ASEAN should take climate change seriously, starting in Malaysia


ASEAN should take climate change seriously, starting in Malaysia

By Mercy Barends.

As COP27 draws to an end, the dozens of Southeast Asian politicians and government officials who attended the global climate change meeting must answer a crucial question: are they going to take real steps to address the climate crisis and its devastating impact or continue to treat it as if it did not exist? 

With over 56 million living along its coastlines, Southeast Asian people are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. For many in the region, climate change is not just the abstract notion of rising temperatures; it is a real threat to their lives and livelihoods, to their right to health, to their right to education, and even to their right to suffrage. Unfortunately, few among the region’s political leaders take this threat with the seriousness it demands. 

A case in point is Malaysia, which plans to hold general elections on 19 November. In December last year, Malaysia faced devastating floods that left nearly 50 people dead, thousands displaced, and an estimated RM6.1 billion (USD1.3 billion) in financial losses. The post-flood recovery is still ongoing today, nearly a year later. The scheduling of the elections during this year’s monsoon season risks further compounding those losses and could limit the ability of many Malaysians to vote.

And yet, while the floods were often discussed in the Malaysian parliament, their root cause was hardly addressed. According to research by Greenpeace, of the 19,401 questions asked in parliament since the last elections in 2018, only 8.4% contained environment-related keywords. The term ‘climate change’ or ‘perubahan iklim’ was only discussed less than 0.3% of the time. Of the 350 questions related to ‘flood’ or ‘banjir’, only 16 mentioned ‘climate change’.

This lack of discussion in the Malaysian parliament reflects a wider reality in the region: too few Southeast Asian politicians are willing to publicly recognize climate change as the inherently political issue that it is – one that threatens the stability of our democratic systems and the rights of our peoples, especially the most vulnerable. 

We must recognize that the most politically disenfranchised in our society are also the most endangered by climate change. In the Philippines, one of the world’s most disaster-prone and affected countries, the urban poor often live in informal settlements designated as danger zones because the land is especially prone to flooding, earthquakes or landslides. The impact of climate change means that they are at higher risk of suffering destruction of property and loss of life during, and in the aftermath of, a disaster. 

In my own country, Indonesia, indigenous peoples are often the most vulnerable to both the effects of climate change and some of the proposed solutions to climate change that often do not take their needs and aspirations into account.

The urban poor and the indigenous peoples, incidentally, are also groups that have historically faced more barriers to participate in democratic processes, including to their access to voting.

Our national leaders, in Malaysia and elsewhere, need to realize this and prioritize climate change: national governments can no longer ignore that climate change is a political issue, including during their campaigns, particularly with elections coming up not only in Malaysia but also Thailand, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste. They should do that not only for the public interest but for their own as well – calls for climate action are gaining a growing constituency, especially among young voters, who will hold to account leaders who dither over addressing the climate crisis.

So what should Southeast Asian politicians do, starting with those running in the Malaysian elections? First, political candidates can support the climate action campaigns organized by civil society and show a unified front on climate policy. Lawmakers should create a comprehensive climate action framework that covers both mitigation and adaptation measures.

Second, election management bodies tasked with implementing the entire electoral process, such as the Suruhanjaya Pilihan Raya (SPR) in Malaysia, must design a clear contingency plan should a natural disaster strike, in order to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity to take part in free and fair elections.

And lastly, both short-term and long-term electoral policy reforms should consider the impact of climate change on political participation, especially among voters whose political rights are most at risk. This could be done through establishing a more independent SPR in Malaysia, by moving its supervision from the Prime Minister’s office to the Parliament, so it can make fully independent and non-partisan decisions, as well as be held accountable for its actions, or lack thereof.

Climate change is here and it is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us, leaving loss and devastation in its wake. The least that those seeking their votes can do is to take it seriously.

Mercy Barends is a member of the House of Representatives in Indonesia, and a Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

This article first appeared in Malaysia Kini.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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