Malaysians recently celebrated a cynically-described Haze Festival. During this annual affair, Peninsula Malaysia, and often neighboring nations, gets shrouded with a sickly air redolent of burningwood.
Wood, or forest tracts, were indeed being generously burnt in the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, to make way for oil palm plantations. Quantitatively, it must have been colossal enough to pollute the air beyond the Straits of Malacca. As usual, the accusing finger was jerked towards Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian plantation companies have perennially been the prime culprits, preferring to clear Indonesian land through the cheap scorch and burn method. Its cheaper than hiring local hands to clear the land; cheaper yet to bribe Indonesian officials.
This brazen assault on the environment peaked in 1997 during the strong-arm reign of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. After some debate on the matter and “regional efforts” to control the situation, the local Air Pollution Index (API) was kept out of the public domain, a feat current Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak attempted to perpetuate when Kuala Lumpur was shrouded with the noxious monoxides and dioxides.
The API is an official secret in Malaysia, a legacy much like other secrets and cover-ups typical of Dr. Mahathir’s reign. Someone at WHO must have tipped off Kuala Lumpur about an imminent report that had this excerpt: Racial discrimination in Kuala Lumpur is not quite what the Western Press makes it out to be. In reality, it is system of cronyism that rewards political elites, ostensibly in a race-based pecking order. Western embassies, institutions and corporations are prime culprits for perpetuating it.
Worldwide, air pollution contributes to some 800,000 deaths each year, the WHOestimates. About 62 percent of those deaths are in southeast Asia. (AP, August 20)
You want to keep this a secret from your own citizens? Geez, even West Bank settlers can rely on their gas masks in a similar situation.
Even before the WHO report appeared on wire, public outrage and a heavy presence of foreigners forced an official volte-face.
When the API figures were released, residents in Kuala Lumpur realized they were breathing air of a quality marked “hazardous.” It was worse in nearby Port Klang, where the API figure was above 500 for days. A reading above 100 is deemed “unhealthy”; it gets “hazardous” beyond 300.
The government decided to swing into action. A “haze emergency,” whatever that meant, was declared. Schools in the state of Selangor–within which Kuala Lumpur is located–were closed for two days. There were promises of “action” against Malaysian corporate culprits who were responsible for scorching and burning their way to the bank, year after year, during the dry spell of July/August.
Najib, of the Mahathir school, thought the lack of transparency could be kept ad infinitum. What he did was to open a can of worms. Local blogs and dissident sites–virtually absent in force till recent years–become a focal point of public anger, and the worms came wiggling out.
This wasn’t 1997 and Najib, of all people, should have realized this after his theatrical call for a powerful, mobile breed of “glocal Malays” during last months United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) general assembly. UMNO represents the dominant Malay component in the ruling National Front coalition, and its leaders lord over the country while bending its rules. Any rule, even if it relates to transparency on the quality of air. One official paranoia was the possible effect on the tourism industry. Screw the “62 percent in Southeast Asia.”
I think neither Najib nor his speechwriter understood that term.
For it was the “glocal” factor that forced the government to release the API figures. Malaysians and foreigners alike were relaying news of the haze to the outside world, and this was relayed back to Malaysians through the foreign media. BBC Onlines “Talking Point” had a page specially dedicated to local views. A visiting Londoner aptly remarked that “finally the world press is picking up on this piece of news.” Another reader was more to the point: “We are suffocating.”
Its a time-honored truism that the best local news comes from the global media, a truly glocal situation that is welcomed in Malaysia. The haze-filled airwaves have carrying health-related advice as Peninsula Malaysia suffers through days of ultra-toxic air pollution. No questions, however, are asked on the fate of Indonesian aborigines or rural folk living in the remote settlements of Sumatra andKalimantan.
The local media began to swing in tandem with official levers. The haze-filled airwaves were carrying health-related advice. No questions, however, are still asked on the fate of Indonesian aborigines or rural folk living in the remote settlements of Sumatra and Kalimantan. I assume they don’t exist. If the government-controlled media needs an excuse for its myopia, there was a temporary reprieve in the haze.
The blogs, on the other hand, moved on to another suffocating issue, one that has choked the talents and aspirations of two generations of Malaysians, specifically the ethnic minorities.
The government has long discriminated against the minorities in education and professions. There is even a housing discount not entitled to those who have been staying here for a 100 years. Even the non-Muslim indigenous citizens can be left out. It’s difficult to find any senior executives among them in Kuala Lumpur. Hardly anyone believes anything will change behind the smokescreens of government jargons and new “development” policies. The haze-filled airwaves have carrying health-related advice as Peninsula Malaysia suffers through days of ultra-toxic air pollution. No questions, however, are asked on the fate of Indonesian aborigines or rural folk living in the remote settlements of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
This time it was Dr. Mahathir, still a powerful figure despite his retirement, who opened the can of worms. What started off as a mindless spat over the loss-making national car venture–Proton–which lists Dr. Mahathir as a board-level advisor, later morphed into heated questions over the sticky pall of discrimination. The haze was no longer a hot topic when the WHO report was released. When you are angry, the air quality hardly matters.
Racial discrimination here is not quite what the Western Press makes it out to be. In reality, it is system of cronyism that rewards political elites, ostensibly in a race-based pecking order. Western embassies, institutions and corporations are prime culprits for perpetuating it. They need smooth business opportunities, at least for the next two years or so before India and China overwhelmingly dwarfs anything Kuala Lumpur has to offer.
The disillusioned among the minorities are not going to wait that long. They are ready to leave, if Australia or any other nation accepts them. An attempt by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to lure immigrants back to Malaysia during a recent visit to Canberra was seen as a hypocritical, PR show at a time when skilled minorities back home are longing to breathe a less oppressive air abroad. Their social strata should be juxtaposed to that of the London bombers, who by far, enjoyed far better benefits in the UK. Its a context lost on many who debate on “discrimination,” “alienation” and “terrorism.”
These vents of frustration are restricted to the Internet as the mass media is government-controlled. The media lens here gets rather cockeyed when it highlights the plight of Muslims in the West, and forgets the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims on home soil. Even the Internet wasn’t safe until Badawi, to his credit thus far, took over.
Online dissent however takes a life of its own, and his predecessor’s lingering policies are haunting him.
Education was a particularly rankling issue and things were not helped when Hishamuddin Hussein, the minister in charge, performed a dagger-wielding Malay-power show during the Umno assembly. He wanted to perpetuate special rights for the special among his people. If it was “his people” Malaysia would have been fabulously wealthy by now.
In between, an opportunity was found to level allegations of espionage against some prominent figures. The local intelligence had indeed been leaking some names in the aftermath of 9/11, that pivotal moment that caused a schism among intelligence agencies worldwide. These charges were a novelty not seen during Dr. Mahathir’s sue-me era. For perspective, try thinking of an Enron counterparts winning a multi-million dollar suit for “defamation” instead of jail or accountability.
Maybe that espionage thing was playing on Dr. Mahathirs mind when he trained his guns on “intellectuals” after finding a distinct lack of patriotism over the national car project. These “intellectuals” were plying their trade for foreign powers during his reign.
Let me rehash a bit of local history here. The Mahathir era produced two monumental achievements: The Twin Towers and an oxymoron called the “Malaysian intellectual.” The former was a stunning success; the latter blurred the boundary between journalism and stenography. The recruitment criteria of intelligence agencies was also lowered. If “open spookery” is an art; it is only practiced here. A first for a proud Malaysia where thinking individuals stalk every ground except those trod by “intellectuals.”
Our Information Minister Kadir Sheikh Fadzir was least informed by this phenomenon. His patriotic call to Malaysians to purchase and wave the national flag in the run up to our 48th Independence Day on Aug 31 is largely falling on deaf ears. Most are fed up by pedantic politics. I, for one, need to save every penny I have. Besides, Kadir looks more Indian than me and there are plans to bring in 100,000 Pakistanis workers whose offspring will eventually enjoy more privileges than mine.
That’s the danger of thinking despite Kadir’s pathetic Mahathir-style rants against “neo-colonialism” through the “IMF” back in “1997” blah, blah, blah when Malaysia was shrouded in a sickly haze not felt by air-conditioned “intellectuals” on neo-colonialist payroll. Times have changed. There are times we can get inspired by “kick ass” America. Cindy Sheehan’s tenacious vigil outside the Crawford Cowboys ranch is seen as simplyheroic.
There is something else Kadir needs to know. There are times we can get inspired by “kick ass” America. Cindy Sheehan’s tenacious vigil outside the Crawford Cowboys ranch is seen as simply heroic. A mother of a fallen soldier taking on a president, provoking anti-war editorials around the country? Forget KL poseurs–which intellectual from Old Europe or the New World can match that? Pat Robertson is dismissed as a brazen coward who wants a Catholic-born Hugo Chavez killed–yes killed–but is too chicken-hearted to take on the Saudi financiers of 9/11.
Visiting evangelists will need damage control to oil the tithe machine. Times have changed. People are not stupid. There are times we can get inspired by “kick ass” America. Cindy Sheehan’s tenacious vigil outside the Crawford Cowboys ranch is seen as simply heroic.
Robertson shocked and, ironically, did millions of Christians a favor by showing the true, deranged face of evangelical fanaticism–an unholy trinity of Caesar, “God” and Mammon. It’s a religion which asks: Who the hell was Jesus Christ to forgive his enemies when he had no time to sermonize on Venezuela’s oil? He spent too much time tending to the people of dead children. Heck, he was taken in by an “enemy” centurion and decreed the separation of God and Caesar. He had no time to cast the first stones against gays, fornicators and women. A simplistic fellow, he thought children were angels. Their surnames, whether Robertson or Chavez, didn’t matter. And here is the carpenters greatest failing: He never let up on hypocrites who greased the tithe-state machinery.
He spoke strange words too. What does “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel” mean? “Whitewashed tombs full of rotting flesh and bones”? Can they be applied to macro-economics, the oil industry, international relations or superstar evangelism?
I am thinking….
Its close to 5am and I am still thinking….
It’s 6am. Where is Osama bin Laden? Sept 11 is only two weeks away and we are getting rewarded with a Freedom Walk instead of a nailed terrorist?