How vulnerable is Malaysia to droughts and water shortages? How will climate change affect us? How far have we moved towards a green economy?

For an academic overview of these and other questions, independent scholar Dr Hezri Adnan, has written a book looking at this country’s eco journey.

What started out as a paper on environmental policy in Malaysia for a United Nations journal eventually turned into The Sustainability Shift, a 192-page book on sustainable development. Although the book took a few years to complete before it saw print, the author has no regrets whatsoever.

It aims to show how, through the reformation of “institutional hardware, software and ‘heartware’, Malaysia can nurture an inclusive, sustainable society and also benefit economically by greening its growth”.

So, how did the idea for the book come about?

“In 2005, I submitted a paper, with a colleague, to a United Nations Journal called Natural Resources Forum. The paper was on the evolution of environmental policy in Malaysia and the cap was 6,000 words, but we ended up writing 12,000 words!” recalled Hezri, when we met for an interview recently.

“The editor then said we actually have enough material for a book. That statement encouraged me to find a sponsor and get this material out in a proper book version,” explained Hezri, who obtained his PhD in Public Policy in 2006 from the Australian National University, where he is also an honorary associate professor.

Dr Hezri Adnan, author of The Sustainability Shift and member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

Dr Hezri Adnan, author of The Sustainability Shift and member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

He then approached the Prime Minister’s Exchange Fellowships Programme a few years later with a proposal to write a book on sustainable development policy in Malaysia. To his surprise the Board members liked the idea and granted him an ISIS (Institute of Strategic and International Studies) Fellowship to complete the manuscript within eight months.

However, eight months eventually turned into eight years, mainly because of the book’s broad subject matter.

“It was difficult because sustainable development is kind of an umbrella concept, yet policy prescriptions have got to come from different sectors,” said Hezri, who has co-edited two books, Towards Green Economy (2012) and Facets of Sustainability (2013).

Everyone is needed

Eventually, the chapters of the book all fell into place during his time spent with the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM). It was there that he stumbled upon the need to deal with this “Sustainable Shift”, a phrase coined by Mano Maniam, former EPSM president.

“The key idea is there has to be three shifts – first, the shift away from thinking that sustainable development is just an environmental problem to now dealing with the whole of society and whole of government,” said Hezri, a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel since 2015.

The second shift is the need to think institutionally and in a systemic manner to link up all the different factions in society and also in government, he explained.

The third shift, he added, is to move away from just focusing on policy statements to implementation and thinking how to deliver all the promises made.

“It all sounds obvious but it’s not happening. The moment we say sustainability, we still think of the environment department and so on. That’s why we need to think in a broader manner, and that’s the framework of the book, which aims to put a story together so that people can now think of a new policy focus for sustainability,” he emphasised.

Ballot box

The elected Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia said that 2015 was a watershed year when the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were accepted by all global leaders on Sept 25 in New York.

“Whether we like it or not, sustainable development is a mainstream term now, compared to say 20 years ago. The Sustainable Development Goals are universal for developed and developing countries, and the principle to leave no one behind is so powerful, because it brings human rights into the centre of attention as well,” said Hezri, who is also co-chair of the Civil Society Organisations for Sustainable Development Goals (CSO-SDG) Alliance Malaysia.

“We can develop but there is a new, emerging development model that enables the integration of all three pillars of economics, social and environment in development,” he explained.

“Eventually, environmental and sustainable issues need to reach the ballot box. It’s already happening in some ways.

“There needs to be a very proactive action on the part of civil societies to impress upon politicians that we need to pay attention to this issue.”