Haze — a tailor-made issue for Asean to resolve

Haze — a tailor-made issue for Asean to resolve

28 June 2013

published by www.nst.com.my

Malaysia / Indonesia / Singapore / ASEAN — THE current haze problem in much of southern peninsula Malaysia and Singapore makes this writer recall a far worse case back in 1997 when, instead of the 500 or so figure we suffered under in terms of the Air Pollutant Index, it was inching towards nearly the 1,000 mark in Sarawak then.

The scene then was almost surreal. In Kuching, the streets were mostly deserted as most people stayed indoors. Under strong street lights at night, the cityscape seemed like shots out of a grainy old movie, the ghostly quiet giving one the sensation that one was in the centre of an eerie war zone.

Such was the popular desperation then that it provoked equally desperate comments from politicians, with then information minister Datuk Mohamed Rahmat famously and memorably letting slip a comment that the government was contemplating evacuating the whole of Sarawak.

How little things have changed between then and now.

Then, as now, we were and are left to the tender mercies of nature, hoping the wind will change direction and blow all that smog out quickly to sea. Then president Suharto of Indonesia issued a public apology for all the trouble originating mostly from his country and affecting its neighbours.

We now have current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono making an almost identical public apology but this time, only after his ministers made public statements on the problem which were hardly useful, certainly ill-advised and thoughtless and, if not for the fact that we are close neighbours, could have been regarded as hostile comments.

Public apologies from the very top of Indonesia’s leadership may assuage some of the hard feelings needlessly generated over the annually recurring haze but are hardly comforting to those millions in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia who cannot escape breathing acrid smoke-filled air.

One has to wonder how many more presidential apologies will follow before we finally see the back of such a problem.

As things now stand, we are literally just taking fire-fighting action, inadequate and almost futile as that may be. Unless there is clear political will by the powers that be in Indonesia, we may never get to the bottom of this stubbornly persistent problem.

Powerful political and economic forces are clearly in play in the archipelago that result in Indonesia standing out as the single and most prominent hold-out in ratifying the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Without such officially-backed co-operation from the biggest culprit in the annual haze problem, we are all powerless to do anything to remove this regular irritant to bilateral relations between Malaysia and Indonesia.

This is an issue tailor-made for Asean to sink its teeth into and resolve. That it cannot do so because its biggest country refuses to fully cooperate only shows how empty is all the talk about building an Asean Community by the year 2015.

President Suharto resigned from office about a year after he issued his haze apology. President Yudhoyono will also leave office in a year after finishing his maximum two terms. He has plenty of problems on his plate right now from Indonesians demanding his attention.

Indonesians in Sumatra and Kalimantan even more severely affected by the haze each year than Malaysians do not have the political clout and voice to demand a stop to this annual grave health hazard posed by the haze. Foreigners such as

Malaysians and Singaporeans can realistically expect that their demands for action on the haze will get even less traction in Jakarta, especially once this year’s haze gets blown away on its own accord with time.

The only real “weapon” foreigners have to hopefully force Indonesia’s hand on the issue is what is currently being applied.

The wide publicity generated by this year’s haze has apparently caused Jakarta some discomfort and embarrassment in the international arena.

We have to assume Indonesia cares enough about its own international reputation to finally want to do something concrete to address the problem. Not just the Malaysian and Singapore governments but non-governmental organisations that care about the environment in the region must apply consistent and concerted pressure on Indonesia so it will be shamed into finally ratifying the regional anti-haze treaty, at the very least.

Indonesia needs to be made to understand that it cannot assume the regional leadership role that it craves while it so blatantly fouls up the air we all breathe every year.

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