Detailing environ beauty and damage
Published on: Sunday, January 17, 2021
By: Lorena Binisol
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Zainie pointing at a photo of Sembulan River.
IT started with a yearning to reach out to the people of Sabah that led Hiew Chee Wah to publish four eye-opening books on both the beauty and deterioration of the environment – all within 20 years.

He did all this with just one purpose in mind – to continue bringing greater awareness on preserving the environment to the people in the State.

The “disturbing” views captured through his photography depicted both the pleasant and unpleasant ones, some even shocking.

His first encounter was the river at Sembulan which was silted up, filthy and dirty. So much effort and hard work had been put in to instil awareness that it was not right to leave rivers, drains or sea in a horrible state.

“It started some 20 years ago, I was very much disturbed by what I saw with my own eyes which later I captured through my photography.

“To my horror, nature that gives us so much delight and happiness were not being revived and mostly in devastated state. All these had prompted me to do something,” he said.

In most cases, he noticed that the environment was polluted in so many ways.  This had prompted him to consider to preserve as much as the environment in a pristine stage.

His four books are “Beautiful Rivers of Sabah” (2006), “Beautiful Beaches of Sabah” (2008), “Beautiful Mountains of Sabah” (2010) and “Beautiful People of Sabah” (2018). 

He was thankful to the many photographs taken not only by him, but also by his other photographers that evidenced his desire to urgently carry out the project.

Hiew was a catalyst in prompting authorities, NGOs, individuals, schools and other corporate bodies to ponder deeply on the conditions of the environment as it was before and as it is now.

He, together with his committee, walked their way up to get connected with authorities, government agencies and corporate bodies to sit and talk about the “dilapidated” condition at the time. 

Hence, the book about rivers in Sabah entitled, “Beautiful Rivers of Sabah” realised in 2006.

When the book was launched, the then Tourism and Environment Minister Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat commended the effort made by Hiew through Rotary Club joint effort.

It read, “The beautiful rivers of Sabah are God’s gift to us and each and everyone of us is responsible to ensure that they are not spoiled by our activities.  

“Rivers, with their biodiversity, provide very important functions necessary for our well-being especially for those who depend on the rivers for their livelihood.” 

Among his first committee under Joint Rotary River Cleanliness Committee at the time were Past President (PP) Joan Phang (RC Tg Aru), PP Dr Charangit Singh (RC Kinabalu South), PP Christina Aluda (RC Kinabalu Sutera), PP Victor Wah (RC Kinabalu Sutera) and PP Christina Lo (RC Luyang).

Hiew recalled his “adventure” in the early days and how to bring the issue up for public awareness.

Finance was the main issue that hindered the project, even CSR was not the catch-phrase of the day at that time.

He was thankful to one Rotarian at that time some time in 2005, Datuk Zainie Abdul Aucasa for his persuasion encouraging him to go on compiling a book on the subject matter.  Despite the obstacles, Hiew heeded the advice of Zainie.

Thereafter, going to the ground was the next things Hiew did constantly. He visited rivers and drainage around Sabah, looking at their condition, taking photographs as well as building rapport with the inhabitants along the riverine. 

So much so, he was dubbed the “Orang Sungai” (river man).

“Whenever I visited certain places, people whispered to one another, ‘here comes the Orang Sungai’,” he laughed.

He didn’t mind the name-calling, as it only showed that people were aware of his intention and purpose for looking into details about rivers and so on.

Being actively involved with Rotary Club, in various functions both social and official, he drew members into conversation about the condition of the environment and what he was involved in.

It somehow engendered an interest among members to consider seriously about safeguarding the current environment or whatever remained of it.

His concern grew each time he saw nature in deplorable state.  Many of his photographs were of nature, including beaches around Sabah. It pained him to see rubbish were all over.  

With the experience and confidence he gathered in compiling his first book about rivers, his second book was also realised after that.

The second book entitled, ‘Beautiful Beaches of Sabah came to being in 2008, then his third, ‘Beautiful Mountain of Sabah’ in 2010. Both books were launched by the then Minister of Tourism and Environment, Datuk Masidi Manjun.

Hiew cited an example of Tanjung Aru beach, where tourists thronging in as soon as it is 5pm, ready to get glimpse of sunset at the beach.

“This is another million-dollar view. Sunset in Tanjung Aru is one of the most beautiful scenes in the world.  Tourists visit the beach with the hope to get to see sunset.  It is indeed a beautiful view.  

Are we still able to see it in the years to come? We can only hope for now.”

He is thankful to all the photographers – amateur and professionals – for having equally contributed marvellously in their job, he stated.

“Photos taken by our photographers are all in the four books. Look at them and you will be amazed how ‘rich’ we are with Mother Nature.”

Having climbed Mount Kinabalu 13 times, Hiew saw some “disturbing” views where people litter, especially when descending the mountain. He was heart-broken to see such attitude towards Sabah’s heritage. He took photos of the rubbish left by climbers as evidence.

“After climbing 13 times, I stopped while Dr Ravi Mandalam (another enthusiast for environment) continues to visit the mountain every year.  Our love and concern for nature is inseparable. We bleed seeing our heritage not being taken care of properly.  

“Mountain is another connecting part of our life.  Some people depend on mountain for livelihood just like rivers. They get affected when the mountain is in disorder mode. But who litter?  Rubbish don’t fall from the sky,” Hiew reiterated.

Dr Ravi, who has climbed Mount Kinabalu 47 times, said he hoped to make it to 50 times.  He shared the same hope as Hiew, saying, heritage such as mountains should be kept safe and clean from rubbish.

Hiew stated that beaches, mountain, streets get dirty because of human activities. It becomes part of the culture to litter.  So, then who is the culprit? We all are, he said.

“Therefore, they simply litter, for it has become a culture to them.  We had continued efforts going from school-to-school in bringing awareness about caring for the environment.  So many seminars and talks were conducted for the young. And I saw great changes coming through school children over the years.”

His fourth book, “Beautiful People of Sabah” concluded his project in giving back to the society, saying it completed his mission in sharing his thoughts about Sabah with the hope that everyone would play vital role towards preserving Mother Nature.

His fourth book, launched by then Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew, in her message said, “The beautiful people of Sabah are the most valuable asset to the environmental protection and everyone is responsible to preserve them the way we receive them.  

“Human factor is the simple most important factor of all in the environmental protection. Nature can live without people, but people cannot live without nature.” 

Come this phrase “My Rubbish, My Responsibility” where it triggered Hiew, and he hoped society would take heed of it and be more responsible in keeping the environment clean and safe.

“I come to realise that, we, the people are the most important factor for the preservation of environment. 

“Please do not say it is the work of the authorities of the day to look into the environment, it is not!  It is everybody’s business, you and I,” he said.

He said the simple habit in keeping your body clean would lead to keeping the room clean, keeping the kitchen clean, keeping the house clean, keeping the compound clean, keeping the village clean, keeping the town clean, keeping the city clean. This eventually would give great meaning to the expression of “Keep Clean”.

He also recalled one incident that triggered him, a lady who worked in Foreign Affairs Department in Chengdu, China, who had visited Sabah.

“I met this lady in Chengdu (2010) and upon realising we came from Sabah, she approached me and said how Sabah people are so blessed with the beautiful views and having no disasters such as earthquake or typhoon in the country.

“Come to think of it, she was right – we do not get disasters like that, therefore, we can enjoy mother nature anytime we want.

“However, earthquake hit Sabah in 2015, that was one of the saddest moments we had to endure,” he said.

Hiew also cited the preservation of wetland in Sabah.  Expressing his accolades to Zainie, who had also been championing the wetland preservation, Hiew said it is another asset of the State that cannot be ignored.

“Wetland has its ecosystem, taking care of micro-organism. The whole ecology is important in preserving its natural beauty.”

He remembered a visit by former Finance Minister of Thailand who came to Sabah some 20 years ago. While playing golf in Ranau, the former Minister talked to Hiew about the connection between “ecology” and “economy”.

“I was stunted at his explanation. He made me realise that both words came from the same root word “eco”.  Therefore, both are inter-connected. It was truly a changing point of my life, too.

“When ecology is well taken care of, it automatically would take care of the economy.  That really strikes me.  That was my real journey of learning about everything,” he recalled.

In the autumn of his life, Hiew, having produced all the four environment-related books, he wants to take a good ‘rest’ and would just focus on paying tribute to one person, the late Victor Wah by collecting memoir about him in a book.

A well-known photographer in Sabah who was instrumental in taking some of the photos in his earlier publications, Hiew was indebted to Victor’s great contribution towards the projects.

The late Victor passed away in 2012 which shocked Hiew, his committee and the entire fraternity.

Meanwhile, Zainie remembered how he met Victor Wah and words of wisdom imparted to him by Victor before he passed on.

“I knew him through his work as a cameraman at that time and was actively doing his work wherever he was required to. He was also the only photographer in Sabah (and Malaysia) who managed to take coloured photograph of a historical event in Padang Merdeka.

“It was proclamation read by the then first Chief Minister of Sabah Tun Fuad, attended by first TYT Tun Mustapha. Victor’s work was indeed very important, for capturing the historical event at that time.  He would be remembered by all of us,” said Zainie.

In this generation of genetically engineered food and hyper-markets, youngsters envisaged food as coming in plastic wrapping and never realising how they are grown in nature.

Hiew, in his hope that the younger generation would realise that one has to respect the earth for growing and producing these foods, hence the understanding of the environment should be an important part of their education of appreciating what Mother Nature is.

“The school teaches us a lot on our head, but not to our heart. So we have to inculcate our heart to have love for the nature.

“Whatever we receive from nature, it is best to keep it for our next generation.”



The late Victor

Hiew showing some of the photographs taken by other photographers. 

Avid climber Dr Ravi shared the same sentiment as Hiew – to keep the mountain clean. 


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