THIS month, Malaysia and its neighbours experienced poor air quality caused by rampant forest fires, the El Nino weather phenomenon and rising temperatures from climate change. The Environment Department (DOE) reported alarming Air Pollutant Index (API) readings of between 101 and 200 in nine areas of Malaysia, indicating hazardous levels of air pollution. Satellite imagery from the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre has unequivocally pointed to forest fires in Indonesia as the source of the problem, primarily in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The complexity of the smog issue stems from its transboundary nature, the intricate web of actors involved, palm oil patronage and the distinct non-interference approach within Asean countries. Consequently, when pollution occurs, a cycle of blame ensues, often continuing endlessly until the smog subsides. The script remains unchanged each year. Smog envelops the region, prompting an affected nation to issue a formal complaint to Indonesia. Subsequently, an Asean meeting is convened to explore regional cooperation, yet progress often stalls. Indonesia, in response, denies direct involvement, shifting blame to Malaysian and Singaporean companies operating within its borders.
The familiar pattern repeated itself this year. In June, delegates from Asean member states gathered in Singapore for discussions on the transboundary smog problem. Malaysia’s Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad issued a formal letter to Indonesia in October, expressing the country’s concerns over transboundary air pollution. However, Indonesia’s Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar dismissed the accusations, asserting that no smog had crossed into Malaysia or Singapore. This cycle of finger-pointing continues until the winds finally carry the smog away. Nik Nazmi has assured Malaysians that the smog will subside as a result of wind changes predicted by the Malaysian Meteorological Department. Once again, this annual problem fades into the background only to resurface next year.
‘Normalising’ the smog season
The specific discourse utilised by political actors in the air pollution issue has been unveiled in a research study on the politicisation of the smog season in Southeast Asia. (See Varkkey et al., “‘Seasons of the Anthropocene’: Politicisation of the haze season in Southeast Asia”, (2023): 1-30.) They revealed that the framing of the smog as a seasonal phenomenon by political actors contributes to the persistence of the problem. Their research identified three prevalent storylines, which are “it keeps coming back”, “it will go away” and “it is normal”. In other words, the smog is normalised and regarded as a temporary problem that will go away on its own.
We can see the same discourse pattern this year when Nik Nazmi assured the public that the smog season will subside. In doing so, he tapped into the “it will go away” narrative. This particular narrative, though seemingly comforting to the public, carries deeper and serious implications. By portraying the smog issue as a passing phenomenon akin to natural seasonal changes, it implies that society merely needs to endure this period before it eventually goes away.
Normalising the smog as a seasonal phenomenon is costly. According to Al Jazeera reports, the 2015 smog event cost Indonesia a substantial 1.9% of its GDP, while Singapore’s economy suffered a 0.17% loss. Immediate economic costs in Indonesia totalled approximately 221 trillion rupiah (RM77 billion), an amount that exceeded the reconstruction cost following the 2004 Aceh tsunami.
Managing illnesses caused by the smog incurs significant economic costs as well. Malaysia faced a significant increase in treating smog-related illnesses between 1997 and 2013, with costs soaring 20 times during this period. However, this data does not account for population growth or inflation, making the economic impact even more significant.
Changing the discourse through a transboundary smog law
Nonetheless, discourses are not permanent. It can be challenged and negotiated to prompt broader social change. In this situation, it is crucial for the government to heed the voices of environmental groups and civil society organisations who have been advocating for the enactment of the transboundary smog act. Certainly, transboundary air pollution is undeniably a regional concern. While it’s crucial to respect the principle of non-interference, it doesn’t render us powerless or devoid of responsibility in combating this annual problem.
The effectiveness of the Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement of 2002 hinges upon the implementation of domestic legislation by individual countries. This approach, in line with article 3.3 of the agreement, emphasises the necessity for each member state to proactively adopt precautionary measures. These measures should include anticipating, preventing, and monitoring transboundary smog pollution, as well as mitigating its adverse effects, even in the absence of complete scientific certainty.
While several experts have criticised the ineffectiveness of Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Act, it doesn’t imply that our law will face the same shortcomings. According to environmental politics expert Helena Varkkey, Malaysia can draw valuable lessons from Singapore’s experience to create a more robust law. This new legislation could specifically target Malaysian companies instead of any companies causing the smog. Moreover, she suggested that the emphasis of the law should lean towards prevention rather than punishment. This approach should aim to gain the support of Malaysian companies and may involve establishing legal frameworks to ensure oversight and control over the activities of these companies, both within the country and internationally.
In sum, the smog issue in Southeast Asia demands urgent attention and a transformative shift in discourse. The normalisation of smog as a natural, recurring event must be challenged, and this calls for a proactive approach from the government and civil societies. Our government must demonstrate strong political will and commitment to addressing the issue of smog pollution. This entails allocating sufficient resources, manpower, and funding to effectively address the problem. Ultimately, the smog issue is not merely an environmental problem – it is a social, economic and public health concern that demands a united response. By reshaping the discourse and enacting effective legislation, Malaysia can foster a future where clean air and clear skies are the norm, not just a fleeting hope during the smog-free season. – October 27, 2023.
* Nur Sakinah Alzian reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.