Malaysia: Pulau Perhentian spruce -up

Daniel Quilter The Star 20 Mar 12;

Ecoteer volunteers initiate small but significant steps to keep the lustre at Pulau Perhentian.

I EXPECTED to be greeted by murky, muddy monsoon waters and waves which would be more suitable for a surfboard rather than my snorkelling gear. However, as the boat bounced along the crystal clear waters off Kuala Besut in Terengganu, I knew someone was looking down on us and this would be the start of a successful year.

As I approached the jetty at Kampong Pasir Hantu on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, I felt a sense of homecoming and saw a few familiar, smiling faces. I have balik kampung. Since June 2011, staff and volunteers of the group I founded, Ecoteer, had been staying in the village conducting various activities to enhance the living standards of the villagers, as well as raise environmental and cultural awareness amongst the villagers and tourists.

Ecoteer rely on volunteers to conduct these activities and so far, over 300 have joined us on the island. The Star Foundation is currently supporting our work there under the year-long Treasured Island collaboration.

We were on the island for most parts of last year, but the project was temporarily stopped from December to January because of the monsoon. Last month, I returned to the island. With me was Long Seh Ling, the project leader who oversees our activities on the island.

As we walked through the village, we were followed by a growing band of happy faces and by the time we reached Ecoteer House, we had an army of over 20 children eagerly waiting to enter the building. Ecoteer House acts as a base for our community and conservation activities as well as a youth centre for the village children.

Last year, we received a donation from Alice Smith International School in Kuala Lumpur which we used to buy games and sports equipment such as a foosball table and a basketball hoop for the children.

As we entered the house which had been closed for three months, we found that a major clean-up was needed. The children were more than happy to help out and enjoyed being given something to do after school hours.

It was the perfect way to be welcomed back to the village – working together and helping your neighbour, in the spirit of gotong-royong (collective community action).

Village clean-up

The following day, we took a walk around the village. One of Seh Ling’s first observation was of a beautiful place spoilt by the litter found everywhere. The rubbish piles up during the monsoon season because the contractors stop their collection.

To make things worse, many villagers nonchalantly leave their rubbish outside their homes. We chatted with village headman Pak Sudin and he told us his wish to organise more gotong-royong, not only to keep the village clean, but to regain a sense of community among villagers.

So this year, the Ecoteer Village People (a term affectionately bestowed to all volunteers at Ecoteer House) will help to address the rubbish problem by hosting gotong-royong clean-ups in the village and on some beaches every other Saturday.

Ecoteer has also teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia and the Association of Operators Pulau Perhentian to introduce a composting and recycling scheme in the village.

A recycling competition will be held – the village kid who collects the most recyclables every two months will receive a new bicycle. The recyclables will be sold to a local waste disposal company and the money raised will go to the school.

The recycling effort is not only to reduce waste heaps in the village but to also introduce good habits among the children.

The association has funded a Biomate composting machine, which is placed at the school, and the children bring in organic waste from their homes each day.

The machine can convert 25kg of waste into compost within 24 hours. The compost is then used to fertilise the Herb Garden and Nursery, another initiative by Ecoteer.

It is hoped that villagers will adopt the idea of making compost and growing greens as another potential source of income. Herbs grown in the garden can be used in the upcoming Western Cookery Classes for the womenfolk and restaurant owners on the island.

The need to create new employment becomes evident when you meet some of the less fortunate villagers.

Taxi boatmen (who ferry passengers between the island and the mainland) make the most money in the village, but not everyone can do so on a regular basis.

Some families cannot afford to upkeep their dilapidated wooden houses which are damaged by heavy monsoon rains.

Under the Home Improvement Project, The Star Foundation will help five families to repair their homes.

Once a week, the Ecoteer group shares an evening meal with a family in the village. These meals provide an opportunity for the volunteers to interact with the villagers and experience Malay culture, apart from providing the villagers with a small income.

During Seh Ling’s first Malay dinner, she helped the children with their English homework and noted their poor grasp of the English language.

Good English-speaking skills are important for these children as they will most likely be employed in the tourism industry when they are older.

To improve the children’s English-speaking and reading skills, the Ecoteer team started the English Club at the local primary school. The children will be introduced to their counterparts in England as pen pals to exchange letters.

The children also learn English from the volunteers, many of whom come from Britain, Australia and the United States. Complementing the English Club is the Environment Club which aims to improve the children’s environmental awareness through various creative medium such as songs, art and games.

Marine care

On the third day, we took a boat across to Pulau Perhentian Besar. The turquoise water of Tanjung Tukas was inviting and we quickly jumped in. Although it looked like paradise above water, it is a different story below. The coral reefs have suffered a lot of damage from strong waves during the monsoon. Some coral species such as the staghorn, have broken into pieces.

Although this sounds bad, it is actually a natural process in the reef; the coral fragments will regrow into new coral colonies.

Regardless, the reefs have suffered significant damage over the past decade due to pollution, litter, sewage from resorts (which causes algae to bloom and smother the coral), high water temperatures (particularly in 2010 when a climatic phenomenon called El Nino occurred) as well as physical damage from tourists.

The damage caused by natural phenomena might be difficult to solve but tourists can be taught responsible tourism practices such as not touching or stepping on corals while snorkelling, and ethical turtle watching.

The Association of Operators Pulau Perhentian is seeking solutions to reduce pollution and now provides educational materials for tourists.

Ecoteer is consulting with the association to schedule weekly talks for tourists to highlight the benefits of responsible snorkelling and diving practices.

The team will also assess the health of corals at five snorkelling sites, and submit the information to the global Coral Watch database managed by Queensland University.

One of Perhentian’s most prized and loved residents is the green turtle. The biggest threat to their existence on the island is surprisingly, not the deterioration of their habitat, but the consumption of their eggs. Turtle eggs are a cultural delicacy but as some scientists believe only one in 10,000 turtle hatchlings becomes an adult, the population is reduced when a portion of the eggs do not even have the chance to hatch.

Other threats to sea turtles are harassment by tourists, incidental capture in fishing nets and disturbance during nesting.

These issues will be highlighted at the school Environment Club and at the weekly talks for tourists.

Before I left the island, Seh Ling and I marvelled at a picture-perfect sunset at Petani Beach.

This was a great opportunity for us to look ahead to what the year will bring. I personally hope that through our working relationships with the village head, school, association and Reef Check Malaysia, plus the support of The Star Foundation, we can make small but significant steps towards making Perhentian a more sustainable destination, and ensure a brighter future for the village children as well the turtle hatchlings and other marine creatures which inhabit the reefs of the island.

For more information on Ecoteer’s project on Pulau Perhentian, go to or, or e-mail