Sunday, October 1

Towards clearing the air


“THE haze is so bad this year!”

It is easy to agree with this exclamation that has become ubiquitous in the last few days, confirmed by Air Pollutant Index (API) readings. Views of the Kuala Lumpur skyline have been shrouded by a thick white sheet, windows have acquired dirty patinas, and the acrid air deposits particulates on one’s clothes, hair, and mouth.

I have stopped playing tennis, and productivity has decreased. As my co-columnist Dr Helmy Haja Mydin has written, fine particles (PM2.5) ‘have been linked to numerous conditions including heart failure and lung cancer’, while “the economic cost is significant, with billions being lost in short-term health costs, work suspension, absenteeism, grounding of flights, and low tourist arrivals”.

The reference to ‘this year!’ assumes a certain resignation with the situation.  We expect the haze to return, and we feel powerless to stop it. A meme circulating on WhatsApp depicts the ‘four seasons’ of Malaysia: monsoon, dengue, haze, and durian, affirming the Malaysian ability to find humour out of a bad situation. But the lackadaisical attitude has caught the attention of diplomats, who are surprised that we aren’t taking this more seriously. However, with suffocating conditions lingering, demands for solutions are growing.

Since my ancestors came from Sumatra, friends have cheekily suggested that I should ‘return’ to sort out the mess. Alas, ever since the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 and subsequent creation of Malaysia and Indonesia with their own immigration and citizenship policies, that’s an unlikely scenario. Still, the flippant suggestion highlights how readily we accept manmade regulations regarding the movement of people, whereas manmade pollution crosses the Straits of Malacca or the border on Borneo with impunity.

Referring to satellite evidence of the location of the majority of hotspots, the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak has called on the international community to penalise Indonesia for the forest fires. Suggesting that Putrajaya bill the Indonesian government for half a million face masks, he said “until they suffer economically, they will not take our complaints seriously with their year after year of blanketing the region”.

Indeed, while an Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution does exist – first ratified by Malaysia in 2002 and finally by Indonesia in 2014 – it has been criticised as being far too weak to change governments’ behaviour. The text is lofty in its objectives but there are no incentives for achieving – and no penalties for failing – any targets. The absence of such targets is of course unsurprising given the unwillingness for the regional bloc to deviate from the Asean Way which avoids any incursion into each other’s sovereignty. Unfortunately, carbon particulates and wind directions will go whichever way they feel like.

Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 was innovative in enabling action to be taken against companies – wherever their activities – who contribute to haze pollution in the city state, but there have since been complaints about its effectiveness, too. Thus, we are left with the usual diplomatic channels and offers to help Indonesia put out the fires.

Ultimately, while environmental arguments and economic incentives must be made, it is up to citizens to convince their governments to change their behaviour, too. And if there is hope in the spreading of knowledge and awareness that will accelerate and widen the advocacy, I saw it in three events this past week.

First was a Sunway Project for Asian and International Relations forum, in which a superb panel discussion combined academic, governmental, and entrepreneurial perspectives towards sustainability. In my speech, I admitted to not being the most natural champion of the sustainability agenda. My interest in public policy began with a focus on democratic institutions and the role of the state vis-a-vis the market, but now I recognise that there is no point fighting for liberty and justice if there is no planet left.

The next day in Port Dickson, at the Malaysia FIRST Global Robotics challenge themed ‘Ocean Opportunities’, teams of teenagers competed to build robots that simulated picking up trash: a direct application of STEM to an escalating problem.

And earlier this week, I joined the Minister for Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change and royal environmental advocate Tengku Zatashah of Selangor to welcome the extremely knowledgeable Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, as he attended the reception and screening of ‘Blue Planet II’, the excellent BBC series that will be shown on RTM in the coming months.

Each of these events succeeded in engaging different target audiences on the issues of sustainability, and it is this sort of awareness – across racial and religious lines and across national borders – that will ensure that hopefully one day, we will not refer to the haze ‘this year’.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.