Losing our soul in the quest for profits

Sizeable areas in and around Kuantan have turned a rusty red, mainly the effect of bauxite mining and the shipments thereof to China.

Jan 14, 2016

By Anil Netto
Sizeable areas in and around Kuantan have turned a rusty red, mainly the effect of bauxite mining and the shipments thereof to China. This poses an environmental risk to Kuantan, even before concerns about a rare earth refinery and gold mining in Pahang could subside.

A professor in environmental engineering, in a letter to a local daily, complained that the excavation of bauxite does not adhere to proper procedure, while the transport of the raw earth to the port also flouts all forms of reasonable guidelines. “No wonder it has left behind a trail of environmental pollution that has created so much controversy and public displeasure,” he lamented.

“The air is polluted with bauxite dust. The sea is contaminated with bauxite which may, consequently, pose problems for marine life and the fish (which has) been a source of food for people living in the area. The water source for the area may also have been contaminated.”

Over in Penang, property development  has caused degradation and illegal clearing and  scarring of once pristine, jungle-shrouded hills, most notably Bukit Relau, now better known as Botak Hill.

The hill clearings increase surface run-off, threaten water catchment areas and puts into question hill-slope stability. Now, the battle is on to save the remaining areas above the protection threshold of 250 feet above sea level from further degradation.

Massive land reclamation in Penang and Johor is another concern. These are some of the latest environmental challenges facing the country. 

A common factor behind many of these issues is the quest for corporate profits which trumps the concerns of ordinary people, now worried about the impact of these projects.

The corporate agenda has already weakened labour rights in the country. The hardfought battle for an eight-hour work day has been eroded. Nowadays, many work up to 12 hours a day, or even more, and in the process, their work-recreation-rest balance suffers. Some migrant workers work even longer hours.

Restrictive laws and practices have weakened the rights of trade unions and the position of workers.Their position is further weakened when many employers prefer to hire outsourced workers from labour contractors. Some of these workers may be deprived of statutory benefits such as EPF and Socso.

The mantra in the business press is labour ‘reforms,’ which usually means opting for a more ‘flexi’ workforce while eroding the hard-won gains of the workers’ and trade union movements over the years.

Not only that, corporate tax rates and income tax rates for the upper band of taxpayers have inched downwards for years now. This has affected tax revenue. No wonder the gov ernment has difficulty balancing its budget and has turned to the deeply unpopular goods and services tax to reduce its budget deficit, further burdening many ordinary Malaysians.

Now we read that even university students are forced to get by on a meagre diet — simply because the cost of food has soared in recent years while privatisation, cronyism and GST have lightened our wallets. As a result of this neoliberal economic model, many Malaysians now have to pay ever-higher tolls and tariffs on a whole gamut of essential services such as healthcare, education and transport.

But if we are concerned about all this, then we should be even more worried about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which is about to be deliberated in parliament and could be signed in early February. After that, the cabinet has up to two years to ratify the agreement.

The TPPA will give enormous new powers to large multinational corporations, especially through the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS). This allows these MNCs to sue national governments if any change in government policy affects any MNC’s bottom-line, even if the policy in  question is to protect public interest.

National governments can thus be sued for enormous sums. What’s more, the cases will  not be heard in national courts but in opaque arbitration panels abroad.

The other major impact will be on healthcare. The TPPA will drive up the prices of even life-saving drugs and boost the profits of Big Pharma. It will also limit the competition from generic drug manufacturers which have provided an affordable alternative in the past. As it is, close to half of cancer patients face “financial catastrophe” as a result of treatment costs.

So, we can see here that the quest for corporate profits override ordinary people’s concerns for affordable food, education and healthcare. It also tramples over the environment — which we are supposed to care for, as the Bishop of Rome exhorts us to.

There is a Native American saying that is worth reflecting on:

When the last tree is cut,
the last fish is caught,
and the last river is polluted;
when to breathe the air is sickening,
you will realise, too late,
that wealth is not in bank accounts
and that you can’t eat money.

Much wisdom in that.

Jesus, Wisdom incarnate, had a keen eye for Nature and told us that the Father keeps an eye on even the sparrows in the air and the lilies in the field. The proverb above reminds me of Jesus’ words in Mark 8:36 (KJV): “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

What shall it profit, indeed?

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