Malaysia Rare Earths in Largest Would-Be Refinery Incite Protest
By Yoolim Lee - May 31, 2011 5:00 PM ET
Bloomberg Markets Magazine
On a sweltering Sunday in April, more than 300 people pack a room above GC Curry House, a popular eatery on a tree-lined avenue in Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. They’re here to discuss the potential hazards of a rare- earth refinery Sydney-based Lynas Corp. is building about 25 kilometers away that will process radioactive ore into the exotic metals that go into tech gadgets, hybrid cars and weapon systems.
Member of Parliament Fuziah Salleh tells the residents that the Australian company got a 12-year tax break from Malaysia even as other countries would shun the plant -- set to be the world’s largest rare-earth refinery -- because of the health risks it poses. That information draws boos from the crowd.
An audience member, Chow Kok Chew, says he used to live near a rare-earth plant in western Malaysia run by a joint venture that included Japan’s Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. (4188) and shut down in 1992. Carelessness by plant operators led to the radiation poisoning of local people’s livestock, he says.
Now a Kuantan resident, Chow, 61, sobs as he says, “I don’t want it to happen here.”
Protesters have called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to block the refinery’s opening, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its July issue.
In response, the government on April 22 announced that an independent panel of experts would conduct a one-month safety review and hold up the plant’s pre-operating license until it was complete. Still, Lynas says it expects to begin producing rare earths at the site on schedule in the third quarter.
The protests threaten to interfere with Najib’s efforts to show he’s committed to an economic plan that seeks $444 billion in private investment over nine years. He has to avoid angering voters who have environmental concerns. During the period when the plant got approvals for planning and construction, Najib was either deputy prime minister or, starting in April 2009, Malaysia’s premier. And yet he must attract companies and industries that can help him meet his target for the next five years of 6 percent annual growth in gross domestic product.
Najib has promised voters he will more than double per- capita income to $15,000 in 2020 from $6,700 in 2009. The next elections must be called by early 2013.
The Danger of Living on Bread and Circuses: Alice Schroeder
Rome in the first two centuries A.D. faced a yawning gulf between rich and poor. The mighty empire built on tribute reached its geographic limits. Its economy created few exportable goods. Slaves acquired by conquest built most of its bridges, roads and aqueducts and took jobs in farming, mining and construction. As this cheaper labor replaced Roman citizens, idle, unemployed, hungry people filled the capital.
The Caesars created make-work and part-time jobs, subsidized housing and doled out grain. Even more, they found, was needed. “A people that yawns is ripe for revolt,” wrote Jerome Carcopino in “Daily Life in Ancient Rome.”
The emperors added holidays until, eventually, the Romans spent half their days attending gladiator games, public executions and chariot races. Disgusted, the satirist Juvenal accused his fellow citizens of selling out for bribes of “bread and circuses.” The Romans did nothing to prove him wrong, until two centuries later the empire was divided forever and Rome was sacked by Visigoths.
The complicated causes of Rome’s decline have long fascinated historians, and provide a lens through which to examine the vulnerability of other dominant cultures. Americans’ addiction to entertainment has been compared to the circuses of ancient Rome. We can, and do, spend much of our free time watching dreck on TV like “Half Pint Brawlers,” about a company of self-styled “midget wrestlers” who attack each other with staple guns and broken bottles. In fact, in 2009, people over age 15 spent an average of 58 percent of their leisure time watching television, playing games and using the Internet -- an increase of 16 percent from 2003.
When entertainment dominates a society, it changes more than the culture; it also reshapes the economy. You can see that circuses are where the money is from the rise of digital entertainment, which has steered enormous amounts of discretionary income toward digital content and the devices that run it: laptops, televisions, gaming consoles, smart phones. In the decade leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, the only major industry other than health care that consistently showed strong real growth was consumer electronics.