Captain Planet to Family Frontiers - Activist's long journey to save forests, families

·13-min read
Captain Planet to Family Frontiers - Activist's long journey to save forests, families
Captain Planet to Family Frontiers - Activist's long journey to save forests, families

MALAYSIANSKINI | “By your powers combined... I am Captain Planet!”

Summoned to Earth through the coming together of five magical element-themed rings, Captain Planet’s battles with “Eco-Villains” out for destruction often ends with an important message on saving the environment.

For Third World Network executive director Chee Yoke Ling, an initial meeting with the cartoon show’s co-creator Barbara Pyle during an international lobbying session eventually saw her immortalised as the Asian-inspired character “Gi” who joined the “planeteers” as controller of the key element of water.

'Captain Planet and the Planeteers' debuted in 1990 but Chee told Malaysiakini that it was only a decade later during a chance encounter with Pyle on the streets of New York that she discovered her role in the popular cartoon series.

“I was walking along the streets of New York and suddenly I heard this voice, ‘Gi! Gi!’ and I turned around, there was Barbara Pyle! That woman was still full of energy.

“My name is Chee, but she always called me Gi because she couldn’t pronounce the ‘ch’ sound,” she shared in a recent interview.

“I said ‘how nice to see you Barbara, how are you?’ In the course of our conversation, I said, ‘hey, congratulations by the way’, because I knew she was the producer of Captain Planet.

“I said the series was such a beautiful way of explaining why we needed to save the planet. I said my children also watched it and she replied, ‘did you also tell them that you were the inspiration for the character of Gi?

“I said I didn’t know that and she said, ‘You mean I never told you?’ And so that was how I found out,” said the mother of two, now in her 60s.

Chee was at the New York UN headquarters in 2002 for preparatory meetings ahead of the Rio+10 Earth Summit scheduled to be held later that year in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This was to be a follow-up meeting to the first 1992 Earth Summit where Chee and other civil society representatives, armed with a passion for the environment and social justice, gathered with world leaders in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, to focus on environmental impacts of human socio-economic activities.

It was during preparatory meetings for the 1992 summit where Chee said she was first interviewed by Pyle, at the time attached to CNN, along with environmentalists from across the globe who inspired characters of the four other “planeteers” - Kwame from Africa (Earth), Wheeler from New York (Fire), Linka from the Soviet Union (Wind) and Ma-Ti from Brazil (Heart).

“These planeteers were five real young people from five continents of the world.

“The show highlighted how the planet was destroyed by greed, by big companies that were polluting with toxic wastes,” said Chee.

The show, which initially ran for six seasons of 113 episodes, and later was spanned with a sequel, was credited for gritty storylines that tackled topics including dangers of drug abuse and HIV.

Unlike the much simpler eco-friendly solutions condensed into each 30-minute episode, real-life battles for sustainable development often involve long-term efforts, with issues from tackling oil spills, air pollution, reclamation to deforestation that caught the world’s attention in the 90s remaining a problem to this day.

Many such issues also require a joint commitment by governments at a global level, often facilitated by the United Nations.

Trained in international law, Chee’s social activism days started during her undergraduate years at Universiti Malaya (UM), when she was first introduced to the Consumer Associations of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM).

Like the wisdom of Gaia, the “spirit of the earth” that guided the planeteers in their quests, Chee said she entered university on the advice of an uncle, setting aside an initial dream to delve into journalism right out of high school.

Chee, who grew up in Penang, went on to pursue her masters’ degree on a scholarship in the United Kingdom before returning to teach law at UM for five years. She left academia for a full-time career with Third World Network - founded in 1984 as a “child of CAP” that focuses on international policy research and advocacy.

Her work with Third World Network took Chee on trips to New York and later China where she spent 10 years in its Beijing office with her journalist husband and two children.

Since returning to Malaysia in 2017, Chee’s personal experience raising her own “bi-national” family, combined with a deep interest in aspects of public interest law and constitutional law, has led to her involvement with Family Frontiers - a local organisation focused on helping Malaysian mothers to fight for their rights to pass down citizenship to their children born abroad to a foreign father.

Over coffee served in a Captain Planet mug, Chee shared her thoughts on the history and future of sustainable development, as well as hopes of families waiting for the outcome of the government’s appeal against a High Court ruling that overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers and foreign fathers are entitled to automatic citizenship.

The UN started preparing this big conference on environment and development in the late 1980s. By that time in Sarawak, there was intense logging of the forests, these are very old tropical forests, very important ecosystems, and all that logging was not only causing pollution but impacting the natives in Ulu Baram and other parts of the interiors.

SAM was very active in working with the local communities.

At the same time, the world is using up resources so fast. In the Amazon, there was huge mobilising and organising by the indigenous of the Amazons. There were huge logging and land conversion projects for cattle rearing to export the meat to the US or to clear the land for commercial crops.

We found in Sarawak and the Amazon and in between, the same problem of the loss of the tropical rainforest.

Scientists were coming out to say human activities using fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases is causing global warming.

So, there was a great awareness of climate change, loss of biodiversity especially in the tropical forests and impact on millions of people.

The big conference we all know about was in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 and Malaysia played a very important role, and we as civil societies were also involved.

Part of it was a lot of media interactions and there I met people like Paulinho Paiakan, chief of the Kayapo people from the Amazon.

From Amazon to Malaysia, somehow, we met each other in the New York meetings leading all the way to Rio.

We were very hopeful especially since the 1992 summit. The summit produced a very important political declaration on things like precautionary principles.

Whatever actions we do, we must make sure it doesn’t have long term impacts. We must be careful that whoever is responsible should pay for the damages.

It was a very big plan of action and we were very ambitious. There were many people who started the work here in the 1960s and we as the younger generation at the time were hopeful for change.

Unfortunately, (the issues were) not just in Malaysia, everything is also linked internationally.

The United States was the biggest polluter and so if they don’t make fundamental changes, other investors going around the world, the fundamental thinking about what kind of project is considered for development, will not change.

It is now different in some ways, because in the 90s you would hear things like ‘the environment is a luxury’ and we must prioritise economic development because we have a lot of poor people.

You also hear, ‘we are working to get out of poverty’ and that we want to have a quality of life that is sustainable and fair.

I think we don’t hear that kind of argument so much anymore. Because governments commit themselves, they go to the UN every year and say ‘yes we are committed' to the sustainable development goals.

In Malaysia, the arguments have shifted since the 90s. There was the acknowledgement that ‘yes we need to have balance’.

But what is that balance? Who decides? We have more awareness but if we don’t fundamentally include sustainability, ecology and social justice into policymaking, and involve our society as part of that discussion, then we will see what we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years - big projects don’t stop.

The big reclamation project in Penang doesn't stop, logging in Kedah, Kelantan... so that continues even if the policy on paper gets better.

There is greed and money to be made from land. We need to think about the kind of investments (we make) and really have a proper discussion.

In Malaysia, we have the Environment and Water Ministry, and the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry, but then if the Finance Ministry, the International Trade and Industry Ministry and others don’t understand all these environmental issues, then the voice of the environment minister in the cabinet will be weaker than the others.

So, we also have inequality within our cabinet. We have done a lot but we haven’t done enough to have a practical impact in our country.

We are winning case by case but with every case won there are 10 new cases.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) process in Malaysia if done properly is a chance for the public to get involved. There is also a review process that is actually quite good and used by many NGOs.

But it is a lot of work and throws the responsibility on the public and the community to prove a project is bad.

Whereas you (the government) should be saying anybody who proposes a project has to have the basic responsibility of showing there will be no problems or they can mitigate it.

And sometimes they may not be able to mitigate it.

Where projects have gone ahead, the Bakun Dam in Sarawak for example, you need to see what is happening there now.

When you look at many of these projects, especially dams, you see that siltation is very heavy because of the nature of the climate and the terrains.

Is it going to be us to monitor the impact? It is really hard.

Even if I have 100 conditions in my EIA, then you go to the next stage and approve it, who is going to do the monitoring? Who will be responsible if things go wrong?

Sustainability is about how we manage our natural resources. For example, in East Malaysia where we still have our natural forests left.

That understanding is very important. When we use the words sustainable, ecological, environmental, we all have different ideas in our heads.

So, what is the best thing to do? This is where the government comes in.

State governments, local governments. They have the master plan, all kinds of local plans, they can call for consultations where we can all give our views about a development project.

The Captain Planet series was based on real stories. Pyle did the script and the ideas. She really took real stories.

For example, there was one company that wanted to save money and they just dumped toxic wastes into the river.

Now two generations later, there has been a revival and we have all these self-organised 'planeteers' doing local projects around the world.

Pyle decided to just bring as many people together as possible, so I joined this thing about a few months ago.

She introduced me to them, saying ‘Gi is here’. The sad news was that Paiakan, who inspired Ma-Ti, died of Covid-19 recently.

But his daughter has continued his struggle to keep the Amazonians safe and for their Kayapo community to have their rights.

The progression of family diversity is a very natural thing. Why is all this important? I personally have that experience. I met my husband when we were both doing our masters in England.

I am one of the members of Family Frontiers and we were set up to really support families, especially what we call bi-national families. These are families comprising a Malaysian citizen and a non-Malaysian citizen.

My husband was born in Hong Kong and he is an American citizen who grew up in Asia because his father was a journalist.

We decided Malaysia was going to be our home, but we were working overseas... Of course, we discovered then that if you’re a Malaysian father with a child born overseas, your child can automatically be a Malaysian.

But if you’re a Malaysian woman, you don’t have that same right.

People think those who marry foreigners are all very rich. But of course not. Many of us are just ordinary working people.

So, you can have some families where let’s say there are three brothers and sisters, two will be Malaysians because they were born here, but the other is not.

That means when they come back here to live, and most people who are affected want to live here, if their child is not Malaysian, they can’t bring their child home.

Sometimes the marriage is really bad but the woman will stay married because if they get divorced, they lose their children. If they do come home, their child is treated just like any other foreigner.

Both my daughter and son are foreigners. They cannot come to Malaysia since the pandemic. I haven’t seen them for two years as they are working overseas.

When the High Court decision came out, my daughter celebrated. She put on one of her many batik outfits.

There are many other young children with foreigner status now living in Malaysia. They are so Malaysian, I don’t see how more Malaysian they can be.

Yes, their fathers can be from Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, France and other countries, but many of them are now living with their grandparents here because of Covid-19.

Their fathers cannot come so their mothers took them back to the kampung. They are Malaysians just like you and me.

I was asked to help Family Frontiers on the legal side. Now if you don’t have automatic citizenship, the mother must apply under Article 15 of the Federal Constitution and they have to wait year after year for approval.

One family waited for nine years. They applied when their kid was a few months old and after four or five years they got rejected, but there was no reason given.

They were told they can reapply but many of the mothers said, ‘look, you’re asking me to reapply, but tell me in the first round what did I do wrong?’. They didn’t tell them.

The stress, uncertainty, and financially it is also a big issue. Once the child reaches 21-years-old, they are no longer eligible to apply for citizenship.

The citizenship case is a constitutional case and one of the subjects I really really loved when I was in university was constitutional law.

This is the highest law in the country... but how do you make the Constitution protect people?

All these principles about how you interpret the Constitution, all these things we are talking about now. It is about the social justice context of the law.

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