5 February 2023

Giving voice to sustainable development communication

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By Muhammad Shuhaily Mohd. Jasmany and Michael Hoe

Sustainable development is a topic that is gaining immense support over the years, especially with the Earth’s biodiversity being threatened by climate change, pollution and habitat destruction. This support must, however, depend on public knowledge of sustainable development which in turn is dependent on how the government (and by extension the mass media) portrays the relevant scientific data. Without the public’s support, bringing about positive and major changes in sustainability will be even harder to achieve.

The ability to communicate the languages of scientific research in a manner that is accurate while being easy for people to understand is essential to creating a science citizen nation. Doing so will help spread knowledge about certain subjects and topics (in this case, sustainable development) and get people to ask question on the matters and thus stimulate further discussion among the communities. However, such a thing depends on the government’s willingness share the necessary information with the public, something easier said than done given the government’s preference for manipulating the data and showing only what it wants its citizens to know. Even during the pandemic lockdown, the government still refused to be transparent, using complex lingo to blanket the science presented and thus make things much more difficult and devastating for everyone.

white and black box

Dr. Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad, Universiti Malaya’s (UM) expert on Sustainable Development, stated her views on the matter during an up-close and personal key discussion, highlighting the government’s role as the medium of change, specifically in deliberating the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. When asked if it is possible for the government to develop more promising roles towards sustainable development and to ensure the increment of public participation, Dr. Zeeda says “Yes, of course. Actions like Sekitar Kita and the Water Warriors will be able to gain more traction faster with proper actions of promoting it to the public, this will make Science Citizen action even more feasible”.

One factor that plays a role in how governments relay information is their ability to execute the relevant actions, “walk the talk” as they say. It is a known fact that Malaysians should not be relying on the government to act towards change for there is no ideal and perfect government in planning and executing change. However, having a government with great spirit of commitment, knowledge of what they want and ability to make the right decision is one aspect of good governance that all of us visualise. As to how we can create such a system, look to Singapore as an example. Singapore’s government possess a great agenda of change due to knowing exactly what they actually want. Because of this, the bureaucratic leaders are better able to envision their actions and are capable of looking towards goals that benefit both the current and future generations.

“Communicating sustainable development in this era does not necessarily require a top-down approach where government machinery is needed” says UM’s Associate Professor of Socio-Environmental Energy Science, Dr. Zul Ilham Zulkiflee Lubes. “The top-down approach needs system-level changes that are normally driven by policy and operational directives” he continues. “As an example, a country or a state may impose stricter emission standards for all vehicle manufacturers or sellers in order to enforce air pollution control. If the country or state has significant market power, it will create a ripple effect to the industry and change the regional scenario.” Another example Dr. Zul Ilham brought up is if we could hypothetically ask the world powers to jointly declare that non-renewable energy production is illegal. “Although the resulting carbon emission will be decreased drastically due to this affirmative action, the reality is that in order to achieve this, it will take a lot of time to convince the massive stakeholders involved and the political obstacles will be insurmountable” he concludes.

green and yellow flower field

Of course, being a change agent alone is not enough to make a difference, we must also foster our future change agents, provide each and every one of them the opportunity to innovate and make the world a better place. And order to create a new generation of change agents, we must foster this mindset at the college level. By understanding how university students view themselves and the world and by fulfilling the factors (voice, role, empowerment) that determine students’ willingness to become agents of change, we will be better able to encourage students to adopt roles as change agents and work towards a sustainable future. As Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, once said “if you give me ten young people, I can change the world.” So, why can’t we? If we can turn one person into a change agent, imagine how much we can accomplish if we do the same on a national, and later, global scale.

This concept formed the basis for the ‘heartware’ approach that UM’s Water Warriors (WW) adopted for their projects. Where ‘hardware’ is the utilisation of science and technology and ‘software’ are rules and regulations that have to be applied, heartware represents the human element, such as the relationship between humankind and nature, local traditions and folklore and the role of local communities, scientists and politicians. WW recognised that a combination of hardware, software and heartware is necessary for achieving their goals in watershed sustainability. WW’s co-founders Affan Nasaruddin and Siti Norasiah Abdul Kadir had organised various community activities, such as gotong-royong (communal clean-ups), to get people involved in the revitalisation of UM’s lakes and rivers, including Tasek Varsiti. “We were inspired by the use of traditional local shared values to drive the heartware of the community in Lake Biwa, Japan” said Norasiah “and wanted to apply the same strategy for Tasek Varsiti.”

The RIMBA Project also utilizes the heartware approach to inspire support for urban biodiversity conservation amongst the UM student body. As such, a variety of capacity building activities were conducted for express purpose. Among these are a series of workshops which included art workshop for creating nature illustrations and paper-making (the latter encouraging students to recycle their exam question papers rather than throw them away), a photography workshop to provide support for ongoing nature documentation work and an ongoing series of nature guide exposure workshops to create interest and, hopefully, inspire students to become volunteer guides at the Botanic Garden. The RIMBA Project also runs an online nature watch (therimbaproject.wordpress.com) to provide students and the general public with permanently accessible resources and thus, widen their influence.

Dr. Zul and his #energysavingculture research team, meanwhile, aim to implement a bottom-up approach to sustainable development communication, seeking to influence policy through behavioural changes. “The idea of any bottom-up approach is that any individual actions can have a massive impact when adopted by large numbers of people, and the barrier to entry is low” explains Dr. Zul. “An individual behaviour change such as always unplugging your electronics after use may have a limited impact but has great potential if adopted by many.” “The key to effectively activating the potential of a bottom-up approach lies in communicating both the goals of behavioural changes as well as the best strategies for implementing these changes in order to have maximum impact. If you portray being sustainable as in-trend or popular, many will jump on the bandwagon and the bottom-up approach will be more outspread” he concludes.

Breathe neon signage

It is vital that the government provides a proper communicative tone and adopt new communication strategies such as the bottom-up approach, in order to spread the agenda of sustainability for current and future generations. Equally vital is the need for the public to become agents of change, pushing the government to adopt sustainable practices and working hand-in-hand to transform our nation into one that can provide for our children and children’s children.

As Dr. Zeeda says “Be a leader, and not a boss, know your people and choose the right person for the job, not just for political strength; be a people’s leader, listen and hear the people’s needs and know who the main actor in the scenario is; be a philosopher leader and lead by good example. This is the only way we are able to correct the systematic and functional problems of the nation.”

Make your voices heard, because if the government and the media won’t tell you the truth, you have to tell the truth to them.


Muhammad Shuhaily Mohd. Jasmany is a postgraduate candidate at the Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya; while Michael Hoe is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Research Management and Services, Universiti Malaya. The authors may be reached at michaelhoe.hoe@gmail.com