Vert l’Horizon – NEWSLETTER 3 – Through Malaysia, the land of warm-hearted people

To see our photos from Malaysia, click here.

1. Introduction

As we write these words we think of Malaysia with a little bit of nostalgia. Our stay there was too short, way too short. Because we must enter China before the 16th of December we have a very tight schedule until then. We stayed only ten days in Malaysia but they have been very intense, rich of discoveries and rich of beautiful meetings. Our friend Hazariah, from Malaysia had organized every stage of our trip in the country, placing her friends and her family on our way. Therefore, we were magnificently warmly welcomed every day. We were introduced to the delicious food made here, told about the geography and history of the country, brought to beautiful places. We practically haven’t seen any tourists during our stay. During our stay, we lived with locals, and got really inspired by them.

2. Going North

Our first stage in Malaysia was Johor Bahru. We arrived there by land, after crossing the most northern bridge between Singapore and Malaysia. Getting all the stamps on our passport didn’t cause any problem and we quickly head downtown in order to meet a German-Mexican couple, and bike world-travellers. We knew each other from the network of Warmshowers, which is a community for touring cyclists and hosts, similar to Couchsurfing but specifically designed for bikers. Annika and Roberto are going to stay at Akira’s place tonight. We use the opportunity of that meeting in order to exchange tips and advices on our travels, since we are travelling in the opposite direction. Annika and Roberto have already been travelling for two years, from Europe till here. And they plan to be on the road for three more years. They are travelling to taste the cultures of the world by bicycle. Don’t hesitate to have a look at their adventures: www.tastingtravels.com.

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For our first night in Malaysia we are invited by Kak Ju, a cousin of Hazariah. She lives about 20-30 km north of Johor Bahru. The route to her village is busy and not really bike-friendly. We then realise how unique was Singapore. They have such a great public transportation system that it really freed the route for us bikers. We finally arrive in the residential area at dusk. However, we are incapable of finding the house. The address is something like “road A 3/4, #17″. After many turn around in the neighbourhood, we understand that all the roads of the village are called A, that it’s organised by block, and we have to go to the number 17 of the road 3 of the block 4. Unfortunately, no one knows where the block 4 is, there is no logics! Kak Ju has to come to pick us up in the middle of the village.

The following day we are heading to Segamat. On the way we are trying the typical Roti Planta. It’s a kind of big crepe that the cook makes by whirling the paste around. In Segamat we are welcomed by Linda, another cousin of Hazariah (yes, they have huge families in Malaysia!). She leads us to Hazariah’s parents’ house, in the countryside. They have a nice house with a lot of trees and flowers around. We can recognize or discover new trees: mango tree, dragon fruit, Malay lychee, Roselle flower (delicious as an infusion). After having eaten the delicious food they prepared for us we ‘re jumping on our bikes and following them towards a palm oil plantation, the local school, the mosque. We are also introduced to the neighbours. Most of the people here speak a little English, which is sufficient to be understood on the simplest things. Above all, the smiles and laughs are the best tools of communication. We start to realise that the Malaysians are extremely smiley, welcoming, helpful and warm-hearted (thus the title of this newsletter). They also have a very strong sense of family. Most of the couples have a great number of kids (6-8 being very common) and it’s very common to see in one’s house three generations. Because it’s happening very differently in France we are very curious about it. We realise that each house is very animated, full of life, and that cohabitation between the three generations of one’s family is absolutely possible!

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Our next destination is Jasin. There, we are hosted by Husaini and Hadafi, two brothers and friends of Hazariah. On the way to Jasin we have our first encounter with the rainy season. Cumuli were rising and rising, until they look like mushrooms from nuclear explosion; they got darker and darker; and few minutes later we got showered like we never had! The route was turning into a torrent and only cars could continue. We luckily stopped at the good moment for lunch and, luckily once again, only waited about one hour until the rain stops and continued on our way. In the evening, Husaini brings us to Malacca which was and important Malay port in the 15th century. It was then taken by the Portuguese in 1511, then by the Dutch, and finally by the British. The government has made strong efforts to rehabilitate the heritage of this colonial history, and it is now pleasant to stroll in the old city.

The following day, our host find the good arguments to delay us by one day. Husaini brings us to Gunung Ledang Park, which has a beautiful mountain and an idyllic waterfall. The place is obviously known and liked by Malaysians. Many of them come here to chill-out in the forest and water.

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After an exquisite time with our hosts we head towards Seremban where Mohamad, a friend of Hazariah and enthusiastic cyclist is waiting for us. Mohamad and his wife are really lively and spend great time together. They also offer us beautiful gifts such as a tea coming from the Cameron highlands and a sarung (typical kind of dress worn by Muslims here). Together we also go to Putrajaya, which is the new centre of administration in Malaysia. The reason why it was moved from Kuala Lumpur is the traffic: because the administrations were scattered in the city, many hours were lost in the traffic jam. The city looks very futuristic, with many skyscrapers, and noticeable bridges. We can have a good skyline of the city from the impressive Putrajaya International Convention Centre.

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Kuala Lumpur! There we are! Roihan, Hazariah’s husband is hosting us there. We arrive in the capital few days before Dewali, the Hindu celebration of lights, and some part of the city are nicely decorated. Kuala Lumpur is a really beautiful city, with many things to offer. To some, Kuala Lumpur is the city with the twin tower (the Petronas tower), where the movie Entrapment was shot. We also have a look at Masjid Jemak mosque, the square of independence with its 100m high flag, the sultan palace and the national mosque (Masjid Negara). The place is very quiet, only the sound of the fountains makes a sweet noise to our ears. There, a guide from the mosque explains us why, to him, Islam is the most achieved religion. In the evening, Roihan invites us to a show with traditional Malaysian dances. The Petronas tower are just behind, shining with thousands lights. They are like a silver and white jewel raising up in the sky.

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Our final stage in Malaysia is Kuala Perlis, at the border with Thailand. In order to respect our schedule we take a night bus. Murshed is our final host there. We spend some agreeable with his wife’s parents in the countryside, surrounded by rice fields.

Thailand, we are coming! Annika and Roberto told us about the possibility to take a boat around the border. They couldn’t take it because it was the day of Aid although we have no problems.

Malaysia and all of you who warmly welcomed us we will greatly miss you!

3. Energy / Environment

We met Luqman Chuah, Professor and Deputy Dean from the Universiti Putra Malaysia. We set up the appointment in the complex of the Petronas Tower, the symbol of Kuala Lumpur. Professor Chuah has agreed to give us an introduction of the energy and environmental situation in Malaysia. The following is the summary of our conversation. We also enriched our research on palm oil with the book “Un fléau si rentable: Vérités et mensonges sur l’huile de palme”, from Emmanuelle Grundmann.

Energy outlook. Even if the share of renewables has kept growing recently, Malaysia’s energy production is strongly based on fossil fuel. Before 2000, the energy production was mainly based on gas, petrol, hydroelectricity and coal. Nowadays, renewables account for 7% in the energy mix. 60% of Malaysian’s energy need is satisfied by gas and petroleum. Hydro and coal account for 20-30% and 10% respectively. There are plans to increase the share of coal, in order to have a great diversity of fuel supply.

Malaysia possesses reserve of fossil fuels, which are gas and petrol (they usually come together). Both gas and petrol extracted in Malaysia are of good quality. The gas produced is “sweet” and is exported to Japan. The gas consumed by Malaysia is a “sour” gas which is imported from other countries such as Kuwait. The petrol extracted is used to produce kerosene for the aviation. In Malaysia, both the gas and petrol are subsidised (up to 60%!) by Petronas, the governmental company. Since these subsidies are not sustainable, they are gradually diminished. Of course there is a strong public opposition to their diminution since it impacts the price of many products but also because many Malaysians are driving big oil-greedy cars.

Biomass. The main source of renewable in Malaysia is biomass. The biomass plants are used in a small scale, due to the several following drawbacks: the power they can supply is too low, they are expensive, and they are far from the cities (transportation cost of biomass becomes very important with the distance). In the transportation sector, biomass is used as biofuel: cooking oil is recycled and replaces diesel.

Other Energy Technologies. On Borneo Island, the rural states of Sabah and Sarawak use mainly mini hydro as power supply. There is a project of a giant dam in Sarawak, called Bakun Dam, which has been many times planned, cancelled, modified. It entered in service recently, but with a lower capacity than originally planned, due to ecologist and local opposition. Professor Chuah said that the solar energy is promoted, but the photovoltaic technologies stay very expensive. The panels have to be bought from Germany, with no transfer of technology possible. As for nuclear energy, the government wants to build a nuclear plant by 2020, but it has not chosen yet the location. In addition, Malaysia being a Muslim country, the use of nuclear technology may pose some problems with the USA. In Malaysia, there are many Independent Power Plants, where private companies sell energy to the government. It seems that there is a lot of corruption involved here…

Waste to energy. There are some small projects of valorised landfill (less than 5 MW). However, such projects are complicated in the country due to the high moisture content of the wastes: it is not possible to get a lot of energy from them. Another problem of waste management in Malaysia arise from the fact that wastes are not segregated. Furthermore, the government has problems to install new incinerators, because of the public opposition. There is a fear of dioxin contamination. Consequently, most of the waste goes into common landfills. In one week, Malaysia produces a mountain of rubbish as high as the Petronas towers.

Air pollution. In Malaysia, 70% of the air pollution comes from the transports. A Clean Air Act has been redacted in 1974, but has not been enacted yet. In fact, this act would significantly affect the economy of the country; therefore the government refuses to sign it. Currently, there are penalties for pollution emission although they are ridiculously low and therefore, ineffective. An annual concern of Malaysia (along with Singapore) is the haze produced by the slash and burn farming in Sumatra and Kalimatan (Indonesian part of Borneo). This smoke comes to contaminate the skies of Singapore and Malaysia in July and August, and reaches a level of 200% or 300% of the admitted limits (for the particulate matter 2,5 micrometers). Malaysia does complain a lot officially. Unofficially, one needs to know that most of the land which is burnt in Indonesia is in burnt as part of operations from Malaysian companies.

Climate change. There is a low awareness of climate change in Malaysia. Professor Chuah told us that many of his MSc students never heard of the Copenhagen summit. Malaysia has signed the Kyoto protocol and agreed to reduce its emissions by 40% until 2020. Now, this target looks impossible to attain.

Palm Oil. Malaysia used to be the world leader of palm oil exportation; it has now been passed by Indonesia. Palm oil has a long history in Malaysia and it was already produced 50 years ago. The palm oil produced is mainly used for chemicals and cosmetics, although we also find in the food. Malaysia promotes the use of palm oil as biodiesel. In the country, 5% of the diesel should come from palm oil. Officially, the forest coverage is stable in Malaysia, around 70% of the country surface. But, behind this figure, one may notice that palm oil tree plantations are also counted as forest, so it does not reflect anything. Due to the many complaints of EU, Malaysia does not deforest anymore for plant palm oil trees. Most of the deforestation are now made now in Kalimatan. Palm oil industries are very polluting. The people mainly focus on the water rejected by the palm oil industry, since it contains a lot of oil (Biological Oxygen Demand = 60000 and Chemical Oxygen Demand = 40000). However, the air pollution is also important, especially when the branches of the palm oil trees are burnt: they produce many air particles. The state of Sabah has stricter rules for the palm oil industries, because the main income of the state is tourism.

Palm oil is a very lucrative business, although it has big impact on the environment. Great areas have been deforested in the tropical belt. Borneo and Sumatra have lost 60% of their forest due to the increase of the monoculture of palm oil. These deforestations have a great impact on the biodiversity (especially on the well-known Orang-Outan). It also has a big impact on climate change. Palm oil plantations have a negative impact on the locals as, in many places, their rights are being violated. Palm oil also has a negative impact on health as it is a great contributor to overweight and obesity. On the other hand, palm oil tree is preferred due to its high productivity (2 fruit seasons per year); it doesn’t require a big mechanisation but a lot of labour instead). Palm oil has good physical characteristics: it gets liquefied at high temperature, it doesn’t go rancid, and it contains beta carotene! Overall, the palm oil is very cheap compared to other oil, except that the externalities caused to the climate are not included in the final cost! The positive side of it is that there are more and more organic palm oil produced.

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Thank you for reading, un abrazo!!!

Mickaël & Julien