Smog – enough is enough!

24 August, 2015
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

asean

THE first mistake made 18 years ago was to describe the acrid, terribly unhealthy and economically costly lead-ridden smoke that has been blanketing Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia at least once a year since 1997 for weeks on end, as haze.

So we hazily tolerated this pestilence from Indonesia and in the typical Asean way treaded ever so softly on a matter that deeply affects lives and livelihoods.

It is no wonder that so many are so cynical about Asean and all this talk about a community. Each Asean country owes a duty of care to its citizens and to its neighbours. All three countries have to a lesser or greater extent violated this. Indonesia most so.

How can we even talk about a people-centric Asean with a straight face? Why did it take Indonesia just now to ratify the anti-smog agreement of 2002?

In Europe the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution came into force in 1983 among 51 countries not many years after a public outcry over acid rain on the continent, with legally binding targets, periodic reports on compliance, and progressive introduction of new pollution concerns.

They respond and act responsibly. Here we talk and come up with heart-rending slogans, but do our governments really care?

They meet often enough at tax-payers’ cost. The last transboundary haze pollution ministerial meeting was held in Jakarta in August 2015 and they agreed to remain vigilant and to step up efforts to minimise transboundary haze..

What happens next? Black September!

For good measure they stressed the need to develop a road map for cooperation among members of Asean to achieve the goal of a haze-free region by 2020.

Another road map. Where do they all lead? And of course 2020, that magic year when everything will fall into place all over the place. This charade must really stop.

As usual, it is only Singapore that has tried to do something real about this choking pestilence. Last September its Parliament passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act giving the city state authority to prosecute local and foreign companies involved in illegal forest burning that causes severe air pollution in the country.

It is of course not a definitive solution. It depends on cooperation of the involved jurisdiction – Indonesia.

And Indonesia has been very equivocal. In the current crisis it has dragged its feet when Singapore offered firefighters to help put out some of the suffocating flames. In the past, the Indonesian vice-president had said Singapore should be grateful for the eleven months of clean air against one month of poison in the air. This is not acceptable.

Maps unavailable

In 2012 the Asean Haze Monitoring System was developed by Singapore. But it has yet to become operational “as concession maps from member countries are not available.”

Apparently companies do not generally share concession boundary data and there are laws banning certain governments from sharing concession maps.

Well, change the laws and make companies share the data. Are we interested in fighting the smog or not?

When Indonesia got tired with foreign fishing vessels violating Indonesian waters, it blew them up. Now with tens of thousands of Indonesians suffocating from the smog – even if Indonesia does not care about even more people in Malaysia and Singapore suffering – it should do something about it.

If he is really the people’s president, Jokowi must take action instead of just throwing words at the flames.

The Malaysian and Singapore leaders too must be prepared to snap out of words into action. When was the suffocating smog last discussed at the Asean summit? Or by the leaders of the three countries?

Surely they are not held back by the desire not to hurt any feelings. If anybody is hurt, it is the peoples of the three countries.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.