By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
With the mythical year of 2020 now a reality, the first of the Pakatan Harapan cabinet of ministers has resigned. Unfortunately, Dr. Maszlee, our now former Education Minister, might not be the one who needed to go. It doesn’t take much to see that, of the entire cabal of ministers we have had so far, Dr. Maszlee was one that actually seemed to take his job seriously.
Whilst he has been criticised during his tenure quite viciously, there was some progress towards his motto of ‘Education For All’. For example, he introduced a free breakfast program at schools, abolished examinations for students from Years 1 to 3 and even allowed stateless and undocumented children to attend school. On top of this, Dr. Maszlee also was the first minister that met with the Network of Government Contract Workers (Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan, JPKK) and was involved with the plans to do away with the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA). Despite all the pressure put onto him, Dr. Maszlee still managed to deliver some important steps towards a better structured education system. If any minister deserved some time to properly flesh out their policies, it was Dr. Maszlee.
A Nuclear Disaster
This, however, cannot be said for many of his peers. Particularly, one minister delivered not much more than disappointments for those in the know. This, of course, is the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), YB Yeo Bee Yin. Specifically, YB Yeo has demonstrated a deep lack of respect for stakeholders with first-hand knowledge of certain scientific issues, preferring instead to unilaterally make decisions not based on actual facts.
A look-back at Malaysia’s energy policies reveals much is in the way of progress. YB Yeo stresses upon the need to develop clean energy options for Malaysia. However, almost 2 years after she had become a minister, these remain vague notions still. The only real work that has been done is promoting solar power, which seems viable at first, but has associated frailties that make it insufficient to properly decarbonise our energy mix. As written before, solar power, while producing cheap electricity in optimum conditions, fails to do so indefinitely. With high temperatures, cloudy weather and night time, the production of electricity from solar panels wanes. Most solar panels realistically only produce about a fifth of the power they are rated for and only at specific times. This means a variable electricity generation source is needed as a backup whenever solar power production slows. Usually, natural gas peaking is used for this purpose, but this power source is not only carbon intensive but extremely expensive.
Shockingly, the minister also closed the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) without allowing the reports prepared by the corporation to be presented to the ministry. These reports cost the Malaysian public more than RM 40 million and included detailed information about the viability of nuclear power for Malaysia. For a minister who seems concerned with environmental improvements, YB Yeo is unfairly prejudiced against the only scalable, proven source of clean energy that has successfully kept the carbon footprint of many nations small. France, Canada and Sweden, for example, have very clean electricity which is produced continuously partly or mostly due to nuclear power. Nowadays, countries like Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates and Belarus are building their first nuclear power plants, with many others expressing interest, whilst China, India and Russia, lead the way with many new nuclear builds coming online.
However, the minister seems content with standing by the pre-election stance of her political party in instilling unnecessary fear of radiation within their supporters. Back when they were part of the opposition, it was convenient to use this fear as a weapon against Barisan Nasional. A deep existential fear of probable cancer would band voters against the identified enemy which may boost their ratings. That time, though, has now passed. As a government, it is now imperative for Pakatan Harapan to deliver proper results, not just beat around the bush to keep their ruse going.
What is especially tragic is that there is seemingly no end to coal power plants, with the first unit of two coal power plants owned by Jimah East Power recently achieving commercial operation. Another will come online by December 2020. Coal-firing produces fly ash, a substance with as much as 100 times the radioactivity released by nuclear power plants. In fact, the whole petrochemical industry produces sludges many times more radioactive than that released by nuclear power plants. Radioactive material from petrochemical facilities are even allowed to be recycled even when they are many times more radioactive than that from a nuclear power plant. Such is the extent of the bias against nuclear power.
Lies on Lynas
The minister’s party also unabashedly used Lynas Corp to further their own political agenda. Lynas is a rare-earth refining facility that produces, mainly, neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) which is a raw material to produce high-strength magnets. The refinement process produces some by-products of low radioactivity, many times lower than conservative safety limits. Lynas showed impressive responsibility in handling this by-product in a safe and secure manner with their temporary Residue Storage Facilities and even guaranteed Permanent Disposal Facilities (PDF) to be built when needed. This was overlooked by YB Yeo’s party in demonising the company when they were part of the opposition, with their secretary-general even calling Lynas a nuclear power plant.
This attitude continued when the good minister ordered a review of Lynas’s activities. When this came out in support of Lynas, calling the company safe and even a good investment, the minister was having none of it. She began to call for Lynas to remove all their residue immediately to Australia or risk losing their operating license. This was in direct violation of their licensing terms, whereby the residue was first to be researched upon to be recycled, stored permanently in a PDF if the first option fails and only if those two options have failed, be exported out of Malaysia. The minister, trying to save face, continued to skew the narrative and, with her colleague from the same party, YB Wong Tack, continued to deceive the people of Malaysia.
Saddening indeed, this whole incident, as Lynas remains a potential lynchpin to Malaysia’s liberation from dependency on global superpowers. If we strategically partner with Lynas to use their products in developing government-backed downstream industries producing rare-earth products such as the aforementioned magnets, we may become the preferred supplier for many nations looking to develop electronics and, especially, electric cars. Western nations with the economic capability to expand these industries often look to dissociate themselves with China’s domineering influence in the rare-earth market to not be unduly manipulated in the future. With over 80% of the market supplied by China, it is only Lynas that can provide a viable alternative with its 15% share.
Dr. Maszlee’s resignation comes as a bitter beginning to 2020. He was a minister who seemed the complete opposite of YB Yeo. Humble, visionary and committed to a goal of proper growth, Dr. Maszlee was shaping a decidedly difficult part of Malaysian society slowly towards betterment. YB Yeo blatantly shows a lack of these qualities, and so do many of her colleagues. Unlike Dr. Maszlee, their collective ineptitude is slowing Malaysia’s growth and stands in the way of Malaysians’ growth. If anything, Dr. Maszlee’s resignation might lead to a cabinet reshuffle. Whether this would lead to any substantial changes for the better is uncertain. What is, though, is that if Malaysia should have a cleaner, more technologically advanced future, it is MESTECC that needs changing.