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When a massive landslide hit the Karak Highway in Peninsular Malaysia in November 2015, she declared that this was due to the clearing of a nearby forest (something that the authorities denied).
When locals complained that waters near Taman Negara, Pahang, were getting silted up, she led a media expedition up the Tembeling river to expose the logging going on there.
She has spoken out against deforestation not only in Pahang, but also elsewhere.
I first met Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil during a press conference highlighting logging at the Sungai Gapoi Forest in Karak. She seemed a bit like a city slicker slightly out of a place in a remote kampung, but she delivered a fiery speech about something she was clearly passionate about – saving the forests. And this is why we are featuring her as one of the remarkable women in Malaysia who have made a mark in their fields, in this case, the environment.
Ever since her youth, Sabrina has been a nature lover and an outdoor person.
Born and raised in Penang, one of her frequent “playgrounds” was Penang Hill where she often went trekking. She has also scaled, among others, Mount Kinabalu and Gunung Nuang in Selangor.
Thus, it was only natural that in 2010, Sabrina founded the environmental group Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka).
The name roughly translates as “Organisation to Protect Malaysia’s Natural Heritage” and its stated goals include: “to stop the destruction of natural resources, defend the rights of the environment and be the voice of nature”. The group’s acronym, Peka, means “sensitive” or “caring” in Bahasa Malaysia.
“I created Peka because I am a very outdoor person. I have loved the forests, jungle trekking and mountain climbing ever since I was young,” said Sabrina, 54, when met again for an interview recently.
“However, (over the years), what I saw was so much rampant destruction happening in our country. Waterfalls I used to go to have dried up in a few places like Pahang, and our rivers have become so polluted,” she said.
“People do not respect nature due to materialism and the chasing of profits.”
“As the president of an environmental NGO, I have the right to say that when a state has no more forest, then there will be problems with water, flood and drought. It was nothing personal,” she shared.
“As the president of Peka, I will keep on saying that we should not destroy our forests, especially permanent forest reserves,” said Sabrina, who also holds a black belt in taekwondo.
Not many people from her social background – she is the wife of well-known businessman Tan Sri Syed Mohd Yusof Syed Nasir, who is linked to Hard Rock Cafe and Concorde Hotel – have spoken out so boldly on logging issues.
“Who else can do it? Maybe it’s also because I have always been outspoken from young, and I like to think outside the box. I was hoping that I could find more people from the upper classes to come to work together with me,” she said, while admitting that there have been few takers.
Water and floods
“When I see that we don’t respect Mother Nature, which is God’s creation, what’s the point of life?” asked Sabrina.
For her, forests are not just a “greenie” issue and people need to know why and how they are important in all our lives.
“Many people don’t understand where our water comes from so they don’t care if our rivers dry up or get polluted. I keep on saying don’t destroy our forests because they are our lives, our lungs,” she underlined.
“They are our water catchment areas. If there are no forests, our country will be very dry and natural disasters (like droughts and floods) will occur.”
“When we talk about being a developed country, we need to talk about (both) conservation and preservation,” she said.
She reiterated that Peka is not against logging or development per se, but standard procedures need to be followed.
“Authorities and (people in power) should be sensitive enough to take care of the environment. That’s how you gain respect, by showing a good example. Respecting and taking care of nature is also part of Islamic teachings.
“Our society is also to be blamed. The mentality of 90% of Malaysians, when it comes to environment, is still third world. To me, profit and development have to go hand in hand with protecting the environment,” said Sabrina, who also owns a group of eco resorts located in Pahang and Johor.
Everyone must help
It’s been six years since Sabrina first got involved in Peka. How would she describe her journey thus far?
“I feel that I haven’t achieved anything and that there is still a long way to go. We haven’t stopped all the destruction which is still going on and becoming worse,” she said.
“We cannot just depend on NGOs to resolve these issues. The whole society must join forces with policy makers, higher authorities and come together to stop all this. I believe that political will is much needed in the country in order to achieve something.
“If our policy makers do not wake up, our forests and water catchment areas will be gone. What’s the point of having the best buildings and highways if we do not have our natural resources? Any country which overuses their natural resources does not get richer, but poorer.”
Recently, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) Peninsular Malaysia invited Peka to work together in reforestation projects, something that the environmental NGO is more than happy to do.
However, as a whole, even though Peka’s work remains an uphill task, Sabrina is determined to push on.
“At the moment, I still have the strength. I won’t give up until I see that there is totally no hope, or that nothing else can be done. I’m sad and worried for our next generation who will ask us why we never said anything or left anything for them like the rivers, waterfalls and hills,” said the mother of four daughters and a son aged between 15 and 32.
She adds that changing people’s mindset is something very difficult to do and that it is human nature to regret something only when it is gone.
“To me, the forests in Malaysia are the most beautiful in the world. It will be so sad to lose this natural treasure,” she underlined. “I want to call all Malaysians to be responsible in our own country. This is the only country we have and we should really take care of it. The country belongs to all of us.
“When we are surrounded by greens and fresh air, we are happier.”