Interview: Selangor princess YAM Tengku Zatashah on plastics, pollution and food waste

We catch up with the Selangor princess on the social causes she holds dear.

An environmentalist, anti-poverty activist and vocal champion against wastage, Selangor princess YAM Tengku Datin Paduka Setia Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah is well known for her grassroots level approach to advocacy.

She started the #sayno2plastic campaign on social media back in 2016 and you’ll find her volunteering with Kechara Soup Kitchen often, while pushing the zero food wastage message.

Most recently, Tengku Zatashah has been working with the Kloth Cares campaign representing the Selangor Youth Community (SAY Community) as one of the partners and being an ambassador for the #StandTogether campaign organised by newspaper The Star’s documentary team R.AGE.

We catch up with her to ask about her current roles, and her passion for social work:

Q: What causes do you feel are urgent but still remain unfamiliar to people today?

I don’t look into “causes” per say and see what is under represented or not because this is not how I do things. I champion a cause because it is something that I believe in, that I am passionate about and that I want to be vocal about it. So when I talk about causes I come from a place of research and knowledge, and not simply spouting things.

In 2016, nobody was paying attention to the plastic pollution but because I love the environment and I read a lot I realised that plastic pollution was a deep problem. In that same year I was giving uni lectures on my campaign #sayno2plastic and I had already pledged to reduce plastic since then.

In 2016 I had already been a volunteer with Kechara Soup Kitchen to feed the homeless and when I read an article in The Star that in Malaysia we throw away 230,000 tonnes of food during Ramadan I knew I had to do something. So I kickstarted my campaign #zerofoodwastage and wrote to hotels to give us their surplus food. Since then we have grown and grown and have saved 576 tonnes of surplus food and that has benefited over 20,000 people, those in need such as the homeless, urban poor families and elderly and disabled children.

I am also an environmentalist and support protecting our wildlife; I am Sharksavers Malaysia ambassador and support the campaign #ImFINishedwithFINS, to end shark finning. I talk about #saveourturtles as currently Malaysia we have no nationwide legislation to ban turtle egg commercialization. Our leatherback turtles in Malaysia are extinct and if we are not careful our green turtles will follow suit.

I petition on the campaign #NoMoreDeadTigers since 2016. We are rapidly losing our Malayan tiger population and when I petitioned for it in 2016 we had 300 in our Harimau Malaya tiger population. Today I was outraged to learn we only have 150 Malayan tigers left and that extinction is possible soon in a year or two years’ time. How can we call ourselves the national football squad Harimau Malaya, once it is extinct. How can our national athletes wear the tiger print on their jerseys once we have no more Malayan tigers left in the world.

So yes I support many causes, but these are because I am impassioned by it and only hope to raise awareness and bring attention to the plight which is our own human destruction that is causing all this.

Tengku Zatashah volunteering with Kechara Soup Kitchen. — Photo courtesy of Tengku Zatashah Idris

Q: Your position holds a lot of influence, what are considerations you make when deciding on a cause to champion?

As I mentioned, I champion a cause because it moves me and I feel the need to do something about it. And when I talk about it, it’s not something casual it is a cause that I work on day in and day out to ensure that we the public can do something about it.

Q: Plastics are so deeply ingrained in daily life, that even the clothes we wear are mostly plastic. What do you feel would be a practical way we can shift from the dependence on plastic?

We cannot run away from plastic but my campaign is about #stopsingleuseplastic – this we can do something about.

We can say no to plastic bags, and bring our own recycled bag. We can say no to plastic straws and bring our own metal/silicone straw. We can say no to plastic drink cups and bring our own drink tumbler. We can say no to throwaway coffee cup and bring our own reusable coffee cup. We can say no to plastic cutlery and bring our own wooden cutlery. We can say no to plastic food containers and bring our own tiffins or tupperwares.

These are all examples of what I do in my daily life. This is what we can all do to make a difference.

Tengku Zatashah has been pushing her #sayno2plastic since 2016. — Photo courtesy of Tengku Zatashah Idris

Q: How would you convince someone who doesn’t see plastic as a big deal?

I have encountered many people who are indifferent to this plastic problem. So I will explain repeatedly what happens to plastic, where it goes, how it is killing our oceans and marine wildlife and how that plastic that breaks down into nano plastics are ending up in our digestive system and damaging our health. It takes time.

Q: How do you feel about there being a national level food bank being put in place?

Thanks to #zerofoodwastage campaign’s success, we are now going nationwide with Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia which is initiated by the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs.

I am excited for what we can do with this to save surplus food and channel it to those in need.

Q: Which causes do you find takes up most of your time, and why?

I give all as much time as I can. That also includes #saynomore2bullying in The Star R.AGE #StandTogether campaigns as I visit schools and talk to the students, plus my charity work with Make-A-Wish Malaysia and as board of trustee for Selangor Youth Community (SAY), Yayasan Raja Muda Selangor, Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia and Alice Smith School Foundation.

I have to admit I spend more time on all my causes more than my corporate jobs, but I guess that is because I am 100% driven to give as much time as I can to all these causes. I also support Kloth Cares fabric recycling bins as SAY is one of the founding partners to this initiative.

With the success of food waste rescue efforts such as Tengku Zatashah’s #zerofoodwastage campaign, a nationwide food bank under Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia initiated by the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs. — Photo courtesy of Tengku Zatashah Idris

Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews in the past that causes come up without you planning for them. Looking back now, do you think there has been any subconscious overarching theme that has connected the causes you’ve picked up and why you’ve chosen them?

Good question! I think the underlying factor is when I feel so moved by something and need to raise awareness or just vocalise on it, then I will. If I feel the public can make change then I will show it. I realise a lot of people write to ask me questions when they see my posts such as Kloth Cares, or Harimau Malaya or plastic or #zerofoodwastage.

I still am amazed that my social media is able to carry this influence! I still think to myself oh it’s just my small post but I still don’t realise that many people are paying attention to it.

Q: Could you please share a little bit about SAY Community and what you hope for it?

SAY Community was started by my brother Raja Muda Selangor when he returned for good after his studies and army training at Sandhurst. SAY focuses on youth empowerment by the youth and we have four pillars that we focus on; sports and entertainments, arts and culture, entrepreneurship and community service.

You will see me focus a lot on the community service factor as that has always been my passion. For example, last year Ramadan we did Ziarah Ramadan, renovating an orphanage in Klang, by sprucing up the boys’ dormitory, we gave the girls cooking utensils and ovens so they could bake cookies and sell them in the future, we taught them how to bake the cookies thanks to Chef Anis. We also gave sports equipment such as badminton, rugby, football, frisbee and table tennis so they could play; as well as new baju Raya clothes for the girls and boys. It was a great day we spent with them.

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