Burning Down the House

As the eve of Brexit decision day approaches, I’ve been pondering why there’s so much nationalism and populism showing up in western democracies lately. Understanding most people on the planet aren’t at the high-end of the economic scale, frustration with large-scale cronyism, élite billionaires and corporate greed is obvious. Realizing it’s not limited to western democracies, I’ll share a perfect example of average citizens versus “the man” that’s right outside our condo’s window. Having foregone convenience by not living closer to Penang’s shopping, amenities and other things that make retirement worthwhile on the island, we chose the beach town of Batu Ferrenghi for its relative peaceful atmosphere and 360 degree stunning views of the jungle and sea. As the one year anniversary of our tenancy nears, we’re slowly losing the never ending war being waged on Penang island’s natural resources by greedy developers.

Routine garbage burning by a local business owner at our bus stop

Routine garbage burning by a local business owner at our bus stop

While there’s many reasons for retiring overseas from lack of gun violence to an inexpensive cost of living, quality of life issues exist on this side of the earth also and my biggest pet peeve is the burning. Proving that any democracy is only as good a the government legislating the rules, I’ve maintained that well-intentioned national laws are useless without enforcement. With a strangely misguided sense of pride, everyone from our building manager to the local food vendors tells us that burning is illegal in Malaysia. Excluding the haze season (which is mostly not Malaysia’s fault), telling us that nobody burns in Penang is about as correct as our property agent’s “guarantee” that the jungle surrounding our condo is “protected land” safe from future development. Unclear whether people turn a blind eye, are too busy to notice or simply choose to believe what their government officials tell them, it’s an outright lie. Unlike Myanmar, where we saw a real “developing nationwith rampant poverty and no waste management resources, Malaysia enjoys the highest economic status in the ASEAN but sometimes still acts like it’s still 1957 when it comes to environmental awareness.

In their defense, Penang did just start an island-wide recycling program and conspicuously posted signs are all over but getting anyone to take part is another issue. Taking decades to reduce smoking and increase recycling habits in North America, old habits die-hard and many Asians view their world quite differently. Not inundated with public service campaigns, citizens of developing nations are more interested in status symbols like driving expensive cars than worrying about toxic chemicals in the air. They use an extraordinary amount of plastic and much of it winds up as poison in my lungs when the small business owner across the street decides it’s time to start a bonfire outside his shop and burn a week’s worth of garbage. Or when members of the military owned compound across the street toss a bunch of garbage in a pile for reasons unknown and set it ablaze for hours.

Returning to why we chose our condo, the infinity pool is possibly the nicest one anywhere in Penang with panoramic views of the surrounding jungle, the town and the sea. Living nine stories up in a west-facing unit, this is the view from our double-sided balcony.


Unfortunately, moving the camera a few degrees west reveals the hideously ugly 25 story development project known as “The Marin”. A year ago it was just a foundation and although we knew about the project’s three-year long construction schedule, the noise level is considerably better than most other condos where else expats might live due to multiple Trumpesque monstrosity projects being built for unknown foreign owners with millions of dollars to invest. Ensured by our property agent that the hills are all part of protected state-owned land, we’ve endured the project mostly with only minor noise issues.

The ugly condo project across the way from our condo

The ugly condo project across the way from our condo

Already proven wrong by a developer’s recent quest to build a 15 story budget hotel across the street on a miniscule sized piece of land, our property agent changed her story this year when we renegotiated our lease and all of a sudden, she’s unsure how much future development will occur despite the embellished story of protected land. Writing clauses into our new lease that lets us out early without financial ramifications should they begin construction of the new hotel or knock out more jungle for a planned “ring road”, things appeared relatively OK until a few weeks ago when we began hearing the obnoxiously annoying sound of chain saws in an area behind the pool not far from the new condo development. Bad enough by itself, large-scale fires began polluting the entire area on a daily basis despite everyone’s claim that “burning is illegal” in Malaysia.

The burning seen from our balcony

The burning as seen from our balcony

Knowing everyone does pretty much whatever they want with no consequences in Asia despite supposed laws prohibiting many things, first I thought it was some asshole cutting trees for firewood. Given the trail next to the big rock, the area is accessible by motorbike and I could see two guys cutting and burning with my binoculars. Typically, nobody else in the condo seemed to notice and when I’d point it out to our mostly European neighbors at the pool, they shrug their shoulders indicating they could care less. Appearing to be too far up the mountain for any kind of land development, the cutting and burning went on for weeks while the smoke drifted into our living room, usually during dinnertime. Mostly annoyed because it seems reprehensible for Penangites to illegally gut and decimate what little remaining forest there is, I went to one our building managers to ask about it.

Nearing retirement, the veteran manager that’s been there since the condo opened came back and gave me the phone number of a local agency responsible for land development. Explaining that foreigners are not allowed to take part in local affairs or politics, I pointed out that it’s inappropriate for me to start asking questions and in Malaysia you can’t do anything without disclosing your passport and identity. Feeling it’s not my place but wondering why nobody cares when people burn (especially if it’s burning down the forest), I got no satisfaction but assumed it wouldn’t continue too long. After a few more weeks, the size of the now burned out wasteland got larger and was easily visible from the naked eye. Amazed that two people were ruining the air and engaging in supposedly illegal activities, I approached the other building manager. Recently hired, she’s more aggressive and seems to take an interest in local matters. Asking for proof, we went back to my balcony where I snapped some photos and emailed them to her as she assured me she’d file an appropriate complaint.

The beautiful hillside now looks like a California wildfire site after the fire burns out.

The beautiful hillside now looks like a California wildfire site after the fire burns out.

Eventually, some other long-time condo owners caught wind of our inquiries and they told us a small farmer owns the land and that he’s “clearing trees to plant durian trees“. Sounding suspicious to me, nobody I’ve seen in Penang plants farms on hillsides sloped by mountainous terrain except possibly on the back side of the island and the path of the destruction was now curiously close to the access point of the new condo development. Then another long time owner told us that the entire jungle area from east to west in and around the area seen in my photos is not only privately owned but it’s earmarked for total destruction in favor of high-end residential development years ago. Thankfully, the 2008 Financial Crisis temporarily halted those plans. Sounding sadly pathetic but more reasonable, I accepted that private land is in fact private and owners can do whatever they want. But one point still remained unanswered:

Why are they burning the entire forest if burning is illegal? And if it’s prohibited by law, why the hell can’t someone do anything about it ?

Always skirting the issue, I hadn’t really done the obvious (Google my inquiry) because it seemed so fundamentally ridiculous that Federal law so easily available to everyone would be so blatantly ignored. Scoring one on the positive side for the western nations, it’s likely that illegal burning of forests so close to population centers in North America would be investigated and shut down pretty quickly. Offenders refusing to comply would be documented on social media and probably pressured into stopping. Nevertheless, here it is as plain as day in Section 29A of The Laws Of Malaysia, Environmental Quality Act of 1974.


Confirming my suspicions about the farm owner story, I ran into one of the two board members of our condo that actually lives here while sunbathing at the pool. At the time, a visible raging bonfire was happening only a few thousand feet away. Having been in Europe for a few months, he was unaware of this particular situation but happened to be with the building manager so I used the opportunity to question what happened to the manager’s alleged complaint to the local authorities. Replying “done”, my friend asked her exactly what that meant. Explaining how they’d be “investigating the issue” she continued to skirt the issue of burning being illegal as well as dodging questions about her personal feelings as a Malaysian about citizens violating the nation’s laws. Returning to my original premise, I reiterate that unenforced laws serve little purpose other than looking good to foreign investors and I don’t expect the burning to ever stop in my lifetime any more than I expect meaningful gun control laws in America no many how many times lunatics slaughter innocent people with assault weapons. But the annual haze is bad enough without private citizens adding to the problem.

Is this the future view in Batu Ferrenghi?

Is this the future view in Batu Ferrenghi?

For what it’s worth, my friend’s story about who owns the land in question had little to do with small farmers and instead he informed me that the developer’s majority shareholder is a Texas-based American firm leaving little doubt in my mind who’s doing the clear cutting and even less doubt about what the beautiful town of Batu Ferringhi will look like after another greedy corporation cuts its way into what’s left of this nation’s natural resources in the name of profits. Apologizing for the cynical nature of this post, I’m trying to spend more time enjoying early retirement while appreciating all the benefits of life in developing Southeast Asian nations (and there are lots of them). But I’m almost at the point of understanding a little more about populism and in fact I agree with the populist notion that America needs a new president with fresh ideas, albeit one that’s not a xenophobic racist and a pathological narcissist.

imageMeanwhile, we’ll enjoy the views while they last and probably move somewhere else soon knowing that I tried to do my part to spread the word about environmentalism. Too bad the almighty corporation thrives in Malaysia as much as North America. As foreigners and MM2H holders, we’re prohibited from interfering with or participating in any political activities and although not specifically stated, it’s usually best to keep your complaints away from any government officials working for the sovereign nation hosting you. Little consolation for my lungs and future generations of Southeast Asians, I guess I’ll let Greenpeace worry about little nuisances like climate change and environmentally poisonous acts ignored by local governments while I go swimming.

Thoughts and comments on this topic? Please help spread the message to Southeast Asians why the environment matters. Your kids future may depend on it.


1 thought on “Burning Down the House

  1. Mike

    “Proving that any democracy is only as good a the government legislating the rules, I’ve maintained that well-intentioned national laws are useless without enforcement. ”
    Which is one good thing about the military government here at the moment …when the general gives an order he expects it to be carried out, and those down the ranks know that they should carry them out. Unlike the police, National parks, Lands Dept, Marine safety dept etc under the previous “democracy” who would turn a blind eye if doing their duty was too arduous, involved getting out of the aircon office or just more “rewarding” when they turned a blind eye.
    So people infringing on National Parks etc are getting their buildings seized, people encroaching on public beach land are getting their restaurants knocked down under this government.
    But I’m sure that when a so called democratic government is elected here things will return to normal, so I hope you are considering Chiang Mai with your eyes open !



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