PAST PRESENT: ‘The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.’

PAST PRESENT: ‘The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.’

9 August 2008

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Malaysia — No one is gasping for breath yet, but the haze clouding the Malaysian firmament is causing discomfort and disquiet.

Our neighbour Indonesia has decided the time is ripe for its annual export of haze to Malaysia.

Forests in Borneo and Sumatra are burning, due mainly to land clearing activities. Going by the number of hotspots there, the sky will not clear up for a while yet. More than 400 forest fires were spewing smoke last Thursday.

But the Indonesians cannot claim sole credit for causing the haze shrouding Malaysia.

For, a fire has been burning since Aug 1 on about 49ha of agricultural land near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The land is part of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve in Selangor.

On Aug 2, the Air Pollutant Index reading for Port Klang was 104. Tanjung Malim registered an API reading of 110 last Monday. Anything above 100, the health authorities tell us, is unhealthy.

It is truly amazing, then, that the haze has been allowed to become an annual affair.

Perhaps the Indonesian authorities are hazy about what should be done. Perhaps, clouded by a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, Asean nations are in a daze over how to pressure Indonesia into decisive action.

And what can I say about the gaze of our salaried environmental watchdogs and local authorities who seem to view open burning as a passing phase?

Perhaps it’s because our memory of the harm to health and environment caused by successive forest and peat fires over the years is somewhat hazy.

Remember the fire that razed almost four million hectares of forests in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, and a million hectares of forests in Sabah, in 1983? The fire, which blazed for nine months, is said to be the worst forest fire in recorded history.

Has our memory of the 1991 Kalimantan fires become nebulous? That was the time when many Malaysians ventured outside wearing face masks.

What about the haze that hit us from July to October 1997? Is that a foggy memory too? A state of emergency was declared in Kuching for 10 days.

Surely our memory cannot be so hazy that we have forgotten the state of emergency imposed on Kuala Selangor and Port Klang after air pollution reached dangerous levels in August 2005?

Port Klang registered an API of 529 while Kuala Selangor had 531. In Kuala Lumpur the API reading reached 321. Hundreds of schools were closed, flights disrupted and people were advised to stay indoors.

I suspect that the haze has so insidiously wrapped its tenuous tendrils around us that we have come to accept it, albeit grudgingly, as part of our environment.

And this is just the physical haze. What about the uncertain pall that has descended over the nation following the historic results of the March 8 general election? Too many things have been happening at dizzying speed and many remain in a daze.

We cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, blame the political haze on Indonesia but we can blame the world economy for the stomach-curdling economic haze that’s swamping us.

The spurt in petrol prices has sent prices of almost everything spiraling. Coupled with escalating food prices, it has struck us where it hurts most: our stomach.

Then there is the perception that things are somewhat hazy with the police and the judiciary.

Did you notice that the haze — whether in the physical, political, economic or judicial and law enforcement environment — is man-made? Which means, of course, that it can be cleared.

Malaysians, I believe, want to see the haze clearing. For, really, it has become wearisome.

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