Many visitors come to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei to experience first hand the region’s amazing natural environment. However, these countries, like others the world over, are grappling with the sometimes conflicting demands of economic development and environmental conservation. Items on the local sustainability agenda include deforestation, a result of the rampant growth of palm-oil plantations in Malaysia; protection of endangered wildlife; cleaning up polluted waterways; and cutting the region’s carbon footprint through innovative energy-efficiency projects.

Overview

Large parts of Peninsular Malaysia (132,090 sq km) are covered by dense jungle, particularly its mountainous, thinly populated northern half, although it's dominated by palm oil and rubber plantations. On the western side of the peninsula there is a long, fertile plain running down to the sea, while on the eastern side the mountains descend more steeply and the coast is fringed with sandy beaches. Jungle features heavily in Malaysian Borneo, along with many large river systems, particularly in Sarawak. Mt Kinabalu (4095m) in Sabah is Malaysia’s highest mountain.

Singapore, consisting of the main, low-lying Singapore island and 63 much smaller islands within its territorial waters, is a mere 137km north of the equator. The central area is an igneous outcrop, containing most of Singapore’s remaining forest and open areas. The western part of the island is a sedimentary area of low-lying hills and valleys, while the southeast is mostly flat and sandy. The undeveloped northern coast and the offshore islands are home to some mangrove forest.

The sultanate of Brunei covers just 5765 sq km (the Brunei government-owned cattle farm in Australia is larger than this!). The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, overlooks the estuary of the mangrove-fringed Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), which opens onto Brunei Bay and the separate, eastern part of the country, Temburong, a sparsely populated area of largely unspoilt rainforest. Approximately 75% of Brunei retains its original forest cover.

Environmental Issues

There’s a disparity between government figures and those of environmental groups, but it’s probable that up to 80% of Malaysia’s rainforests have been logged. There have also been huge environmental consequences as vast swathes of land have been razed and planted with trees that yield lucrative palm oil; Malaysia accounts for over 40% of global production of palm oil.

The crown of eco and social irresponsibility goes to Bakun Dam in Sarawak, which flooded some 690 sq km (the size of Singapore) of some of the world’s most diverse rainforest in late 2010 and forced up to 10,000 indigenous peoples from their homes. The dam has been criticised as being corrupt, ill-planned and unnecessary, but the state has plans to build more dams in the region.

Responsible ecotourism is the traveller’s best antidote to these trends.

Green, Clean Singapore

Singapore’s reputation as an efficiently run, squeaky clean place is well justified. The country has a vision of becoming a ‘City in a Garden,’ a cutting-edge role model of urban sustainability and biodiversity. A planned 35% improvement in energy efficiency between 2005 and 2030 led the government to introduce a sustainability rating system for buildings – the so-called Green Mark. Since 2008, all construction projects greater than 2000 sq metres (both new and retrofitted) are obliged to meet the Green Mark’s minimum standards.

Singapore is steamrolling towards its target of 80% of buildings achieving Green Mark standards by 2030, with over 36% ticked off in 2018. Generous incentive schemes have encouraged an ever-growing number of buildings to incorporate sustainable design features, among them sun-shading exteriors, efficient water systems and carbon-emission-monitoring computers.

Singapore’s incinerated waste is shipped off to Pulau Semakau, an island 8km south of the mainland. The 3.5 sq km landfill here is projected to meet the country’s waste needs until 2045. More interestingly, the island itself has been much promoted by the government as an ‘eco’ hot spot. Rehabilitated mangrove swamps sit next to a coral nursery. In 2005, the island was also opened for recreation activities such as nature walks and fishing.

Though little of Singapore’s original wilderness is left, growing interest in ecology has seen bird sanctuaries and parkland areas created, with new parks in the Marina Bay development as well as a series of connectors that link up numerous existing parks and gardens around the island.

Responsible Travel

  • Tread lightly and buy locally, avoiding (and reporting) instances where you see parts of or products made from endangered species for sale. In Malaysia call the 24-hour Wildlife Crime Hotline (019-356 4194) to report illegal activities.
  • Visit nature sites, hire local trekking guides and provide custom for ecotourism initiatives. By doing so you’re putting cash in local pockets and casting a vote for the economic (as opposed to the purely ecological) value of sustainability and habitat conservation.
  • Sign up to be a voluntary forest monitor at Forest Watch (www.timalaysia-forestwatch.org.my), a Transparency International Malaysia project.
  • Check out projects sponsored and promoted by the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (www.ecomy.org), Wild Asia (www.wildasia.org) to learn more about responsible tourism in the region.
  • Keep abreast of and support local campaigns by checking out the websites of organisations like WWF Malaysia (www.wwf.org.my), the Malaysian Nature Society (www.mns.my), EcoKnights (www.ecoknights.org.my), ECO Singapore (www.eco-singapore.org) and Green Brunei (www.green-brunei.com).
  • Carbon-cutting overland travel to Peninsular Malaysia from Europe and most parts of Asia is possible as long as you’re not in a hurry. See Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/malaysia.htm) for how to reach Kuala Lumpur from London by a combination of trains and buses in 3½ weeks.