De-patronizing Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development

Panelists Professor Joyashree Roy (Coordinating Lead Author), Mr Amjad Abdulla (Vice-Chair, IPCC Working Group III), Professor Valerie Masson-Delmotte (Co-Chair, IPCC Working Group I), Professor Jim Skea (Co-Chair, IPCC Working Group III), Jonathan Lynn, (Head of Communications, IPCC) and CEO of Akademi Sains Malaysia Dr Hazami Habib (left to right).

Academy of Sciences Malaysia recently hosted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for an outreach event to communicate the IPCC’s role, activities and findings to the general public. The role of the IPCC is to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its effects and risks, as well as to suggest adaptation and mitigation measures. Although the reports target policy makers, they do not prescribe any policies. It is still up to the individual governments to implement the necessary climate policies. Nonetheless, the reports significantly contribute to international negotiation processes as stipulated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The IPCC  reports are incredibly useful for negotiators and the drafting of international commitments, yet they seem underutilized in Malaysia. It is apparent that the environment is still not a development priority for Malaysia. According to Mr Alizan Mahadi from the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, the environmental sector comprises a mere 0.7% of the 2020 Budget. This signals that education, health, transportation, and housing are bigger priorities for Malaysia. While these sectors can contribute significantly to sustainable development, sustainability can only be achieved when the environment impact is considered in their implementation plans. Otherwise, these sectors will solely be useful for greenwashing and prolonging the rhetoric of sustainability. 

During the event, a handful of curious youth asked questions actively. Among these questions were: How can we transform knowledge into action? How can we engage with stakeholders and utilize the findings of the reports? How can youths and young professionals be further involved in the science-policy interface? As a youth myself, I was alarmed by these questions because it reflected on the lack of our agency and empowerment to make change, as well as the lack of space for us to experiment with the possible options to promote ways to protect our environment.

The 1970s in Malaysia was a historical period during which student activists fought to raise their concerns about pertinent issues. Their movement was highly effective such that it resulted in the enactment of the oppressive University and University Colleges Act 1971, otherwise known as AUKU. With the birth of Malaysia Baru, the Act was amended and Section 15(2)(c) was abolished, thus encouraging students to voice their opinions on current issues and partake in political activities. Consequently, the voting age in Malaysia was reduced to 18 years, thus also encouraging youth to participate in political activities.

However, despite these institutional changes, Malaysia’s social fabric continues to be restrictive and patronizing, leaving youth with little mental and physical space for growth. When Wong Yan Ke protested at his graduation ceremony, many Malaysians took on the role of the moral police and quoted the Rukun Negara, stating that he was rude and ungrateful to the university. The response to Yan Ke’s protest shows that any form of dissent in public spaces are readily investigated by the authorities and is negatively received by the public. From the latter’s perspective, upholding the respect of authorities and public order seems to be a sensible justification to stifle any form of expression inciting critical discussion.

Specific to environmental advocacy, there are three types of seasoned advocates that I have encountered. The first type are those who in a pessimistic tone, would remind me to develop resilience and endurance because the fight for sustainable development is burdensome; the second type are those who keep on repeating that “we need the youths because you are the leaders of tomorrow” but proceed with ignoring our presence when we request for support; and the third are those who claim that they are experienced, and thus only engage with us at the bare-minimum, tokenizing our participation.

Although our society is unsupportive, we should shift our perspective and see this as a liberty to strengthen youth movements. During the forum Professor Valerie Masson-Delmotte emphasized: “Your voice matters and it is powerful.” She gave an example of the effectiveness of a written manifesto by students in France who demanded climate action by the relevant decision makers. This demonstrates that we have a responsibility to foster collaboration and cooperation to create a stronger collective narrative on sustainable development.

Furthermore, we must be more critical and reflective on how we can promote climate solutions and, concurrently, pursue sustainable development effectively. We must acknowledge the fact that the discussion on sustainable development first emerged in the 1980s when the Brundtland report was published. Yet, efforts in sustainable development have been futile because its main mission in alleviating poverty and providing basic education and healthcare alienates the environment, which is crucial in achieving sustainability. At this critical juncture, we must look into the underlying political and economic systems that allow for unsustainable growth and redefine our notion of shared prosperity.

For Malaysian youths, there are present entry points for us to effect change. At the forum, Mr Ridzwan Ali from the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change (MESTECC), highlighted that the ministry has an open-door policy and cited their engagement with the Malaysian Youth Delegation as an example. We have hosted MESTECC at our training series and Post-COP Forum, as well as engaged with them to discuss climate change priority areas. While we continue to expand awareness of the climate crisis among our circles, we need to keep our leaders accountable to their commitments and ensure that our environment is a priority for the decision makers.

Given the limited space we have in the present, we need to start developing our collective priorities instead of having the elders tell us what is important and how we should do things. We must seize, if not create, our own vision and opportunities for prosperity. I call on my fellow Malaysian youth to strengthen our own sense of agency and to start experimenting with how to effect change. There is no denying that there will be failures through experimentation, but this is our only chance to explore and realize our fullest potential for a sustainable future. 

    Author Eira with CEO of Akademi Sains Malaysia Dr Hazami Habib and Professor Emerita Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, International Science Council.

      Written by: Eira Khanum

      Edited by: Afra Alatas, Tan Cai May