Malaysia: Crazy, hazy daze: sequel 19

S.JAYASANKARAN The Star 3 Sep 16;

The good news is that the haze this year won’t be as bad as last year. The bad news is that the condition won’t go away any time soon. In short, it won’t kill you this year. Not yet anyway.

“We are certain this year things will be better,” Indonesia’s disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Nugroho told reporters on Monday, referring to a 61% reduction in hotspots seen in 2016.

At least they got the name of the agency right.

Even so, it appeared they’d got some things right because they were looking at prevention. In short, the Indonesians were busy preventing fires. In fact they were among the busiest people on Earth who were not too busy to tell you how busy they were.

They were busy because they knew how bad things could get. Last year’s fires were among the worst on record, straining relations between Indonesia and its neighbours. In fact, the pollution last year was so bad that if it weren’t for our lungs, there would have been no place to put it all.

It cost Jakarta at least US$16bil in economic losses. That’s 1.9% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

It cost Singapore US$517mil in economic losses last year, according to the city-state. Kuala Lumpur prudently did not disclose the state of its losses but it was noticed that doctors and pharmacists went about grinning from ear-to-ear owing to the spike in asthma patients and medications, respectively.

You would think that any country, beset by complaints from its neighbours for a straight 18 years, would have attempted educating its fire-starters not to light any more fires during the dry season.

There were ways about it too. They might, for instance, try persuasion through cutting-edge Malaysian technology like BRIM.

They might even try intimidation through even more cutting-edge technology from Singapore called the ISA, a reminder that brought reminiscent tears to the eyes of the more sentimental elements among the Royal Malaysian Police.

But no cajoling, persuasion or intimidation will work, apparently. “There is no way we can completely eliminate or end the forest and land fires in Indonesia, because they are very much linked to the behaviour of communities that light fires,” Sutopo said, referring to farmers who use fires to prepare land for crops and clear it for plantations. “There are still fires, so prevention needs to be improved.”

You had to hand it to the Indonesian fire-starters: they had thought many times about stopping their fiery habits but, no, they weren’t quitters.

Empirically speaking, the haze was a zero sum game along the lines of I-win-you–lose. Example: on Monday, Singapore got a break from the haze that hit the island state last week, as shifting winds pushed the smoke from Indonesia’s Sumatra island northward over Malaysia.

The people in Riau, Sumatra where the Air Pollution Index hit 2,000 last year felt especially aggrieved that the Malaysians and Singaporeans kept complaining that their age-old practice of setting fires to clear the land for planting was bothering them. “It’s bothering them?” they asked indignantly. “Well, it’s killing us.”

Ultimately however, it may boil down to where you stood economically on the subject of pollution. Asked by reporters in 1979 on the subject of increasing auto emissions in the United States, Lee Iacocca, the then chairman of Chrysler Corp replied famously: ”We have to pause and ask ourselves: how much clean air do we need?”