The title is not mine, someone much more eloquent and creative than me came up with it. And I am borrowing it because it is a very funny play on words with Malaysia’s tourism slogan, which has been for a few years ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’. Ironically, it is also truer than the slogan Malaysia likes to use to promote itself.
Malaysia and Singapore suffer from a terrible problem with air pollution. Every year, forest fires in neighbouring Sumatra cause waves of smoke that send air pollution index readings to very high, and unhealthy levels. And the consequences of this range from school closures, to the need to wear masks at all times if you must leave your home – which you should avoid. In the last couple of years I have spent in Malaysia, Air Pollution Index (API) readings have, in several occasions, reached hazardous levels (300+), and the incidence of coughing fits and allergies at home has accompanied these rises. Visibility is poor, the smell of smoke is everywhere and you are confined to your home. So you get an idea, it feels like living inside of a barbeque.
The cause of these fires is to clear land (slash and burn methods) to make way for agriculture, and more specifically palm oil plantations. If you have ever flown over Malaysia and Indonesia and looked out of the window of your plane, you would have noticed that palm oil plantations stretch as far as the eye can see and go on for kilometres and kilometres. Every now and then you might spot a patch of wild, native forest, but for the most part these have been overridden by the palm oil industry.
Many of the products you and I use on a daily basis contain palm oil. From biscuits and chocolates to shampoos, your floor cleaner, the cosmetics you use, your shaving gel, to your laundry detergent. It is also being used increasingly as a biofuel. Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Dove, are some of the many, many everyday brands that use palm oil in their products. And incidentally, these companies have been found to engage palm oil suppliers and processors that are known to engage in environmentally destructive practices. Greenpeace and other local and international civil society groups have spent many years documenting this destruction and campaigning to put an end to harmful practices that are endangering biodiversity and species such as the organ-utan or the Sumatran tiger.
Palm oil is an important source of income, and employment generation for producing countries, both for domestic consumption and, most importantly, for exports. It is also a very commonly used vegetable oil for cooking, and at least in Malaysia, it is significantly subsidised. Governments in the region are fully aware of the economic benefits of palm oil but have been largely unable to effectively implement regulation, for a number of reasons ranging from lack of resources, state of development, lack of appropriate legislation or inability to monitor air quality to corruption. Many producers engage in illegal practices, such as forest clearing, open fires, slash and burn and destruction of wildlife. Indonesia is notorious, as it is also the world’s biggest producer of palm oil.
As a result, every year from the month of May until around August-September, Malaysia and Singapore are routinely enveloped in the drifting smoke clouds that come from the open fires in Sumatra. This is compounded by the lack of rain during that time of the year; the dry season. In the true non-interfering spirit of Asian politics, it seems this has become part of normal life, unless the levels of smoke and haze are so high, and so hazardous that even governments are forced to act. This happened in 2013, when after weeks of unbearable air quality, and a decrease in productivity from people unable to commute to work, the Malaysian and Singaporean governments were forced to engage with the Indonesian government diplomatically to do something about the illegal fires. And again, in March this year, we have seen the levels of haze in Malaysia spike ahead of the ‘normal open fire season’, including from local fires. But the media is not giving it too much importance yet, so the issue is forgotten with a return to cleaner air.
ASEAN has a Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement that contains a range of measures and initiatives that could do much to improve things, and some of these look innovative. There is an ASEAN’s Haze Action Online initiative and an ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan. But I just don’t know there is enough political will if we consider that the overall response seems rather segmented. You see, in Indonesia’s defense, and somewhat ironically, Malaysia and Singapore also happen to be two of the biggest investors in Indonesia’s palm oil industry, which makes this whole situation all the more ridiculous. Every year residents of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are at constant risk of respiratory illnesses. These countries are pretty much doing this to themselves, turning a convenient blind eye, outweighing the economic benefits to the detriment of people’s wellbeing. And I very much doubt the private sector is being engaged the way it needs to be in order to ensure a top-down, bottom-up and across the middle approach to tackle the senseless destruction going on.
I have for a long time, even before I lived in Asia, spent some time trying to raise awareness among my friends about the effects that deforestation are having on wildlife, especially orang-utans. I have tried whenever possible to find alternatives to palm oil based products, or find companies that source their palm oil from environmentally friendly and sustainable plantations. And here I am, staring directly at this haze, unable to go outside (lest I want to risk another allergic reaction) thinking what the hell happened with all those petitions I signed back in the day. I am frustrated that the lack of media freedom is not helping put the issue in front of people for them to discuss, debate. I am annoyed at the hypocrisy of the finger pointing at Indonesia when the producers involved in illegal burning are being funded by Malaysian and Singaporean investors. I am concerned about a certain complacency at a local level that means it is always us the outsiders that come with our big activism campaigns to do something about people who can’t breathe properly for 4 to 5 months every year. And I am terrified at what it must be like in Sumatra and Borneo, for locals and for the wildlife at risk.
So, before the fire season starts in full swing for another year, I thought I would try to raise awareness again. If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, or how you can contribute to efforts to protect forests and wildlife (sorry, no campaigns yet to save our lungs! Got any ideas?) I include some links that might be of help. And next time you are out shopping, maybe think about whether you have enough information at hand to help you decide which brands use sustainable palm oil and are not impacting negatively on the health and wellbeing of people, forests and wildlife alike.
Check out this informative article about the latest haze episode reported in The Guardian
Helping you buy responsibly – Borneo Organgutan Survival Australia
 Check our this Global Witness report on how corruption is having a devastating effect on Borneo’s forests