Transparency in the Haze

Malaysia

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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As a thick smoky haze leaves the population of Malaysia's main commercial centres spluttering, the government has now moved to make the situation a little more transparent.



Declassifying the Air Pollution Index (API) on August 10 has meant daily scrutiny of the published figures. Yet who is to blame for the fires causing the smog is, however, not quite so clear.



The stench of burning wood has lingered with increasing density over the western part of Peninsular Malaysia for almost two weeks.



To explain the haze, many point to the process of "burning-off", a commonplace during this driest time of year among the farmers and plantation owners of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a stone's throw across the Strait of Malacca from Peninsular Malaysia.



The haze is thus an annual fixture, but has never before become so thick nor looked set to stay so long. The weather pattern that brings the smoke is expected to endure for several months and with little rain forecast, some predict that the smoke could last until October if the offending fires persist.



This worsening air quality and the anticipated longevity of the problem had put the government under increasing pressure to publish the API, which has been an official secret since 1997. Back then, when a similar problem blighted the peninsular, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad decided that the people would be better off not knowing the figures.



This appeared to be the current government's view too, when Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak said on August 9, "We will just monitor the situation and give advice," advising that there were no plans to make the API public.



The next day however, the government position changed rapidly and following a cabinet meeting, the announcement came that the ban on disclosure of the API was to be dropped with immediate effect.



The move was welcome by international observers, who have criticised the ban since its inception.



"We consider non-disclosure of the API to be among the human rights issues we have sought to address here," a diplomatic source told OBG recently.



The department of environment had figures posted on its website by the end of the day as curious citizens soon learned the meaning of figures which have since became the focus of national attention.



Closely following a US system, the API measures the major air pollutants which could potentially harm people. Malaysia's main culprits in the index are ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate matter - material less then 10 microns in size.



Measuring fluctuations in these pollutants over specific time periods and averaging their concentrations produces the API, which posts the key upper "safe" level as 100. Thus values between 101 and 200 are deemed "unhealthy", between 201 and 300 "very unhealthy", between 301 and 500 a "hazard" and values over 500 are deemed to be an "emergency".



The numbers posted on August 10 showed the capital, Kuala Lumpur, at 181, with the nearby cities Shah Alam and Kuala Selangor reaching 316 and 326 respectively. By the following day however, significant increases in the API had been registered across the board.



With the port of Klang and Kuala Selangor breaching the 500 mark, the government declared a state of emergency in both areas on August 11. Other areas were not so badly affected, but the situation worsened as the day wore on.



The declaration of a state of emergency in these two states was initially misinterpreted by international newswire services as a national state of emergency. Agence France Press (AFP) produced a story distributed to a number of news outlets around the globe that the government had declared a state of emergency for the whole country, a result that was not welcome and exposed the agency to widespread criticism in Malaysia.



The government was swift to clarify the specific locations of the emergency status as well as the implications of the move. Unlike a security emergency, the status does not impose a curfew, although residents in the affected areas are advised to remain at home. More importantly, the move means the closing of schools, offices and factories leaving only essential services and food outlets open.



However, the government has been taking action and closing schools in other areas too. Wednesday saw the closing of schools in Kuala Lumpur and subsequent action closed further schools around the state of Selangor.



Whilst school closure may not have directly adverse effects on the economy, many are already concerned about the effects of factory and office closures with many lost working days due to sickness. Some commentators in the local press anticipate a drop in GDP and the possibility of missing the national growth target for 2005. A reduction in third-quarter GDP to below 4% - short of the official forecast of 5-6% - is being predicted.



"The presence of the smoke has numerous negative externalities," explained one local analyst to OBG. "Transport is affected by increased traffic, disruption to shipping and airports; anyone who works outside, like on plantations, will be affected; tourists will be turned off Malaysia, health costs will affect public expenditure - the list goes on. It's not going to be cheap."



According to figures from the World Land and Forest Fire Hazards conference in 2002, the country lost RM802m ($210m) in the 1997 haze episode.



With all the disruption, the blame has been firmly planted across the water in Sumatra. Malaysia's neighbour across the straits is not the only source of the smoke though; peat fires in the capital state of Selangor, south of the government city, Putrajaya, are also blamed.



However, in an interesting twist, some of the burning off in Sumatra is reported by Indonesian sources to be taking place on land owned by Malaysian plantation operators.



According to Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban, 10 Malaysian-owned companies operating in the region are among the culprits. This represents a significant proportion of almost 30 Malaysian firms know to be running plantations in Sumatra.



Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Peter Chin therefore departed for Sumatra on August 11 to personally get a picture of what is going on. This came alongside offers to send extra fire fighters from Malaysia to Sumatra, although many are unsure about how much they could help at this late stage, as the forest fires get worse.



Chin was further quoted as saying that the offending plantation owners would be "given a piece of our mind". Promises that the guilty parties will be called to account for their actions have been heard before, but this time many hope that the scale of the problem and its widespread implications will spur the government to firm and transparent action against those involved.



But while the population of Malaysia's most developed state may breathe easier in future knowing that those responsible will be called to account, for now the dust masks are selling faster than hot cakes.

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