Beyond gender: Women on the frontlines of Malaysia's solid waste management

How women are key to a zero-waste future

08 Mar 2024 09:17am
Sharing her experience, Ummi Kalthum said among the key challenges faced by the Federal Territory SWCorp enforcement team include trash hoarders. - Photo by Bernama
Sharing her experience, Ummi Kalthum said among the key challenges faced by the Federal Territory SWCorp enforcement team include trash hoarders. - Photo by Bernama

KUALA LUMPUR - At first impression, Ummi Kalthum Shuib emanates a gentle and motherly vibe, but behind that warm demeanour is a steadfast, tenacious and uncompromising character who does not tolerate law breakers, especially those who throw solid waste indiscriminately.

Indeed, Ummi Kalthum, who is Federal Territories SWCorp Solid Waste Management Director, really means business when she conducted a crackdown operation on a trash hoarder’s house at a residential area in Segambut, here recently.

"If you don’t open the door, I’ll call the police. Please come out now,” she said in a commanding voice.

A video clip of the ‘Iron Lady’ conducting the operation was uploaded on a TikTok account of SWCorp or the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation, garnering 9.5 million views and more than 309,000 likes to date.


Sharing her experience with Bernama,Ummi Kalthum said among the key challenges faced by the Federal Territory SWCorp enforcement team include trash hoarders.

‘Our approach is to identify the problem behind these cases of hoarders by visiting their house every time we receive complaints from the public. Not all cases of hoarders are attributed to mental issues.

"There are cases of hoarders who regard the "stuff” collected as their daily source of income and collect the waste materials for five years until they cause public health concern such as clogged drains, foul odour as well as mice infestations in the neighbourhood,” explained Ummi Kalthum, 50.

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Leading the FT SWCorp and the only woman helming the waste management company in this country, Ummi Kalthum, among others is responsible for ensuring compliance of the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672) among the people in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

Elaborating, she said that upon receiving complaints from the public on the hoarders, her enforcement team will head towards the premises and give them some advice as well as prior warnings.

"If they remain stubborn, we will then take action under Act 672,” she added.

Among others, Act 672 provides for a RM10,000 to RM100,000 fine or an imprisonment of six months to five years or both, for illegal waste disposal offences.

Upholding the ‘clear and firm’ principle, Ummi Kalthum said SWCorp data shows the amount of waste that goes into landfills has not reduced due to the low recycling practices among the Federal Territory residents, especially those residing at strata buildings.

"Most of the areas that do not practise waste recycling are strata buildings such as apartments; they gave excuses that the JMB (Joint Management Body) has ‘vanished from the radar’, forcing them to throw rubbish indiscriminately without separating their waste into recyclables and non-recyclables.

"Besides that, foreigners also posed challenges for JMB in educating their apartment dwellers to separate solid waste due to language barrier and the filthy culture brought in from their country of origin,” she said, noting that only 29.5 per cent of strata buildings in the city and Putrajaya comprise dwellers who practise separation of solid waste.


According to Ummi Kalthum, despite having five children, she does not mind going for operations at any time, including at night to instill awareness among Federal Territory residents on waste disposal.

"Although solid waste management is categorised under the 3D category (dirty, dangerous, difficult), this does not prevent our team of 88 enforcement personnel including 17 women from carrying out their duties well.

"We also receive the support of family members and they have shown their commitment to contribute towards the community’s wellbeing,” she added.

She said gender is not an issue for women enforcement personnel to conduct operations at dangerous sites as they are well-trained for any eventualities, including in facing health and physical threats.

"Some pregnant women are still going to the ground (‘turun padang’), except that those who are in the advanced stage of pregnancy will be assigned for office duties,” she added.

At the same time, Ummi Kalthum admitted that there were times when they were also tired and disappointed with the attitude of stubborn residents, especially in the separation of solid waste.

"I am thankful that some husbands and children are supportive of our work although they are forced to ‘turun padang’ to challenging places including to landfill sites,” she said.

Ummi Kalthum also disagrees with the general perception that women are weak and are easily influenced by emotions.

"If we look at household management, women are born to be meticulous and systematic compared to men, as they are multitasking, that is a career woman who shoulders the responsibility as a wife and mother of her children,” she noted.


For Khor Sue Yee, the founder of Zero Waste Malaysia, a non-profit body, the major challenge in solid waste management issue is to ensure a gender balance in volunteering activities.

She said at her organisation itself, women volunteers are at the forefront of environment and climate change action compared to men, probably because women experience greater impact of climate change in their daily activities.

"We found that women are more meticulous and systematic in managing household matters, besides having a more caring attitude towards marginalised groups due to climate change issues.

"Besides that, women also play a crucial role in women empowerment, making their voices heard in the fight for women’s rights, and they are often more knowledgeable and vocal in influencing the public to support their cause,” she added.

She said women empowerment is not about dominance, but rather working together towards building a competitive nation for the future.

"Although most of our team at Zero Waste Malaysia are women, we also strive to strike a gender balance of our volunteers participating in our waste recycling campaigns or through our cooperation with local communities, companies and schools,” she said.

Khor said in terms of early education, women appear to be more approachable for children due to their motherly and caring vibe.

"Whenever we organise campaigns in schools with pupils or interact with children at residential areas, we found that they are more comfortable with women volunteers, hence making our work easier in delivering our message to them.

"We believe that education at a young age is the best approach for one to understand the waste recycling concept, enabling them to practise zero waste living daily,” she added.


Greensteps Malaysia’s co-founder and content creator Jolene Tan believes that women’s empathy and intuition play a crucial role in understanding public needs and motivating people towards sustainable practices.

(Greensteps Malaysia is a community-inspired initiative focusing on creating low-carbon people through sustainability approach, based on three main pillars - urban designers, low carbon development and behaviour change).

"These traits help in tailoring initiatives like our curbside recycling programme and composting initiatives in a way that resonates with people's daily lives, making it easier for them to adopt sustainable habits.

"Secondly, communication and collaboration are strengths that I have learnt to foster meaningful partnerships and public engagement.

"It is through these strengths, I am able to work closely with my team and relevant stakeholders to drive the development of zero waste cities,” she told Bernama recently.

The former Miss Malaysia Earth 2013 also shared her thoughts on the challenges of educating the community about the awareness of a sustainable lifestyle.

'Believe in yourself. Sometimes, we may doubt ourselves and our abilities, especially when the journey towards sustainability becomes hard.

"Changing public attitudes and behaviour towards sustainable waste management takes time, and I admit that it took some time for me to adopt as well.

"You might not see big changes quickly-it can take months or even years. Going through these challenges has also taught me how important it is to maintain a healthy level of self-confidence, along with mental resilience and creativity in problem-solving,” she said. - BERNAMA