Don’t protect the wrong

Don’t protect the wrong

Wednesday September 22, 2010

Don’t protect the wrong

The Star Says

TO anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Perhilitan, Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, its duty is to protect our nation’s flora and fauna rather than tolerate its ruthless exploitation.

With the questionable conduct of some Perhilitan officials in the infamous Anson Wong affair, the department’s announced revamp is long overdue. But will this promised “revamp” be the thorough overhaul the department needs, or will it be a mere bureaucratic whitewash?

The record of such matters is discouraging and disquieting. Perhilitan’s Penang director had simply been transferred, rather than fully investigated and penalised for any misconduct, following a disturbing pattern of transfers of controversial civil servants.

These transfers tend to be to locations too remote for continued controversy, and where misconduct may continue unobserved. The official message is that those suspected of guilt can remain free of proper investigations and disciplinary action, so long as they keep a low profile.

With convicted serial wildlife smuggler Anson Wong, the authorities have again shown a woeful lack of backbone. His latest crime had been discovered only by accident. Even after conviction his punishment was meek and mild.

From a maximum penalty of a RM1mil fine and a seven-year prison term for smuggling 95 live boa constrictors on board a passenger jet, Wong’s token RM190,000 fine and six-month jail term were paltry. We need to know what exactly happened in the judicial process.

The prosecution’s efforts in pressing for a tougher sentence warrant wide public support. Far from changing their ways, weak sentences will only encourage traffickers like Wong in their lucrative crimes.

We need not spend so much money in promoting the country’s image abroad if our actual standing is so transparently ugly. Like human trafficking, wildlife trafficking is a crime of international proportions that Malaysia is now seen to be a hub for.

Even big-time smugglers like Wong may find it difficult to escape chance discovery for so long without corruption in official circles. Ridiculously weak sentences then encourage more speculation on further corruption and collusion, aggravating Malaysia’s already dented image.

Since corruption is highly probable, the MACC should launch its own investigations alongside routine police work and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s internal audit.

These probes should include personnel in Perhilitan and the Customs Department, without being limited to them.

Wong once said that he “got greedy,” which is about as close to regret as he can get. It suggests that had he smuggled less, he might have escaped or been allowed to escape to continue smuggling more.

It must be clear that a licence to trade in the country’s natural resources is a privilege and not a right. Anyone even remotely suspected of wrongdoing should be removed from the list of applicants, with past offenders banned for life.

Much hope is now invested in the proposed Wildlife Conservation Act for licensing zoos.

The required criteria, conditions and vetting and approval processes must be open to public scrutiny, as well as the identities of the awardees.

However, we must reserve judgment on the proposed Act because Malaysians have too often been promised appropriate action only to be disappointed by miserable delivery. Necessary laws need to be in place and be enforced effectively and consistently.

It is high time Malaysia rises to the standards of current international practice. This must be expected of any decent country, particularly one that is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and vying for developed country status.

To ensure that proper official action continues, Malaysia should also set an example by encouraging private lawsuits by concerned individuals and NGOs against offenders like Wong, with the sums awarded going to wildlife and habitat preservation.

Coupled with official action, this should serve as an effective deterrent against their crimes and help redress the ecological imbalances they perpetrate.

Malaysia should be moving in these constructive directions to stay ahead, not only at the urging of foreign critics but for its own sake.

Ultimately, what is the worth of a country and its proud claims to success if it cannot even protect its own natural heritage against brazen criminals determined to profit by robbing and destroying it?

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