Live as simply as possible, says Gurmit


STEPPING into the room, Gurmit Singh tells his staff that we only need one light switched on, and she can turn off the other lights.

The Cetdem (Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia) founder and chairman of the board clearly walks the talk when it comes to conserving energy and minimising his carbon footprint.

If there is one name that comes to mind every time you think of Malaysians championing the environment, it must be Gurmit’s.

He was the EPSM (Environmental Protection Society Malaysia) founder president for 20 years from 1974-1994; today he is the advisor.

He was also the recipient of the Langkawi Environmental Award in 1993. In 2008, the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry honoured him with the Sustainable Consumer award.

Poor family

Gurmit, 72, explains that his propensity to conserve started from young as he came from a poor family.

“My father was a watchman in Penang, and we had a big family of five, so we struggled. I couldn’t get a scholarship to study so I had to work for two years, one and a half years as a teacher and six months in the Royal Malaysian Air Force as a trainee pilot. I saved enough money and went to Universiti Malaya and got a degree in electrical engineering.

“I just drifted into environmental issues. When I was president of Universiti Malaya Graduates’ Society Selangor in 1972 or 1973, some people felt that we should form an environmental group. This was triggered by the fact that the government had gone to the Stockholm Conference (United Nations Conference on the Human Environment) in 1972 and there were rumours that they were going to come up with an Environmental Quality Act in 1974. Therefore, there was a need for it.

“We got together with some other people and organised a public meeting to form an environmental group. I was not supposed to be the president; I was just the organising committee chairman. The president designate was a medical doctor, but when he failed to show up, I was elected the president of EPSM instead.

“That’s how I got involved in environmental issues in the country,” explains Gurmit.

The simple life

He had initially worked at the Rubber Research Institute (RRI). It was a good job and he admits being a bit influenced by the affluent lifestyle that came with it.

But it did not last long.

In 1975, Gurmit decided that that was not the life for him.

Gurmit Singh: 'I just wanted to make things simple and to live within a smaller budget.'
Gurmit Singh: ‘I just wanted to make things simple and to live within a smaller budget.’

“I wanted to go back to the simple life and see if I had become soft. That was part of the reason I quit the RRI and freelanced as an engineer. Of couse at that time I was already president of EPSM so it all fit into place.

“I had a car then and by 1978, as I was working on my own, I found maintaining the car quite a strain. I had moved to SS2 from Section 17, Petaling Jaya, and parking was a problem, too. I also found that I did not need it, so I sold the car – for economic reasons and to prove that I could survive without it.

“There were other conscious decisions along the way, to live as simply as possible. The concept of the ecological footprint came later on down the road.

“I just wanted to make things simple and to live within a smaller budget,” he explains.

Cycling to town

While many remember Gurmit for being the man who cycles everywhere, he admits that that was just a gimmick.

“It was World Environment Day in 1979. We wanted to show that traffic in KL was so bad that a cyclist could go faster than a car. So, that’s why I raced on bicycle against someone in a car from SS2 to Taman Titiwangsa. I went through the normal traffic in the morning of a working day and I reached Taman Titiwangsa before him. I was wearing a gas mask, and that image caught people’s attention,” says Gurmit.

He explains that cycling is something he has done from his childhood days. He used to cycle in Penang and later on he cycled around his neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya.

He even bought a bicycle in Hong Kong because of its weight, as it was light enough to check in as baggage whenever he flew to Penang. (This was in the days before the foldable bike was introduced.)

Gurmit has now given up cycling and mainly travels by public transport. He says it has become inconvenient to cycle as he has to go as far as Putrajaya for meetings.

Challenges to environment

According to him, the biggest challenge that Malaysia faces is the same challenge worldwide – overcoming greed and replacing it with need.

“Many of our environmental problems are associated with greed, unnecessary consumption and plenty of wastage.

“The other basic problem is the low environmental consciousness in the country, although over the last 40 years, it has improved marginally. Forty years ago nobody really bothered; to them the environment was an exotic word. The government didn’t make it any better by saying we had to develop first, and then only worry about the environment,” he says.

What can seniors do

So, what can senior citizens do? A lot, says Gurmit.

For one, he believes they are in a position to practise some of the basic principles of taking care of the environment:

  • Go back to frugality.
  • Learn not to waste anything – time, money, resources.
  • Don’t use electricity unnecessarily.
  • Cut down on air-conditioning.
  • Don’t become dependent on air-conditing.
  • Use fans.
  • Don’t have electrical items running when there is no one in the room.
  • Only use the air-cond when you really need it during the hot period.
  • Use public transport.
  • Compost organic waste.
  • Grow your own vegetables.

He says that using public transport would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced because one litre of petrol generates 2.5kg of carbon dioxide, regardless of whether it is a bus or a car. So, imagine how much carbon dioxide is generated by 40 people in a car each versus 40 people in a bus.

“I think change begins with you. You can’t expect society to change if you yourself are not willing to change. Despite changes coming slowly, I’m quite content in the sense that I have tried to practise all that we have talked about. At least my conscience is clear and I have tried to lead a life that is environmentally sound.

“People sometimes say that the problems are too big. Then do for your own environment and do for your immediate family; start with that. If that can spread, then the impact will be there. Don’t wait for the government to tell you what to do or threaten to penalise you, before you do something about it.

“I think senior citizens should also inculcate these values in the juniors and their family members because I think people have lost some of these values,” says Gurmit, who admits to slowing down on the environmental advocacy work although he does not seem to have lost his passion for it.

“I really have to work and keep on pushing although sometimes it looks like an uphill battle. I think over the last 40 years we have made a few dents here and there and of course the overall global scene is changing. Calamity will force people to react, but that would be a bit late. Unfortunately, mankind seems to be like that, they don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of the past and history keeps repeating itself,” he says.

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