Let’s talk trash II: Trash-triggered politics in Kepong

Is politics a cause behind waste disposal location decisions (Moore, 2011), or does the politics lie in the community’s response? The case of waste politics in Kepong, a fringe town in the city of Kuala Lumpur, may only just hint at the former, but it concretely demonstrates how waste issues can emerge as a flashpoint that unveils underlying tensions between the people and the state.

‘Tak nak insinerator!’ (We don’t want incinerators)


On the surface, public protests seems like a socio-political conflict typical of a ‘contradiction of modernity’, with the public revolting at the proposed threats to their imaginary environment of order and cleanliness. Accusations of NIMBY-ism by the authorities further paint the issue as such.

However, in such a characterisation the nuances of the motivations behind this political protest are oversimplified and denigrated. Kepong’s residents are not campaigning for a re-allocation of the incinerator site beyond their ‘backyards’, but for the incinerator not to be built at all. The two main reasons behind this stance reflects a tenuous political relationship between the public and the authorities. Both demonstrate suspicion and a lack of faith in the capabilities and intentions of KL’s authorities.

Firstly, despite the authority’s efforts (and other KL residents’) efforts to convince the affected communities that this internationally tried-and-tested WTE technology is safe and self-contained, resistance by local protest groups persistently still touched on the risk of mismanagement and consequences of pollution and health safety violations. The point that protestors made was not that WTE incineration is unsafe, but that any process administered by their own government is necessarily going to be a ill-managed one.

Secondly, residents highlighted contradictory implications in the policy directives issued by the government – building an incinerator to accommodate more waste conflicts with the purported push towards waste reduction via recycling. In highlighting such contradictions, residents questioned whether the government’s intentions to promote ‘zero waste’ were sincere.

Political garbage

In trying to uphold the ‘imposed categories of modernity’ and ‘borders between clean and dirty’ in KL, the authorities have proposed a garbage policy that served as a flashpoint for public to communicate their general distrust and disapproval of their government. To the public, this was more than a straightforward issue of where and whether to build an incinerator. Instead, in contesting the proposal, broader deep-seated political sentiments and discontent not uniquely stemming from the issue at hand could be vented.

[376 words]

Read more from my sources:

  1. Bavani, M. (2016) ‘Managing KL’s rubbish’. Retrieved 1st November 2017 from https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2016/05/30/managing-kls-rubbish-residents-in-the-city-are-more-conscious-of-the-amount-of-waste-they-generate-a/#ItmXmctro8kMDATS.99. 
  2. Bullard, R. D. (1994) Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  3. Chu, M. M. (2014) ‘Will a waste incinerator in Kepong do more harm than good?’. Retrieved 1st November 2017 from http://says.com/my/news/will-a-waste-incinerator-in-kepong-do-more-harm-than-good.
  4. Law, C. W. (2014) ‘Why KTI doesn’t support incinerators’. Retrieved 1st November from https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/272972. 
  5. Moore, S. A. (2012) ‘Global garbage: waste, trash trading, and local garbage politics’ in Peet, R., Robbins, P., & M. Watts (eds.) Global Political Ecology. London and New York: Routledge. 
  6. Tariq, Q. (2013) ‘Taman Beringin incinerator will be safe’. Retrieved 1st November 2017 from https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2013/11/16/taman-beringin-incinerator-will-be-safe/.
  7. Ong, K. M. (2014) ‘Recycling trash to feed Kepong incinerator?’. Retrieved 1st November from https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/259849.





Published by

Chin Lee

University College London Undergraduate Year 3 GEOG3076 Urban Political Ecology Module

2 thoughts on “Let’s talk trash II: Trash-triggered politics in Kepong”

  1. hey Chin Yee,

    It was really interesting how you presented the issue as not merely a case of the location of the waste incineration plant (which we see in many case studies) but more so a deep-seated issue of distrust between the government and the people – really illustrating the myriad flows and interactions within urban-political-ecology.

    Though I wonder if contentions about residents not wanting to have the incinerator at their backyard not existing at all? I can’t help to think if such protest would still take place if the siting of the plant was in a more remote area? Nevertheless, it is interesting how the usual invisible flows of waste can and has surfaced deeper political dissatisfaction with the government, indeed serving as a flash point for the underlying tensions between politics and the urban residents.

    Thank you for an interesting insight!


  2. Hi Yi Ming,

    I thought the same as well! Looking through their facebook campaign group (https://www.facebook.com/antikepin/) while researching for this post, I was struck by how they explicitly emphasised that this resistance was not about where the incinerator is sited, but the very existence of it. They based this on its implications for the environment for KL and Malaysia as a whole, instead of just stemming from (relatively more selfish) localised concerns. Which implies that even if the siting of the plant was more remote, they would still protest it…

    A more cynical part of me doubt whether this would be the case though, given that this campaign doesn’t seem to have invited support from people not directly affected by the siting decisions. Putting myself in this situation, it’s hard to imagine even being aware of where the incinerator in my city is being sited if the site is remote, and therefore more invisible and out of my direct sphere of concern. I guess this really got me reflecting more about the implications of visibility when it comes to ‘dirty’ infrastructure like this!


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