KUALA LUMPUR - As campaigning gathers pace in the final days leading up to Malaysia's general election, so too is the destruction caused by a wave of flash flooding around the country, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.
But despite some campaigners suspending events with voters due to rising floodwaters ahead of the Nov. 19 poll, being held during monsoon season, the issues of climate change and the environment have been largely absent in the campaigns and speeches of leading candidates.
"Given the impacts of COVID-19 and how small (businesses) were quite badly affected in the past couple of years, people are looking at better social welfare protection systems as a key issue," said Renard Siew, a climate change advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS), a think-tank.
Environmental concerns "will sit at the bottom of the list" of voters' priorities, he said in an interview.
Like many Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia already suffers regularly from the impacts of extreme weather and rising temperatures – be it air pollution caused by annual forest fires, water shortages, droughts or severe floods.
Last year, flooding in the country that started in mid-December caused nearly $1.5 billion in losses and displaced more than 120,000 people.
And already this month, the states of Penang, Perak, Selangor, Melaka, Johor and Kelantan have been hit by flash floods, forcing thousands of people to seek refuge in evacuation centres.
Although faced with increasingly frequent flooding and more extreme weather, the top issues for Malaysian voters are mainly the economy, health and social care, political stability, corruption and the cost of living, say environmentalists.
For Calvin Chan, 26, a resident of Penang island, on the country's northwest coast, Saturday's poll will be the first time he has voted in a general election - with economic stability and the rising cost of living the big issues for him.
The price of his favourite meal - chicken rice and watermelon juice - is now about 30% more than a year ago, he said.
But Chan also knows first-hand the damage flooding can cause. During the monsoon season his street usually floods, making it difficult to leave his home, so he wants politicians to address the problem of climate change.
"They talk about floods, but have no solutions," said Chan, a social entrepreneur. "Green-minded people are considered a minority, but (candidates) should speak about minority topics to capture more votes."
QUIET ON THE CLIMATE
General elections held during Malaysia's monsoon season are rare and usually avoided as emergency services are often stretched when handling flood relief efforts.
Flooding could prevent constituents from getting to the polls as roads become impassable and vehicles or property are damaged, or if documents required to vote are lost when homes are inundated, said Nur Sakeenah Omar, a campaigner at Greenpeace Malaysia.
And flood victims dealing with property damage or struggling to access food and clean water will be facing more pressing issues than voting, she said.
Ahead of the election, Greenpeace Malaysia conducted a study of members of parliament to learn what they had been saying in public about climate change and the environment in recent years.
It found that only 8.4% of all questions raised in parliament from 2018 to 2022 contained at least one environment-related keyword.
The term "climate change" – "perubahan iklim" in Malay – came up in only 55 out of 19,401 questions in parliament in that time-frame, the study found.
When floods were discussed, most Malaysian politicians blamed the problem on rivers and poorly designed or clogged drainage systems coupled with "unexpected heavy rainfall", without making the link between the intensity of the rains and global warming, Omar said.
"Every sector of the government - including every ministry and every candidate - should be talking about climate change," she said.
The three major coalitions looking to lead the next government - Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional - did not respond to requests for comment.
'NO TIME LEFT'
Analysts say forest loss may be contributing to the worsening floods in Malaysia, where a main driver of deforestation is the clearing of land to grow palm oil.
Data from monitoring service Global Forest Watch shows the country has lost nearly a fifth of its primary forest since 2002, though deforestation rates have fallen in recent years as businesses and governments improved their conservation efforts.
Cutting down forests not only kills trees crucial for sucking planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also reduces the ability of land to absorb floodwater.
Public knowledge of green issues such as the importance of forests and also renewable energy is growing but will not "make a big dent" on voting patterns, said Damien Thanam, president of the non-governmental group PEKA Malaysia.
While election candidates have not focused heavily on climate change, many of them have made pledges on forest protection and restoration, anti-air pollution and climate change laws, and easing taxes on electric vehicles.
But with Malaysia among more than 140 nations that agreed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 at last year's COP26 climate summit, firmer action will be needed from whoever forms the next government, conservationists said.
"Politicians must all act now. There is no time left to waste," said Henry Chan, conservation director at WWF Malaysia.
YOUTHS SPEAK UP
Some climate experts see promise in Malaysia's young adults, many of whom will be voting for the first time after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
According to an April survey by youth voting campaign group Undi18, three-quarters of young Malaysians expressed concern about climate change. "It's the youths who are organising climate rallies demanding world leaders do more to address issues relating to climate change," said Siew at Cent-GPS.
Chan at WWF urged the country's young people to use their vote to safeguard their future from the impacts of rising temperatures and environmental crises.
"Speak up," he said. "Ask candidates what disasters might be brought on by climate change in your constituency in the next 20 to 30 years, and how they will be fixed."
(Reporting by Michael Taylor; Editing by Jumana Farouky. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.context.news/)