Had Asean been serious about regional cooperation and a coordinated response, we would today have in place adequate measures to tackle this crisis comprehensively, observes K Haridas.
The ‘haze’ situation remains serious and many are feeling its impact.
The physical, mental and social costs are enormous, and we have to move away from the ‘tidak apa’ attitude and finger-pointing that characterises this issue.
While this is also serious in Indonesia, as a regional partner we need to step up and provide the necessary leadership to deal with this ongoing challenge on a long-term basis.
The ‘smogscreen’ hides much of the opportunity costs lost, the damage to human health, the environmental tragedy, and the loss to education and tourism suffered by all the affected nations. Yet, the fact is, this haze problem has been with the region for over a decade.
Malaysian leaders are equally complicit in what is happening, and it is because of this careless attitude that the region is continually facing this challenge year in and year out.
This signals a regional leadership crisis and even perhaps highlights corruption at the ground level. For Malaysia, this is fortunately not an ethnic issue but one that affects all Malaysians.
The same can be said for some of the other affected Asean nations in the region as this ‘smogscreen’ hides the difficulties that underlie regional cooperation. There must be reasons, and the time has come for some plain speaking.
Surely, after more than a decade, we should have reached a stage where we have an adequate regional response system in place. We never seem to be learning anything or moving forward in tackling this issue. It is as if we are facing this afresh on an annual basis, and our citizens pay an annual cost – the haze ‘levy’.
Any corporate organisation worth its capitalisation, be it Malaysian or a multinational, would have had in place adequate crisis management measures to deal with issues that arise. These issues would be those that are common to its respective sector or anticipated issues.
A crisis management team would be in place to respond to any crisis. There would be crisis management policies, response teams (including a media team) and an action plan.
Yet, this does not seem to be the case with nation states. Without a plan of action and execution plan that are well founded and funded, the region will remain a victim to human greed and callousness.
As head of Asean, Malaysian leaders are now facing a credibility issue that diverts them from this focus. Asean lacks leadership and remains just a talk shop that meets to talk, eat and entertain but does little for its people. What is Asean’s contribution if any to dealing with the haze crisis?
Had Asean been serious about regional cooperation and a coordinated response, we would today have in place adequate proactive measures to tackle this crisis comprehensively. At least, we would have mitigated the seriousness of what we are facing today.
Strategies for adaptation would also have been in place. In this way, people in the region would feel a sense of ‘Aseanship’ – a regional togetherness and oneness that would strengthen regional bonds and bind us together.
Knowing the regularity of this challenge, the affected member nations would by now have had in place a crisis response process. This would have entailed mapping vulnerable areas, studying ways how peat fires could be extinguished, informing people and companies on the ground of the penalties that would be imposed for land clearing without first taking appropriate steps and precautions.
Action should begin annually in July in anticipation of the problem, and areas in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Malaysia could be mapped out. There would be adequate communications on the ground and aerial surveys that would alert the response team to immediate action. Resources would be made available, companies would be involved and together, action on the ground would contribute to making a difference.
These are all possible if there is a will to tackle the issue. Regional cooperation in this context lacks that will. Consider the loss of revenue arising from the haze to nations like Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei not to mention Indonesia itself. All these nations could contribute to the costs of such initiatives.
This is a human problem caused purely by human callousness. Surely, in this era of science and technology and with the fire-fighting expertise available, we need to share and together as regional partners develop the much needed capacity and expertise available in the region to deal with this transboundary challenge. Global assistance will be forthcoming if we are seen to take action.
Had we focussed on this years ago instead of just talking and meeting only when the crisis confronts us, we would have moved further in both tackling and mitigating the seriousness of this issue. If the worst affected nations were to pool their resources, we would today have at least been able to tackle the present crisis.
Visibility for landing is only at 2,000 feet, and some flights have had to be diverted. Why do we have to wait for a tragedy to happen to raise the serious questions that need to be asked and the issued that need to be tackled? While we cannot hold other nations accountable, we must as Malaysians hold our national leaders accountable.
Why has Asean failed? Why has Malaysia not been able to provide the necessary leadership? The inability of our leaders to focus on an issue as serious as the haze and to develop strategies that can be implemented shows a lack of real concern for the welfare of its citizens. Transboundary issues do call for efforts stressing regional cooperation.
With all our talk of Asean and regional closeness, when issues stare us in the face we buckle and are not able to make a difference. Asean is like a chain: it is only as strong as its weakest link. The current challenge posed by the haze reveals the weakest link.
This is why so many are disappointed and disillusioned with Asean. There are too many reasons why candid speaking is not allowed. So we remain in our little stinking swamps, pointing our fingers at one another until the next season comes by. The ‘smogscreen’ hides our inertia for disciplined action.
We are now told that an increasing number of hotspots and raging fires have been sighted in new locations. With the El Nino-like conditions, indications are that there is every likelihood that haze conditions will possibly continue until March next year.
Malaysia is now ready to help in Indonesia and has about 1,200 firemen on standby. Typical of the late response, it looks like a belated attempt to jump in and advertise that some action is finally being taken.
The opening up of new areas for agriculture especially oil palm cultivation, is contributing to this challenge. Green cover is being removed and dry conditions are causing low-lying peat areas to smother us with smoke. We have had similar challenges in Malaysia, and this is not something particularly new.
For the Malaysian Minister of Resources and Environment to remark that human intervention alone is inadequate is an astounding revelation! What should have been done at an earlier stage was never done. Shallow analysis by him with no execution plan on offer!
Already in Malaysia we are facing numerous challenges posed by rising prices, GST, toll hikes and a low morale caused by a leadership that is unaccountable. Our Parliament appears to be a good example of a rubber stamp and we have an Executive that lords over a kleptocracy.
How long more have we to tolerate the intolerable? Corruption is eating into the vitals of this nation, and while we have slogans we do not have much substance to give real meaning to visionary expressions.
Added to all this is the regional haze which contributes to higher medical expenses. Children have to sit for examinations under these difficult and trying conditions. It would indeed be a surprise if our Parliament actually addresses this national crisis.
So we continue to suffer in silence while the ‘smogscreen’ hides weaknesses that perhaps will never be addressed at all.