Malaysia is in a very deep and desperate quandary. The country’s leaders seem baffled and bewildered about the current haze. They are being besmeared too. Citizens of at least four ASEAN countries are at a complete loss, confined indoors and for some of them it is claustrophobic to be hemmed in in this way. For other people the haze means a loss of income, poorer yields, disability, disease and even premature death. The haze is an issue that affects 99 percent of the people, perhaps one percent can insulate themselves somewhat against it.
Critics are aplenty but credible solutions seem distant and difficult and often seem somewhat impractical.
The affected countries must not forget that the peace and understanding reached painstakingly within the region over more than two lifetimes of diplomacy and patient bridge building has to be safeguarded and enhanced. No untoward or inappropriate action is advised as this issue should not be allowed to cloud the region’s overall peace and understanding.
There is no denying the desirability and durability of continued peaceful dialogue and adherence to the norms of diplomatic decorum and discourse that abounds in this sub-region of ASEAN and beyond. The region can speak of a high level of political sophistication and maturity in that sense.
The haze has become almost an annual occurrence and at certain times, like the present, it assumes an overwhelmingly sinister significance and poses a serious risk to health and lifestyles in the region. Our clear beautiful sky has seemingly disappeared and the diehard walkers, joggers and golfers in our greens seem to have deserted them. Hospitals have seen a sharp spike in pollution related illnesses. Workplaces experience high absenteeism. Air transport is affected, schools are closed and economic productivity, tourism and businesses, particularly outdoor ones, have taken a downturn. Overall it is a dismal and depressing situation.
There seems to be much sensational but little in-depth press and media coverage of the stupendous scale, seriousness and significance of the problem. It has had, almost consistently, all the ingredients of a major regional disaster. It did not appear suddenly but had built up over at least two decades and was one that could have been anticipated and controlled with some concerted effort.
For some inexplicable reason even the current highly responsive Pakatan Harapan Government on which the people had placed such unrealistically high hopes has not shown despair and acted with despatch with decisive steps to handle it.
There is a sense that the response has been mild, muted and muddled. Muddled because different spokespersons have spoken of different matters in diverse tones on the same most serious subject. The Government has not communicated in a clear unmistakable manner that Malaysia is highly agitated, even angered, by the haze, alarmed and astonished that it has reached the current hazardous level.
The ambivalence bordering on prevarication on the subject, the absence of anger and the prominence given in certain media circles to the narrative of the representatives of the powerful planting community would give the impression that the haze is more a matter for news people, media outlets, policy wonks, and pleas by politicians than a dangerous, debilitating and direct assault on the lives of all, and, especially the most vulnerable poor, sickly, newborn and geriatric segments of society.
A logical but perhaps inappropriate question to ask in the beginning is whether all land clearing is done in a sustainable manner.
Yet, it does not take rocket science to identify the root cause of the problem. This is an activity on land, most of it reachable by air in two hours. These fires, smoke and smog are not from another continent or planet.
Slash-and-burn methods are partly to blame and there are other causes including the vast extent of the areas affected, the scandalous scale of open burning, the callousness of the important individuals and commercial entities associated with preparing the fields for fresh cultivation etc, etc.
It is no longer realistic to stick to the old, tried and traditional methods of approaching this issue. Statements by ministers and bureaucrats are often not helpful in tackling this issue. These statements are notable for their rhetoric rather than reflecting a rude unpalatable reality. They have not worked for two decades. They will not work now. The statements, including the talk of writing to their high counterparts in the errant country, do not address the issue or ameliorate the situation.
References to existing understandings, although legally binding, arrived at high ASEAN plenipotentiary levels can serve as motherhood statements at best. They are couched in fine and fashionable platitudes and were excellent for the pomp and pageantry that the news starved press and media craved for and covered in 2002. Earlier discussions on air pollution from as far back as 1982 took place when the region was relatively unsullied, not pristine but pure and clean in many ways. Serious researchers and experts make references to these high minded understandings without realising that it is often the case that almost everything occurring after the signing of these understandings containing powerful platitudes and pledges is just an anticlimax.
This new Malaysian Government must be aware of such hollow aspects of hallowed regional protocol and practice. Being the newest government it has, in its arsenal, most of the key resources to handle this issue. It has the added luxury to take a fresh look at the unfolding dangerous situation.
Admittedly it would seem that, thus far, largely ad hoc government-to-government contacts at a certain level have been used and every year when the haze ends the initiatives also fizzle out. In time the officials handling these matters are also replaced.
To provide a long term sustainable solution there is an immediate need for Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomacy. Such diplomatic initiatives would involve continuing civilised informal dialogues where the participants are drawn from a broader base incorporating various levels, segments, NGOs, CSOs and representatives of farming communities, corporate players, local authorities and social activists. These “meet the people and players” approach would work only with the full cooperation given at national, provincial and local, sometimes village, level. This is essentially a process of taking the high level government-to-government understandings on the haze question to the principals and people involved in the land clearing business.
A high powered committee of experts, business executives, a senior parliamentarian, a seasoned diplomat, perhaps not more than seven of them has to be constituted and mandated to meet and plan a proper strategy with full government support and an adequate budget. The group has to be tasked with the responsibility over at least a two-year period to travel to the areas from which the peat, ground and forest fires emanate, identify the suspected principal perpetrators of this problem, meet and work with them and the local authorities in the areas concerned as well as in the capital city to examine how the problem can be overcome. They must look at all options from the science, sustenance, agricultural, finance, health, manpower and social perspective.
A junior member of the embassy in the country concerned can be seconded to assist the team. If expensive machinery is needed a proper study of the matter should be done quickly and, if it is in Malaysia’s long term interest, we must be willing to consider a substantial sum for that purpose. This is a modest investment for the overarching objective of protecting our priceless environment and the precious lives of people, domestic and wild animals, flora and fauna and the much needed essential ecological balance.
This move would be a broad comprehensive initiative combining an exercise in goodwill, the furtherance of our National and Regional Interest and the realisation of a strong, stable and durable relationship with our most important neighbour.
Needless to say we would need erudite and cultured people of good character and circumspection with some perspective of the vital significance of the overall ambience of maintaining both friendly diplomatic, cultural and economic cooperation. We have such people in our midst and this is a doable thing.
Much patience and perseverance is required.
No serving minister or deputy minister from the current government has to be involved in this exercise as they already have very busy schedules and large responsibilities to a highly dissatisfied electorate. Respectable retired ministers of the past, someone of the highest stature, on account of their long experience, and exposure to the regional environment, ought to be given consideration to lead the committee.
We should trust that with the success of this initiative there will be some positive outcome, greater peace, prestige and prosperity for the whole ASEAN region.
Dato’ M Santhananaban
September 23, 2019
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore.