Malaysiakini Letter

'Mahathir mudah lupa'

Ravinder Singh
Published:  |  Modified:

LETTER | Talking about Lynas, not very long ago, Dr Mahathir Mohamad had lamented that because of the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory's radioactive waste in Bukit Merah, Batu Gajah, Malaysia had lost one square mile of land as it had been rendered useless because the waste is buried there. He had then said that Lynas must take its waste out of Malaysia as he did not want a repeat of Bukit Merah. This was upon the heels of the statement by the minister of environment that Lynas had signed an agreement to take the waste out before it was granted the licence.

Suddenly he is singing a different tune, having so quickly forgotten what he had said earlier.

After ARE was closed down by a court order (the affected residents had taken a case against ARE), foreign industries did not stop coming to Malaysia, which among other things provides cheap labour and "friendly enforcement" of laws. They can always kow tim and get their way.

In Bukit Merah, ARE had been ordered to bury the waste in trenches lined with reinforced concrete meeting international standards. The factory built about ten trenches on a little hillock. Each was about 20 meters long, three meters deep, four meters wide at the top and two meters wide at the bottom. 

The slanting sides had been lined with just a thin layer of cement plaster which had started breaking off and falling in.

The local residents complained but all fell on deaf ears. They invited the then PM Mahathir to visit the site and see for himself. He vehemently refused to do so, claiming that the trenches had been examined by the departments concerned and met all requirements. Soon after he went to the UK for a three-week holiday and his deputy Musa Hitam took over as acting PM.

The residents invited him to see the trenches. He went. Just a look and he condemned them as unfit to store radioactive waste.

Mahathir returned, pulled up Musa and gave him a tongue-lashing for having brought discredit to the government by visiting the site and overturning his earlier decision. 

Mahathir's argument was that when the government has made a stand, it must be supported by all in the government so that the government's image and reputation are not brought into question. That was the last straw for Musa who threw in the towel and left. He then wrote about it in his book The Musa Dilemma.

I drove to Bukit Merah to see what Mahathir had scolded Musa for.

When I saw what I saw, I couldn't believe that Mahathir was ready to allow ARE to bury radioactive waste with a half-life of a million years or more in earth trenches, because that is what they were. Where was the four-inch reinforced concrete lining the sides and the bottom?

With the radioactive waste now "safely" buried, Mahathir is lamenting the loss of one square mile of land as it cannot be used for anything. What if the waste had been buried in the earthen trenches? I cannot reconcile that the prime minister was so reckless about this. And he has totally forgotten it and now is allowing Lynas to keep in Malaysia thousands of tons of radioactive waste.

He is "giving face" to industrialists who are prepared to sign "good behaviour" agreements and then throw them in the dustbin without fear of being taken to task. This is an invitation for bad industries to come to Malaysia.

While other nations are cleaning up their backyards, we are allowing some of them to dump their waste in our backyard. Is this the way to being a "developed country"? A "First World country"?


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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