smart international city, we must ensure that our vision, targets and goals are in line with international standards. It is hoped that the Agenda will provide an action plan for environmental sustainability – it will be key in the state’s quest for a cleaner, greener, safer, healthier and happier Penang.

The Symposium on Sustainable Penang will be held on January 15-16 at Auditorium A, Level 5, Komtar. For more information, visit their website at www. or email info@

Chuah Sue Ann does communications work at the Penang Green Council. She is looking to strengthen her writing skills into digestible information on sustainability communications to form better engagement. She also enjoys fuelling up creativity from her vivid imagination.

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