Navigating the hazy road ahead

I previously wrote at some length about the haze and its associated problems. In this instalment, I will attempt to offer some solutions which, when worked on together, can perhaps help tackle this regional nightmare.

Let’s say that you are a driver driving through highly-hazy conditions (imagine that you have visibility of only 10 metres around you), what would you do?

Well, first you would put on the hazard lights to warn those coming behind you to be aware of the bad conditions in front and not to run into you.

Similarly, when it comes to the haze, let’s all speak the same language when it comes to the air pollutant index (API).

This index measures how much of the following four components are in the air, namely i) carbon monoxide; ii) ozone; iii) nitrogen dioxide; and iv) particulate matter concentration.

Malaysia uses the measurement of PM10 – a concentration of 10 micron particulates in the air.

Singapore, on the other hand, also includes an additional measure of smaller particulates, or PM2.5 — a concentration of 2.5 micron particulates. This is the recommended standard developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), called the Pollutant Standards Index.

So, even between Malaysia and Singapore, reporting how bad the haze is not the same. Thailand uses a not dissimilar method called the Air Quality Index.

Why is there no common pollutant index for Asean?

Is it so difficult for all Asean nations to use one common index?

When we switch on our hazard lights, to the driver behind us, the warning lights are all the same colour. You can’t have one country having a reading showing good air quality while, just across the border, a few kilometres away, the reading shows that the air quality is at the unsafe levels.

When your child is playing with other children and is extremely mischievous and naughty to the point of harming other children, you would reach out and smack him or her.

But at the same time, if some other adult decides to scold or even discipline our child, we would get really upset. In some cases, we may even have an argument with this adult, even if they are doing the right thing.

This is also the case with companies in Asean. Since 2015, the Asean Economic Community has ensured an ever-closer network of businesses and investments across Asean, with companies operating in the neighbouring states.

Oil palm plantations are a case in point. Many Singaporean and Malaysian companies operate plantations, via local subsidiaries, in Indonesia. That’s a fact. But when they’re “caught” for contributing to the haze by the host nation (Indonesia), it becomes a “nationalistic” issue when it comes to slapping them on the wrist.

Make companies responsible for fires

This is why it is crucial to ensure that the Asean countries are empowered to deal with “culprits” who are contributing to the haze. There is indeed a common regulatory framework and a joint commission, consisting of all the Asean member states, to decide on the issue.

Singapore, for example, has a law called the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, where companies found guilty can be fined up to RM300,000 (S$100,000) a day for causing unhealthy haze. However, Malaysia does not have such a law.

It’s critical that each country has a legally-empowered investigation team to be a part of the investigative process in finding those who are guilty of causing the haze; as well as a clear legal framework in place to allow the legal processes to take place.

Once guilt has been established, let the individual country, or the country in which the offences were committed, fine these companies, as seen fit.

Without this transparent, independent mechanism in place, national interests and political influences will hold sway and narratives may change quite easily; casting a “haze” over the actual issue and making it an inter-nation struggle.

There is already an instrument available for this — the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze. However, it needs a “sharp set of teeth and claws” to enable it to be a proper control mechanism. This is where we need to pressure the political powers to make it all happen.

Many a time, we have seen cases where multinational companies claim that they have no idea or control over what their “local” national subsidiaries do.

This is very clear, in the case of pharmaceutical companies, for example. International law clearly points out that this is not the case. A poor defence by a company that “we do not have control over the local contractors” is both shoddy and an insult to our intelligence.

Responsible financing

Again, international frameworks clearly exist on sustainable operations of companies, including responsible financing, which indirectly brings pressure to comply from all stakeholders.

The Association of Banks in Singapore, for example, in its guidelines for responsible financing, requires banks to ensure that their borrowers in the oil palm, pulp and paper-related industries manage haze risks as well as prohibit financing of companies involved in open burning for land-clearing.

I can already hear the grumbles of my finance sector colleagues:

“How are we going to enforce this?”

Simple. Draw upon civil societies. Civil society organisations (CSO), national or international, have established clear monitoring and evaluation strategies for a multitude of things, even up to and including being a part of the certification process for the sustainability of palm oil.

I daresay that it would not take much to talk to and engage ground-level CSOs who would be able to perform parts of a larger audit and compliance framework.

Penultimately, we need to come together and build permanent capacity to combat the primary cause of the haze — the fires themselves.

A ‘saving face’ issue for Indonesia

For Indonesia, it’s a “saving face” issue for them in not asking for help from us or Singapore to deal with the fires. This is despite our offer to help them. My question is why wait till the forest is on fire?

Why not form an Asean-level joint mechanism of coordinating and deploying fire-fighting and other mechanisms, including joint cloud-seeding. Again, it’s not re-inventing the wheel. All our countries already have a strong history of joint military cooperation, with annual deployment exercises.

A similar strategy could be easily put in place for a joint Asean forest fire-fighting force, trained together, deployed as required to fight these forest fires every year. As I highlighted earlier, this is no disaster when it occurs every year like clockwork.

All these solutions highlighted above can be initiated quickly and effectively through a regional mechanism; which thankfully already exists through the Asean secretariat.

I have seen other colleagues call for the establishment of an Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control (ACCT-HPC) to undertake and spearhead all these tasks outlined above, provided it is given the powers to do so and a clear undertaking from all of the Asean member states.

Finally, we need to stop just blaming Indonesia, as we ourselves seem to be staying in a hazy glasshouse. Sure, there are many more areas of open burning in Indonesia, but there are also some in Malaysia. We need to act to stop that and it’s good that some are already doing that.

Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari, for example, has just highlighted how the Selangor government will act to confiscate land where open burning by farmers persists.

The long road ahead is hazy and visibility is clouded now with so many issues that no end to the haze seems to be in sight.

I can understand why some of my colleagues have called for a RM1 lawsuit to be taken up against the Indonesian government to break this impasse of “business as usual”.

But rather, in the spirit of Asean, we should close the gap and come together. After all, if we stand aside and merely watch our Indonesian brothers’ land burn to the ground, are we even worthy to be called “neighbours”, leave alone “good” ones at that?

This is the second and final instalment on this topic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.