Engr Gurmit Singh KS
Gurmit Singh, 75, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (CETDEM), has been an active supporter of sustainable living in Malaysia as well as an advocate for environmental conservation and rehabilitation. For more than 40 years, Gurmit has been reaching out to Malaysians and reminding them of the need to work together to keep the environment clean for future generations. Gurmit’s efforts have earned him recognition and accolades including the Langkawi Award 1993 for championing environmental issues, the Outstanding Sustainability Contribution Award 2009 from the Institution of Surveyors, Malaysia, the UN Malaysia Award 2013 and the Green Catalysts Award 2015 by Green Technology Corporation Malaysia.
Gurmit Singh K.S. was born during the Japanese occupation of Malaya on 3 November 1942 in George Town, Penang. Despite being born during the world war, he recalled his early childhood as unremarkable, save for a brief episode in which he was sent back to his father’s hometown in Punjab, India, when he was three years old. “My stay in India did not last long, and due to economic and social difficulties I returned to Malaya in 1948”. Back in Penang, he was briefly enrolled in the privately-run Lutheran English School for Standard One before transferring to the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) where he would continue his primary education up till Form One. Gurmit proved to be a brilliant student, scoring at the top of his class each year and dedicating his spare time to reading books he enjoyed and exploring his neighbourhood. “As a child, I was a curious and adventurous boy and had little difficulty making friends,” he said. “While I was not into sports, but I enjoyed exploring my neighbourhood, especially after I acquired a used bicycle which quickly became the object of my attention,” he said.
In 1957, Gurmit moved on to secondary school, or rather, moved to a new building of his existing institution. ACS had erected a new building which was to be called the Methodist’s Boys School (MBS). At MBS, Gurmit became quite involved in extra-curricular activities, serving as a school prefect and joining several student clubs. However, it was the Georgetown Senior Boy Scout Troop that piqued his interest the most. “With the guidance and encouragement from my scoutmaster, I spent a lot of time outdoors, going on hikes and accumulating badges and promotions within the troop.” He then continued, “The expeditions into the hills of Penang Island had given me an appreciation for nature which remains with me until today.” Getting into university was a challenging time in Gurmit’s life. Despite being head prefect, sporting an impressive list of accomplishments as scout leader and above average academic results, he was unable to secure any scholarships or student loans. “I saved up money from temporary teaching jobs at MBS and after a brief six-month stint with the Royal Malaysian Air Force, I finally took up an offer to study engineering at University of Malaya in 1965 at the age of 23,” he said.
Although he struggled academically, Gurmit may have found his true calling as a future activist when he was elected to the council of the University of Malaya Students Union. As an active participant in university affairs, the union allowed Gurmit to hone his leadership skills and develop an interest in championing for the rights of others. One thing led to another and Gurmit found himself elected as deputy president of the National Union of Malaysian Students – a role that broadened his worldview as he was able to travel to other countries. “I graduated from the University of Malaya after five years of study. Ultimately, it was my student activism that kept me going despite many setbacks, including repeating a year due to poor examination results,” he said. Several months after getting his degree, Gurmit was offered a job with the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) where his life would change forever.
Gurmit worked for the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia for five years as an electrical assistant works engineer, during which he was able to meet and share ideas with other researchers who specialised in different scientific disciplines. During his spare time, Gurmit involved himself with various social organisations. His association with other progressive-minded individuals prompted Gurmit to take a greater interest in academic freedom, human rights and most significantly, environmental affairs. Sharing his experience he said, “Although trained as an Electrical Engineer, I moved into social issues and environment in the 1970s where I became the President of the Selangor Graduates Society and the Founder President of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) in 1974.” Gurmit recalled when the members of the Graduate Society got wind of a new proposal by the government – the Environmental Quality Act – he and his peers felt emboldened to create their own organisation, which they did in the form of the EPSM. Gurmit took an active role in getting the organisation off the ground as its founder-president and embarked on what would soon become his lifelong passion.
Gurmit helmed EPSM during its early, turbulent years and remained an active President for 20 years. Even though he officially left the organisation in 1994, he is still acknowledged by EPSM as an advisor. Times were tough back in the 1970s as the government kept a close eye on organisations that showed any signs of political leanings. Nevertheless, with Gurmit as its head, the EPSM grew into one of Malaysia’s most vocal and visible environmental bodies, highlighting numerous environmental concerns through the media, discussions with government agencies, campaigns against polluters, surveys and studies, environmental education and awareness via public talks and the society’s own publication, Alam Sekitar (Environment). Throughout all of this time, Gurmit served as the EPSM’s public face and spokesperson, solidifying his new role as an environmental activist. The iconic image of him cycling through the streets of Kuala Lumpur while wearing a gas mask was captured in 1979 on World Environment Day (6 June), was a bold statement to highlight the air pollution problems in the city as well as the terrible traffic conditions.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gurmit strongly advocated for environmental reforms. While changing the mindset of Malaysians at a grassroot level remained one of his top priorities, he was keenly aware of the bigger picture of climate change and sustainable living. Gurmit founded the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (CETDEM) in 1985 as a complement to EPSM but one targeting businesses, government agencies and citizen groups. Among its most notable projects was the 1986 CETDEM Organic Farming project to encourage more ecologically sound agricultural practices in Malaysia and to reduce the country’s excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Talking about his experiences, Gurmit said, “In my work, I have frequently faced apathy and sometimes hostility from various levels of officials, businesses and even individuals – even now when propagating concepts of sustainability.” However he added with perseverance, challenging resistance and sharing positive experiences from elsewhere he was able to overcome them.
Between the years 1986 and 2009, Gurmit was also an active member of the Environmental Quality Council, Malaysia. In the 1990s, his activist spirit did not diminish as he was appointed coordinator of the Malaysian Climate Change Group (MCCG) which was jointly formed in 1992 by EPSM, CETDEM and the Malaysian Nature Society. He also served as the Regional Coordinator of the Climate Action Network Southeast Asia (CANSEA), which he played a key role in forming in 1992. Gurmit recalls the formation of CANSEA and its continued survival over 26 years, despite changes of coordinators and NGOs, as one of his proudest achievements. In the 2000s, he has been a member of several UNDP Malaysia Project Steering Committees including the Malaysian Industrial Energy Efficiency Improvement Project (2000-2007) and the Second National Communication project to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) which took place from 2007-2010.
Looking back over his career, Gurmit recalls some of his best memories which include seeing energy conservation and renewable energy taking root in the country; having the Tembeling Dam cancelled; having Environmental Impact Assessments implemented more regularly; the success of CETDEM’s organic farming initiative and the operation of an energy efficient and cool terrace house in SS2, Petaling Jaya. Although he is already 75 years old, Gurmit Singh has yet to retire from his cause for Mother Nature. He still sits on the Board of Directors for CETDEM as Chairman and serves in several other advisory roles. “Issues on the impact of climate change, water stresses, land management, unsustainable management of all resources and inadequate political commitment continue to be a region. At the individual level, we can play our part to reduce our ecological footprints by learning and understanding how it can be done," he stresses.
“Minimise my personal ecological footprint and do whatever good I can do to try to leave the world a better place when I depart.”
Message for Young Malaysians
“Rise above selfishness and excel in your endeavours for the betterment of the nation.”