Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional has been fighting bitterly with Pakatan Rakyat to secure votes in the up coming elections. Now, an alliance of NGO’s and civil society groups enraged over the building and operation of a rare Earth metals plant in “Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas” environmental group, has thrown their weight behind PR. Why are people so upset, and could the issue prove to be BN’s downfall in the upcoming election?
In 2011, the Australian company Lynas set up a massive 230 million dollar production plant on the East coast of Malaysia. The plant is the largest in the world. By setting up the plant in Malaysia, Lynas is aiming to break China’s stranglehold on the rare earth metals (REE’s) market. REE’s are needed for various applications in a wide range of electronic gadgets, such as iPhone’s. Currently, the vast majority of REE’s are produced in China, but the Chinese government has begun to restrict exports, putting pressure on overseas suppliers.
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As a result, companies and governments have begun to scour the globe in search of REE’s deposits. The metals themselves are actually quite common, however, they are not often found in great enough concentrations to be economically extracted. The extraction process itself produces radioactive waste, however, a major point of contention among protesters.
The Malaysian government has been trying to ratchet down tensions over the issue with the looming election. In December 2012, the government ordered Lynas to delay the start up of production until it could export the radioactive waste out of the country. By February 2013, however, the government retracted and Lynas began producing REE’s. This move came after the company announced that it would convert the waste into a commercially viable product, “synthetic aggregate.”
Whether or not Lynas’s and the currently ruling government’s efforts will prove to be enough to assuage fears remains to be seen. The issue and bad publicity could not come at a worse time for Barisan Nasional. The ruling coalition, which has governed over Malaysia since independence, now faces a fierce battle in the upcoming election. For the first time in history there is a real possibility that BN could be swept from power.
Now “Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas” is printing up flyers and taking to the internet, throwing their considerable weight behind Pakatan Rakyat. While the group may not seem too big of a threat in the context of the political scene in Malaysia, it could prove to be enough to send two vital swing states into the favor of PR.
“Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas” is focusing its efforts on two tradition BN strongholds, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. While traditionally BN has held these two states, their influence has been waning under the continued assault of PR and the environmental group may prove strong enough to shift the election in the Opposition’s favor. The Opposition movement believes that it can contend for some 28 seats in the two states, a huge number given that Malaysia’s parliament only has 222 seats.
BN may be able to shift the allegiance of “Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas” as the group is only supporting PR over the REE’s. If BN is willing to make the necessary concessions, the environmental group may stand down, or even switch sides.
Either way, the upcoming May elections should prove to be the most significant elections in Malaysia in decades.