Goh, Hong Ching is a senior lecturer and currently the Urban and Regional Planning program coordinator at the Faculty of Built Environment https://fbe.um.edu.my/, Universiti Malaya.
She holds a Doctor of Natural Science degree (Geography) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (attached to ZEF), Germany, a Bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a M.Sc. degree in Tourism Planning from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
She is a corporate town planner registered with the Malaysia Institute of Planners and the Board of Town Planners Malaysia.
She was a visiting scholar in the MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (2014/2015), a member of the Global Young Academy https://globalyoungacademy.net/ 2015-2019), a fellow of the ASEAN Science Leadership Program (2016/2017).
Her recent research interests focus on the interface of development and conservation domains and the cross-cutting challenges and implications, which include urban planning and urbanization-related risks, tourism planning and impact management as well as the multi-level governance of natural resource and protected areas.
Currently, she is heading the Malaysian case study in the prestigious 4-year program ‘Blue Communities’ https://www.blue-communities.org/Home, an interdisciplinary program aimed at capacity building among the researchers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, United Kingdom and Vietnam for sustainable interaction with marine ecosystems.
How can urban and natural environments come together without compromising conservation efforts? And what can those living in such environments do to help?
Hong Ching Goh, a doctor in natural science and expert in urban and regional planning, has dedicated most of her academic career to the study of one of Malaysia’s – and the world’s – most diverse ecosystems. She tries to find common ground between different groups in the area to preserve its natural value while also increasing its development.
Traces.Dreams is a place on the web for people interested in the past, passionate about the present and curious about the future. Traces.Dreams is where you can find inspiration through a multidisciplinary and multi-regional perspective. We draw attention to the big questions that researchers from a variety of disciplines and countries are grappling with. We seek their work-related insights, their perspective on life, their dreams and the “whys” driving what they do.
Nerina Finetto: Welcome to our series Researchers with a Passion. My name is Nerina Finetto, and my guest today is…
Hong Ching Goh:
I’m Hong Ching Goh. I’m from Malaysia, and currently I’m working as a senior lecturer in the Department for Urban and Regional Planning, in the Faculty of Built Environment at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Thank you so much for joining me. What are your main research interests?
Hong Ching: The research topics themselves are very much related to how my cause has evolved over the years. In the beginning, I started with urban planning, so we started planning for the urban areas. Then, with my Master’s degree, I worked on tourism planning. Around that time, I realized that when we talk about tourism and urban areas, what has always been missing is the foundation, the fundamentals of the resource. Because this is where we see that the resource forms the foundation for urban areas to operate. This becomes the foundation for tourism, and that’s how I shifted into natural resource governance.
Natural resource here involves forests, water, rivers. Then, of course, I also focus on governance, because I believe that that is the driver that has the most impact on how natural resources are being utilized and exploited.
Urban planning and natural resources are related topics, right?
How I see urban planning is that it should not be exploited at the expense of natural resources. These two should come together and build what we call the sustainable development of urban areas, or the sustainable development of cities. We have sustainable cities on the list of sustainable development goals for the first time, because these didn’t appear, for instance, in the millennium development goals.
One of the reasons is that we plan our cities without considering natural resources, and that’s where disasters start coming in. We only see urban areas as a built environment, a concrete environment. We don’t really see urban areas and urban development as an ecosystem that combines the built environment with the natural environment.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, because I moved a bit from urban planning to what we call regional planning, I’m working on national parks and also marine parks in Sabah, which is located in Malaysian Borneo.
The Borneo Rainforest is the oldest in the world. One hundred and thirty million years old; that’s 70 million years older than the Amazon. Out of the 12 regions of mega-biodiversity in the world, Borneo ranks with Amazonia and Equatorial Africa.
Borneo lies in the heart of the mega-biodiversity eco-region of the Indo-Pacific basin and Malaysia. Sabah is special, because in terms of biodiversity per unit area, Sabah is the best in Borneo. According to National Geographic, ten square kilometers of Malaysian rainforest have more flora and fauna than that of North America and Europe combined.
Here, in the Indo-Pacific global center of coral biodiversity is the cradle of coral evolution. Beginning with 70 genera in areas around Borneo, it reduces gradually as one moves outwards. The Coral Triangle – the Amazon of the Seas – is the center of marine biodiversity for the world. It is home to one of the most diverse collections of marine life in the world, with over 75% of coral species known to science, over three thousand species of reef fish, over five hundred species of coral. This is unmatched in the world in terms of marine biodiversity per unit area.
Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia, but they also have the most beautiful natural resources. You can climb up to the mountain, – that’s where the highest mountain in Malaysia is located -, and it has a fabulous marine ecosystem in the sea. So the beauty of Sabah is both at the mountaintop and in the sea.
What is the most relevant topic you are investigating?
Hong Ching: It is about the interactions between humans and nature. That’s the main research question we are looking at, but then we go into detail. We are looking at how humans utilize resources, what is the state of the natural resource we are talking about, and how we can make a relationship between these two for the wellbeing of the people and, at the same time, for the health ecosystem of the marine biodiversity.
What results have you gotten so far? Do you have any concrete suggestions?
Good question. So we’ve started with the national parks, and the main thing is that we really have to consider people’s livelihood before we can actually address nature conservation. I think the natural resource is not that we appreciate it in terms of its intrinsic value, but the first thing we need to understand is why people are utilizing it and why they are exploiting it, and from there we can find options to address the issues of how humans and nature interact. Then, what are the challenges behind it, before we can actually provide a solution for it. And this actually needs time.
I’m from peninsular Malaysia, and as I go into Malaysian Borneo, even though I’m Malaysian, I am considered an outsider. So the main thing is to gain the trust, and that trust will help understand the real situation, the real issues that exist in that particular study case.
What kind of methods do you use? Do you have a quantitative or qualitative approach?
We started with quantitative, but to understand the dynamics, it’s not easy at all if you want to use a questionnaire survey.
Now, for instance, I extend my research from the national parks to the marine parks. We started combining interviews, focus group discussions and also stakeholder meetings, because stakeholder meetings will address one of the central questions, which is about governance. We see how people interact and how they provide opinions, how they address issues, before we go into the smaller group.
When we have these stakeholder meetings, we gather all the stakeholders we can identify, and then they discuss the issues. But this is where we go into the second layer of stakeholder meetings, because it’s where we realized what would be the dynamics: who you can talk to, who you cannot, how to address the issues with someone you cannot talk to, for instance, because of some sensitivity. At the same time, there are those we could talk to, but for the same reason, they were reluctant to talk during the first layers of stakeholder meetings because of the power struggle.
So that is when I realized that stakeholder meetings provide a very good platform for us to collect data on the topic of governance at a more formal, but you can actually say “informal” level.
Who are the stakeholders?
In natural parks, we have a Sabah Parks Board of Trustees, we have the Forestry Department, and in marine parks we have fishery. We have the agriculture department, we have the NGOs – and NGOs are not only limited to the nature conservation NGOs. There’s community NGOs, and these can also be divided again. For instance, those that are a local initiative, those at the state level, and of course, we have the international NGOs. For instance, what we are dealing with now is the WWF and Reef Check. So those are at the international levels, but of course their offices are in Malaysia.
Then, the local initiative NGOs is where power struggles start coming in because they always feel so capable. So we always need to consider the weaker ones and those who are very vocal, because if the vocal ones have the impact or implications when we come to a group discussion, it will make the weaker ones keep silent. That’s where we really have to identify them.
Apart from that, we involve the universities, and their researchers always have their passions and interests, and it’s not very easy to work together from the very beginning. It requires some understanding, and trust as well, and that would actually help when we talk about how to exchange data and exchange opinions, because when we talk about research ethics, this is something that you have to be careful about as well.
Back to when I mentioned the stakeholders and government agencies. In Malaysia, because we have a federal monarchy, we have government agencies at the federal level and at the state level as well, and they have their dynamics in their interactions, too. So those are the dynamics we really have to consider when we do the stakeholders’ analysis as an outcome from the stakeholder meetings.
What is the biggest challenge at the moment?
It’s territorial. I think all the stakeholders have different interests, and so far there is not much consensus building, and consensus building is meant to bring everyone together. To give you an example, we deal with fishery and we talk about conservation-based NGOs, so it’s two conflicting agencies in terms of interests. One wants fish, but you are talking about conservation. So this is conflicting, and how to come to a consensus? That is something most of the agencies avoid actually discussing, because when we talk about reaching a consensus, it actually means that you have to compromise, and no one wants to compromise.
That is something very tricky, and at the same time we realize that in the case of national parks, compared to the marine parks we are working on, they have a different dynamic when they talk about different challenges, and the degree of the challenges is also different.
What kind of outcome would you like to see from this project?
The ideal situation – I’m sure that when it comes to guiding principles, the closest we get to would be the best – is to make every stakeholder understand not only about their own interests, but also about other stakeholders’ interests, because when everyone has at least made known their interests, then you can make a decision about what is right. Understanding what other people’s interests are, I think, is the most important thing.
In developing countries, in the past – for instance, in Malaysia -, traditionally when there’s talk of development and planning, it’s always top-down. When we say top-down is when the local people are not well understood about their needs; it’s always the government that thinks ‘we are doing the best for you’.
But now since we have stakeholders, we are not talking about the government interests at the federal or the state level, but we are also talking about the local communities that try to get involved as stakeholders.
Actually, I forgot just now, when it comes to stakeholders, the largest ones are the local communities. If I give an example, every parent would like the best for their children and sometimes they actually forget about their children’s needs. So this is an example I would try for our government – they are trying to do the best for the local people, but sometimes they may not fully understand their needs. So when we have these stakeholder meetings and analysis, we go on the ground, we do the job, get their opinion, and this is best for starting the conversation.
This means that you would like to have an influence on future policies, right?
It would be policy relevance in a way, I would say, but we do not want to approach policy makers directly. Of course, we see how these issues are addressed now, and why it’s become so important. The main reason is that it is no longer focusing on science-based research. What is more important is the society and how to link science to the society, and this society includes the policy makers, the local communities at the grassroots level and the society as a whole, since we’re becoming a more developed, progressive society.
So this is where I see that we try to combine the scientific research, but at the same time we try to learn from the local communities. Learn from them, try to combine this, and then try to use a very diplomatic way to talk to the policy makers.
How difficult is it to initiate change?
We need to change even the system itself, but to change it, we’d have to tell the government to change it, and that is not possible.
What we learned from the case of mangrove conservation in Malaysia is that scientists have done a lot of research about the importance of the mangrove. It didn’t work for the policy makers. So we are using another way, and also being in the university as an academy.
What would be right for our role is that I’m not going to the NGO, I’m not going to the policy makers either. What we would like is to become a mediator, linking what is actually being addressed by the NGO, what is actually being addressed by the local communities and link with the bureaucrats, so there is a channel to try andto facilitate dialogue again. Because this is what we see in Malaysia. Governments refuse to listen, and then the scientists will be publishing, but we don’t see a bridge to make that more fruitful.
Why are you so passionate about these topics?
Hong Ching: I didn’t like from the beginning. I was born and brought up in a rural area, in a small village. I remember that there were only two Chinese families out of 72 households.
Being a rural girl, I would say that I appreciate trying to go to urban areas. I went to the university – I was a science student until secondary school. Then, I decided to choose urban and regional planning because for a secondary student to choose a university in Malaysia, there were very few choices. Two universities offer the courses, and you have to go for two years at what we call high year secondary school, and then you can have a full choice of universities to enter.
At that time it was Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia, and at UTM – apart from urban planning, architecture and quantity surveying – there were engineering courses, and I thought at the time that it was very boring to go into an engineering course because I wasn’t fascinated by it. That’s how I got into urban and regional planning.
After my first degree, after five years, I took the tourism planning course. I actually liked the natural area, and that’s when I conducted my case study for my mini-thesis in national parks. After that, I worked in the corporate sector for four years with a developer, so basically I was cutting down trees for four years for real estate development. The company I was working with was one of the top five companies in Malaysia in real estate development.
After four years, I started to think about what I really want in my life, and I was lucky enough that I got a scholarship. That’s when I fired my employer and then afforded my studies. At that time, the topic I chose was eco-tourism.
Back to the question you asked, – why I chose that -, I think it was already in me, but I didn’t realize it. But when I chose my case study, in Kinabalu Park, which is also the first World Heritage site in Malaysia, and it’s in Sabah. I am still working on it – I started in 2005.
When I went to the site and stayed in the forest for one year, I realized how nature shapes humans. People are very friendly, innocent, and kind, and coming from a corporate background for four years, I would say that I was toxified to an extent. It’s also the society when it comes to Malaysia, and also that I was brought up in a Chinese family and in Oriental or Asian society, there’s always this unconscious – or maybe conscious – competition. People will ask: “how’s your daughter doing in exams?” and I realized that sort of competition, to an extent, equipped me to survive in the corporate world. But at the same time, I was losing myself.
Back to the nature, I learned about this, I learned how to be myself and express myself much better. In Germany, I was attached to this Center for Development Research. My colleagues and friends were from all over the world, and that’s how I learned to listen, instead of having to guard and protect or defend what you’re saying. Because you have to learn to listen, not only talk. And listening is actually the best language, I would say.
That’s how I link back to nature, because in nature you do not need to speak, and that helps me now, when I’m doing my research with a stakeholder meeting or a focus group discussion. To listen to people carefully, to what they are talking about, and to be patient as well. I really appreciate how it actually evolves.
Are there any moments from your childhood or your past that you think may have played an important role in becoming who you are today?
Childhood. I used to have a tiger mom. I am the youngest in the family; my mom passed away when I was fourteen, so that was difficult, and because of that, I became much more independent.
I’m very happy to be Chinese. I received my primary school education in a Chinese school and that helps you a lot. Then when I entered Universiti Teknology Malaysia for my bachelor’s degree, I had to share rooms with two Malay roommates. That was a university policy: the first year, you have to mix roommates. It shouldn’t be from the same race, so that it could create some race integration.
That’s what happened, and that helped me a lot because I realized when I was doing research in Sabah, many of them are from different ethnic groups. I’m always perceived as a Chinese that can speak good Malay, and I do understand about the culture, because, I think, I lived with roommates from different ethnic groups. It helps you become more sensitive and understand about other people’s cultural practices, and that helps me a lot when I do my research.
You mentioned that you are happy to be Chinese. In your opinion, what makes Chinese culture so special?
That’s funny because just now you ask that, and I think: “Yes, no doubt.” But now that I try to point it out it’s like… What is it I love so much about being raised in a Chinese family?
I like the perseverance. My father was a farmer, and I see how much perseverance he had, and hard work, These two things I really appreciated and learned from him. I think being raised in a Chinese family in a big Malay village was not easy for me, because ever since I was young, I felt distinctive, but at the same time, you have friends from other ethnic groups that come together.
I also appreciate how the Chinese appreciate relationships. It’s not in a very vocal, expressive manner, but at the same time we are perseverant. We are not very vocal in general – especially, for instance, my father. He usually lets the actions talk, rather than he himself talk. And that’s something I learned from him, as well as being perseverant, because we came from a very poor family. But we realized that that should not be something that is going to beat us down, and that is something that I do really appreciate.
What is life about?
Life is a journey, that’s what I always believe. It is a process. I used to be trained in Malaysia in urban planning – I plan everything. But I do realize that I have to be very patient to get to the outcome, but actually enjoy the process itself, and one of the quotes I always remember is that that life is a learning process, and the learning process continues and gets harder until we learn.
I do realize that when there’s a challenge, I always see it positively and there must be some things that I could learn and use to move on, and when I have this kind of breakthrough, this enriches my life towards betterment.
Thank you so much for this conversation.