Sunday, June 11, 2017

Interview: Of values and water

Roger Tan
The Sunday Star
by Christina Chin
Photo by Abdul Rahman Embong

AFTER eight years of helping to implement and enforce the country’s water supply and sewerage services laws, Datuk Roger Tan served his last day as commissioner of the Water Services Commission (SPAN) on May 31. Tan, a lawyer by trade, was instrumental in putting in place a disciplinary mechanism based on values he lives by – accountability, transparency and integrity.

Former fellow commissioner Datuk Zulkifly Rafique has this to say of Tan’s tenure: “He has discharged his responsibility admirably and is a pillar of strength for the staff and fellow commissioners who looked to him for support and guidance at a very challenging time. A job well done.”

Tan, from Yong Peng, Johor, graduated from the school of hard knocks and he never forgot his roots. 

Describing himself as a “simple man”, he’s pleased that his wife and children are equally grounded. Opening up about his family, Tan says those who rose from poverty, surviving only because of their parents’ resilience and sacrificial love, have no reason to lead an ostentatious life.

An illiterate labourer, his father, Sue Yong, toiled to put food – often porridge with soy sauce or a few slices of preserved bean curd – on the table.

The desire to honour his parents, family and God, is what drives Tan to excel.

An avid photographer, he shares how an image of the All Souls Church in Langham Place, London – with a cross of clouds forming just above the place he used to worship at as a student, is his favourite work. The best photographs are often accidental masterpieces, he muses.

Tan’s success, however, is anything but accidental. He attributes it to hard work – a value Sue Yong drilled into him and is now instilled in his four children. His father, afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia, would have turned 100 this year. He went missing on May 23, 2000, after a walkabout near the family home. It’s a pain Tan still carries with him.

“So long as he, or his remains, have not been found, there’s no closure. I failed to find him and the guilt hounds me till today. The number of missing persons – both old and young – is alarming. Close to 4,000 children went missing between 2014 and January 2016. It’s shocking.”

Tan, who chairs the Bar Council’s Conveyancing Practice Committee and serves as president of the Strata Management Tribunal, is showing no signs of slowing down after his retirement from SPAN. The founding secretary of the Waste Management Association of Malaysia is also a member of its organising committee for International Solid Waste Association World Congress to be held in KL for the first time, come October next year. During a visit to the Sungai Segget centralised sewerage treatment plant on May 28, Tan shares his views on water – the country’s most precious resource.

> You still run a legal practice. But with your retirement from SPAN, is a well-deserved rest on the cards? 

I don’t think I can afford that until my kids have finished their tertiary education. For active practitioners like us, being a commissioner is a sacrifice. When I was appointed in 2009, the monthly allowance was a meagre RM1,200. It was later increased to RM2,000 with a RM500 meeting allowance. Much of my time was spent away from my firm but nothing beats the joy of serving your country.

> You’ve set a high standard for future SPAN commissioners. How did you do it? 

I’m a perfectionist. I always give my best to whatever I’m entrusted to do. As a legally trained person, it’s easier for me to discharge my duties without fear or favour. I left SPAN after eight years of service with my professional reputation and integrity intact.

> Will the Water Industry Fund (WIF) announced in Budget 2017 solve our water woes? 

The WIF is to be controlled and operated by SPAN. Its objectives include protecting and preserving watercourses and water catchment areas; ensuring sustainability of water supply and improvement of water quality; and providing water and sewerage services in rural developments. To what extent the fund will help solve our water woes remains to be seen because watercourses and water catchment areas are within the purview of the respective states, which at the moment, lack preservation planning. Secondly, the fund isn’t expected to be huge because contributors are water supply licensees and authorised persons with a small revenue base of about RM5.7bil. At best, it may be enough to finance rehabilitative works. On the other hand, the Sewerage Capital Contribution Fund (SCCF) – a similar fund for the sewerage sector – probably stands at about RM1.5bil today. The SCCF is contributed by developers or by persons constructing or connecting to a sewerage system. It’s controlled and operated by SPAN. As custodian of these gargantuan funds, SPAN must protect the public’s interest.

> Shouldn’t the WIF be under the ministry, instead of SPAN? 

The WIF and SCCF are a huge distraction to SPAN’s original function as a regulator entrusted to implement and enforce water supply and sewerage services laws in Peninsular Malaysia. There’s no provision empowering SPAN to undertake any projects on its own or to become project managers financed by the two funds. To do so would be ultra vires. Who’ll regulate and ensure SPAN’s legal compliance? If SPAN is entrusted with awarding contracts under the two funds, commissioners and officers would have to deal with all the lobbying by contractors and politicians. That’s why we should remove the distraction of managing these funds. The Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry is better equipped to know the needs, and formulate the necessary policies, to ensure that the funds have a bigger impact. After all, the law also requires a commissioner to make a statutory declaration before he is appointed that he has no interest, financial or otherwise, in any undertaking involving water supply services or sewerage services. 

> How can we ensure the country’s water security? 

Access to safe water is a fundamental human right. A good demand and supply management will contribute to the sustainability and security of potable water. Supply management includes water resources planning, and water infrastructure development such as constructing dams, off-river storage, barrage, raw water transfer, water treatment plants and public water distribution systems. Water demand management includes making people understand, appreciate and conserve this non-infinite element. The WIF when implemented, can also be used to change the way water resources and supplies are managed. On the demand side, we should practise sustainable use. Consumer education is pivotal. By conserving water, we reduce the demand for water and amount of wastewater generated, subsequently minimising wastewater infrastructure capital investment. Key water management strategies are: pricing; management of non-revenue water; mandatory use of water efficient products; effective enforcement; product labelling; water efficient audit; awareness campaigns; and alternative water resources. For uniformity, a new federal law for states to deal with all water matters – including management and preservation of rivers, water catchment areas, ground water, lakes and dams and the prevention of pollution – is long overdue. The current fragmented legislative framework is unhealthy, especially as there are vast disparities in the penalties imposed by different states in protecting their water resources.

> Sewage is the main culprit of river pollution. What are we doing about it? 

Sewage is treated before being released back to the environment. No development is allowed unless sewage treatment requirements are in place. Malaysia enjoys a very high percentage of connected services to sewerage treatment plants. And where connected services are not possible, septic tanks must be used.

> Should we moneytise our waste water? 

Monetising wastewater or converting waste to wealth is extensively done in many developed countries where sewage is seen as resource, not waste. Both liquid and solids in the sewage can be reused. The liquid can become an alternative water source. The solids can be used as fertiliser, fuel, energy, additive for construction materials and so on. To monetise sewage requires an enabling environment that goes beyond technology. There must be a strong and clear regulatory framework which allows innovative business models; coordinated effort between various ministries and government agencies; and strong political will to change the stigma of sewage.

> The Water Services Industry Act 2006 (WSIA) was introduced a decade ago but to date, only half of the states in the peninsula have migrated. Why is it crucial? 

Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor, Perak, Penang, Kelantan and Perlis, have migrated to the new reform model whereby financing for development of new water infrastructure, refurbishment, and upgrading works are by Pegurusan Aset Air Berhad. This has alleviated the need to look for financing, and enabled water operators to focus on increasing operational efficiencies and providing better quality service to consumers. States which have migrated have improved their services because of the available funds.

> What are your aspirations for SPAN? 

For SPAN to drive the water industry and be a regulator of international standing, it must act independently, fairly, boldly, and transparently. To achieve that, SPAN commissioners and officials must be passionate and lead by example.

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