(NOTE: This is a column I wrote for Malaysiakini back in 2006. Seems that nothing has changed but a few names in the intervening 13 years. What a disgrace to all parties to this perennial scandal)
Will the haze prove as threatening to tourism in Malaysia as it surely is to the health of all those of us who live here, and to the credibility of official Malaysian and Indonesian ‘efforts’ to combat it?
The picture on the front page of a newspaper last Thursday provided a graphic response to the question, showing a tourist on the observation level of the KL tower snapping a picture of a poster portraying a clear panorama of the city while his companions at the viewing windows glumly gazing out at..nothing.
But even hazier than the air in Malaysia’s been lately is the atmosphere of mystery concerning who’s causing the problem, and how they get away with it year after year.
Tourism Malaysia director-general Mirza Mohammad Taiyab didn’t clarify matters much, saying that he hoped the haze wouldn’t get any worse, then proceeding to savage the “foreign media“ for publishing reports exaggerating the situation.
And the Mentri Besar of Selangor, Datuk Seri Khir Toyo, failed to shed further light on the subject with the blindingly obvious observation that the haze was due to open burning in Sumatra.
Everybody’s long been well aware of what causes the problem. The burning question is who? In what’s become an annual ritual of inter-Government accusations, Malaysia largely blames Indonesia for the haze, claiming that it’s the smoke from blazes set by illegal loggers and plantation owners to raze more rainforest on the much-abused islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
Indonesia in its turn regularly retorts that many of these arboreal and agricultural arsonists are actually Malaysian-owned companies operating within its territory, but fails to explain why it does little if anything to stamp-out these offenders’ incendiary activities.
And there the matter rests for yet another year, with Indonesia failing to sign the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Treaty, and Malaysia pretending it hasn’t the foggiest idea whether any of its corporate citizens are among the culprits, leaving the offenders free to brazenly light more fires, fan the flames and deliberately let them rage out of control while pretending to try and contain them, safely out of the public gaze and thus utterly unfazed.
At the height of the haze season last year, in an attempt to dispel the shroud of secrecy surrounding this issue, or at least kindle a spark of interest in it at a responsible level, I asked a top executive of a major Malaysian media group whether any of his newspapers were planning to try and get to the truth of the matter. But he replied that they didn’t have the financial or reporting resources for such a remote and complex investigative assignment, and quickly changed the subject.
In other words, as I took him to mean, however many readers of his group’s newspapers might be choking with rage at the illegal pollution of their atmosphere, not to mention wanton destruction of yet more of the natural environment, the topic of Malaysian companies’ alleged complicity in causing the haze was officially off-limits, and that he was prepared to avoid firebrand reporting in favour of helping maintain the prevailing smokescreen.
Given that where there’s smoke there’s not only ire but also fire, I guess this far-from-burning desire to uncover the true source of the haze inevitably tells its own story. So it seems reasonable to conclude that there’s more than a grain of truth in smouldering suspicions that some Malaysian companies are as guilty of environmental vandalism in Indonesia as they reportedly are in other lawless, corruption-prone and resource-rich locations in the Asia-Pacific, like Papua-New Guinea.
It shouldn’t be hard to uncover and reveal the facts of the matter. What with the efficiency of spy-in-the-sky photography these days, any organization with access to a satellite feed or world-watch website should be able to clearly pin-point the positions of haze-generating fires. And the identities of individual or corporate owners or lessees of these areas should be evident to anyone with access to statutory land-tenure records.
So I assume that the relevant Government agencies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and any other countries affected by or interested in the haze phenomenon know perfectly well who the culprits are, and that news organizations could also be well aware if they chose to be.
I must say I’m somewhat surprised that Greenpeace and similar environmental-protection organizations haven’t been more vocal on the subject. But perhaps they have, and their statements have been largely ignored or played-down by the local news agencies and media.
Of course even if the illegal arsonists were identified, it might be tough to prove in court that they’d had deliberately set the fires in the first place, or purposely let them to spread unchecked. So it’s unlikely they could be made to cough-up fines for corruption or environmental damage, or that a class-action could be successfully brought against them by all those people like asthmatics and air travelers whose health or even lives have been endangered by their dire disregard for the consequences of their activities. But at least naming them might make for some interesting test-cases, and even shame them ever so slightly.
Meanwhile, as I write this, the haze lies over KL like a blanket of gloom, dooming us all to yet another day of praying for rain to wash some of the smoke away, or a change of wind direction to bring a breath of fresh air.
Let’s also hope the winds of change eventually blow sufficiently strongly at Government level to fire-up some genuine official efforts to snuff-out slash-and-burn logging and land-clearing for once and for all, so we can safely forget about Malaysia, Truly Hazier and get back to enjoying life in Malaysia, Truly Asia.