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  • Writer's pictureDr Hezri Adnan

Seizing the 'Sustainability Moment' as a Policy Entrepreneur

How can we bring about a social change towards a more balanced relationship between environment and development? It's a deceptively simple question, but you could risk spending hours telling incoherent stories to answer it. Or you could write your memoirs, as the famous environmentalist Gurmit Singh did in his Memoirs of a Malaysian Eco-Activist book.

But what about a policy wonk like me? What story am I telling for the benefit of future generations in my journey to promote sustainable development in Malaysian public policy? This question became even more apparent when a group of scholars and activists decided to put together a collection of chapters for a book titled Civic Engagement in Asia: Lessons from Transformative Learning in the Quest for a Sustainable Future, which was first published by Pustaka Obor and later by Springer.

This version was published by Pustaka Obor, Jakarta, in 2021.

At the urging of the project leader and editor of the book, Dr M. Indrawan, I decided to reflect on my 20 years of working with different groups and approaches. And I did this by turning the camera lens on myself as an active political actor or, more precisely - a policy entrepreneur. I titled the chapter 'Policy Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development in Malaysia: A Reflection', where I share insights into the challenges, strategies and visions for collaboration.

In terms of challenges, there were many, but I highlighted two main issues. First, environmental protection isn't a high political priority in Malaysia, resulting in weak enforcement of environmental laws and inadequate government spending. Second, the environmental movement in Malaysia is weakening because activism isn't strategically organised, and grassroots support is lacking.

These challenges require different strategies to adapt and combine depending on the situation. In short, I've worked within the public administration system to influence policy and bring 'ecological rationality' or environmental concerns into development discourse and planning. Coalition building is key to promoting sustainable development, and I've worked with the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) to garner support. Other strategies I used were engaging with the public through commentary, appearances on TV and writing books to raise awareness of sustainability issues. Yes, the federal government is a vital lobbying point, but by focusing on state authorities, I created new opportunities for policy action in Perak and Penang.

One thing is sure: there is no magic formula for advocating for sustainable development, as many factors influence engagement. In this chapter, I've acknowledged that it takes time to convince government officials, and success depends on the political resources available. A policy entrepreneur's effectiveness also depends on their political resources, which are scarce in Malaysia's sustainability context.

A multi-stakeholder approach is critical to shaping, building and leading the discourse and action for sustainable development in any country. Regarding my vision of collaboration, I worked with Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria to establish the Malaysian Civil Society Alliance for the Sustainable Development Goals. This CSO Alliance was established as an informal network to influence public policy. It aims to become a "think-and-do tank" on sustainable development issues and grow into a policy coalition with more significant influence on policy change. The informal organisation was eventually transformed into a formal All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sustainable Development Goals and was funded by the federal government.

In conclusion, I found that despite government declarations on sustainable development, implementation in Malaysia still needs to improve. The low level of awareness among Malaysians and low interest among policymakers complicate the problem. Policy entrepreneurs and members of the epistemic community must continue to work together to build a stronger coalition that promotes truly balanced development across the country.


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