Malaysia Notes 2016

 23 October 2016

Borneo, Malaysia. As night falls, the surrounding Borneo tropical rainforest has come alive with noise – most notably the trill of frogs and the rhythmic pulse of cicadas. I am with Indira and nine others on the Sabah study tour of the Emerging Leaders Dialogue Asia (ELDA). Yesterday, after we delivered our workshop on transformational leadership, our group flew from KL to Kota Kinabalu, where we were welcomed for dinner in the beautiful family home of Jasmine, an ELDA alumnus. We enjoyed a mini-feast of banana fritters, pomelo and langsat (a bit like lychees but more delicious), while listening to the inspiring story of Barefoot College, which trains village grandmothers to be solar engineers.

This morning we set out from the Cititel Express hotel at 5.30 am and met the management team of Forest Solutions Malaysia in Kota Marudu. After a short presentation by Li Ling and Glen of their sustainable forestry approach – which is a ‘mosaic’ model of commercial timber plantations mixed in amongst protected secondary rainforest – we were given a tour of one of their plantation conservation areas (Coupe 7 Block 7), including the Kolibambang Nursery where we are overnighting.

While it is always disturbing to see rainforest being cleared, it is not old growth, virgin forest (i.e. it has been logged numerous times before) and the hybrid approach may create the economic incentives needed to stop logging tropical hardwoods from the rainforest in favour of the higher yield commercially grown trees. Having patches of plantation in between the natural forest (they clear around 65%) also allows some migration of species and avoids large scale clear felling.

25 October 2016

This morning I am sitting in a bamboo gazebo next to the river at Camp International’s volunteer centre in the village of Bongkud. We arrived here in time for lunch yesterday and then walked up to the kindergarten that is being built and did some token volunteering – an hour or so of painting and chopping out a concrete floor. In the evening after dinner, a dozen or so local children performed traditional dances. We were then invited to try their bamboo dance, which is a bit like hopscotch between parallel bamboo poles that are being smashed together.

All of this is part of Camp International’s Borneo volunteer programme, which is extremely well organised and integrated into the village community. Two things that impressed me most were the passion and commitment of the local Borneo managers and workers, and the strong, yet humble, hands-on leadership of the village chief. I was a bit concerned about dependence on Western charity (volunteers), but it seems they do also work on building self-reliance by creating livelihoods in eco-tourism and other areas.

Last night we slept in one of the traditional bamboo long houses, which has 10 adjoining rooms raised on stilts and with open windows. It was a real treat to fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and the flowing river, although some were less impressed with the local rooster that began his wakeup call long before sunrise. Once again, I feel so privileged to be able to experience these diverse places and to meet inspiring individuals from around the world.

26 October 2016

We had a fantastic few days travelling around Sabah, meeting inspiring people and seeing beautiful places. I am now writing to the soundtrack of the rainforest: the screech of cicadas, the chorus of frogs and the roar of the river running by. We have just returned from a short walk through the forest to a thundering waterfall, where we took a refreshing dip in the natural pool and had a power shower under the waterfall. This is a stunningly beautiful place called Mahua, about 1.5 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu.

Yesterday after breakfast at Camp Bongkud, we drove to Mount Kinabalu and listened to a presentation by the director of the protected park (and World Heritage Site) about the terrible earthquake of June 2015, which killed four guides and 14 tourists, including school children. We also visited the family of one of the mountain guides who had lost his life. Indira and I would love to return and do the 2 day (overnight) hike to the summit.

28 October 2016

Yesterday we visited Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, a marine conservation area around five islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. I was surprised that the islands were inhabited and developed as resorts. Unfortunately the inherent conflict between people and conservation was all too evident, with litter on the beaches and in the ocean, waste water effluent flowing into the sea and destruction of the corals by tourists. There was also a small (3m x 3m) net under one of the jetties with a dozen or so large fishes and sharks on display, supposedly for educational purposes. Unsurprisingly and sadly, the park’s tour guide said the marine park had not increased biodiversity, but rather only slowed its destruction.

On the positive side, the islands are beautiful and some attempts are being made to offer lower impact tourist activities. For example, there was an underwater glass tunnel for viewing fish in their natural habitat, and solo submarines, which look like a cross between a diving bell suit and a motorbike, from which tourists can view the corals and marine life. There are also low impact activities like a zip line from one island to another, which we had fun testing out. At one of the resorts, on Gaya Island, we heard about Inner Peace, a company that trains rural women to enter the spa tourism sector.

In the afternoon we were hosted by SWEPA (Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association) and heard a presentation about the Barefoot Solar Project, which trains village grandmothers to become solar engineers. There are so many positive aspects to this case, as it breaks barriers and stereotypes around gender, age and education (the ‘solar mamas’ are also illiterate), while introducing renewable technologies to rural areas and ensuring there are people with the necessary skills to maintain and fix the solar lights if they break down.

This morning we visited KPJ Sabah, a private hospital chain. Apart from showing that a Malaysian company can deliver world-class healthcare services for the wealthy, there was not much to be inspired by.

2 November 2016

Our study tour ended with a presentation by the Sarawak Economic Development Agency, where our group of a dozen of so was joined by HRH Princess Anne. The next day, each of the seven study tour groups delivered a 30 minute presentation of their findings to a panel which included HRH.

Our Sabah group shared our insights across five themes:

  1. Tensions in sustainable development, which I presented, together with Jereme, focusing on the cases of Forest Solutions and the Marine Conservation Park;
  2. Challenges and barriers, covering transparency, infrastructure and overdependence, with the positive case of Barefoot Solar;
  3. Education and empowerment, showcasing St Martins School, which trains pupils in vocational skills like tourism and hairdressing, Inner Peace Spa, and Mahua Rainforest Paradise;
  4. Women as sustainability leaders, referencing SWEPA and the Solar Mamas; and
  5. Leadership traits, co-presented by Indira, focusing on vision, humility, tenacity, passion and collaboration.

Our presentation was very strong, striking a balance between informing, critiquing and inspiring. I concluded with four messages, saying:

  1. We came knowing that in the West we have failed to find a sustainable path to prosperity and wellbeing;
  2. We came with many questions and found many answers that informed, challenged, entertained and even surprised us. For example, we didn’t know that Malaysia was the 3rd largest producer of solar panels in the world in 2014;
  3. We came from diverse backgrounds and countries and discovered strength in our diversity, not only in the team but also in the communities and organisations we met; and
  4. We came as emerging leaders ourselves and were delighted to find a strong crop of emerging leaders in Asia, Malaysia and Sabah.

I finished by thanking HRH, ELDA, Adrian (the chair), Kishore (the organiser) and Boon (our study tour group leader), saying that we arrived as curious students and are leaving as inspired friends.

Over the final two days I had three opportunities to speak directly with Princess Anne and was impressed by her easy, down to earth manner, and her probing questions and comments, especially during the day of presentations.

We left Kuching having formed some wonderful new friendships with our study tour group members. We are hopeful that there may be opportunities for follow up work in Micronesia and New Zealand.

Yesterday we visited BB, a large scale clothes recycling factory, which processes about 600 tonnes of used clothes a month, mostly from Australia, which it redistributes for sale around the world. It is a good example of closing the loop, although worker conditions could be improved (70% are migrants working 12 hour shifts six days a week for minimum wages). We were told this is standard practice in Malaysia.

We return to Cambridge enriched by fresh experiences, cultural insights, new friendships and shared memories. So it goes and so we grow.

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