Tag Archives: SE Asia

Malaysia truly haze ya!


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[1]. 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.

Greenpeace has an ongoing campaign and recently published a new report.

Check out this informative article about the latest haze episode reported in The Guardian

Helping you buy responsibly – Borneo Organgutan Survival Australia

WWF Palm Oil Fact Sheet



[1] Check our this Global Witness report on how corruption is having a devastating effect on Borneo’s forests


Are culture and human rights incompatible?


Are human rights universal or are they dependent on cultural traditions? It is often said that the only way to advance the human rights agenda is to argue that rights are inherent and inalienable and that culture has no role to play in understanding either the content or implementation of international human rights. In response it is often argued that human rights are a Western construct not compatible with other cultures/traditions. But I have never been convinced by such arguments. And having been living in Asia for a while has made me draw a few conclusions.

The idea of universal, inherent human rights focuses on the existence of a so-called natural law, a higher moral order informed by foundational theories rooted in moral, social, political and religious ideologies. They speak to the existence and definition of human nature and what it means to have a right. These are epistemological questions that have been around for a long time.

Universality can be a tool to interfere in the internal affairs of States.  And arguably, that was the intention of the human rights system: to challenge the State and its monopoly over the means to exercise power. But this intention was also balanced with the protection of State sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention, and with the empowering of States with the responsibility to protect human rights. It is not difficult to see why a constant tension exists.

The modern human rights regime represents the institutionalisation of a set of moral values. This can be seen from the myriad mechanisms: declarations, treaties, institutions, jus cogens norms, case law, custom, etc. In this sense, even for the more skeptical of critics, it is hard to deny the existence of a set of rules and obligations that protect all persons without distinction. This, however, does not stop States from entrenching human rights violations into their Constitutions or to systematically violate human rights. Often, traditions and practices, religious beliefs and historical or geographical contexts are used to justify the relativism of human rights. This line of argument often reflects the supremacy of state sovereignty.

The development of the modern human rights regime was also a political expression of the kind of governing system that ought to exist in order to guarantee the protection of individuals. When looking at the history of the human rights regime it is impossible to ignore its cultural (and political) underpinnings. For a long time there have been claims about the implicit Western bias in the way human rights instruments have developed. But this bias is less pronounced than it is often assumed. In fact, the values articulated in human rights instruments, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are a chronological reflection of European and global values, moral lessons learnt, political ideologies, and a wide range of religious and secular traditions. Modern human rights have been influenced by Western views as much as by socialist and ‘Third-world’ views (so-called 1st generation rights, 2nd generation rights, and 3rd generation rights), both to the benefit and to the detriment of the human rights agenda.

Relativists, as they are called, often claim that universal human rights standards cannot accommodate non-Western values. Demands for group rights and cultural rights, while advancing the rights of minorities (for instance indigenous peoples), can also serve to promote the continuation of oppressive practices, as, for example, the practice of female genital mutilation as a manifestation of power politics and gender inequalities in some societies. It is for that reason that any human rights agenda cannot pretend to work in a cultural or political vacuum, least they hide national or political interest elements. Time and time again particularism and nationalism have undermined the promotion of universal human rights. Particularism speaks to different understandings of morality, of what is right and wrong, rooted in traditional practices and beliefs, and wholly context driven.

I am of the opinion that cultural relativism therefore, rather than being ignored needs to be understood in its own context, because culture has a big role to play in understanding the content of human rights and their implementation. It is true that the discourse of human rights has often become hijacked by cultural practices, religious and traditional beliefs and geopolitical conceptions. It is also often subject to domestic politics and speaks to the tensions that are often found in the way States choose (or not) to integrate international law into their domestic legislation or the way States apply the law.

Culture can be understood as tradition, national identity (both of which imply a fixed state) or as susceptible to power structures and external influences. In an evolving conception of culture, human rights can become part of culture, in turn contributing to the universalisation of human rights. But more often than not, political considerations, the primacy of the principle of sovereignty, and the tensions inherent have a bearing on the way cultures can adopt human rights values. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm. Take a look at the 1993 Bangkok declaration in which Asian countries recognised the existence of human rights. On reading this the declaration you will see that, while to most Western countries human rights are a means to an end (prosperity, etc.), for Asian countries human rights are the end itself, subject to other conditions such as economic development. The UK or Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers another example of how politics construct culture (not the other way around) in applying the law.

Cultural traditions and religious practices are often a source of gender discrimination. Arguably, any cultural tradition that allows the subjugation of half of a society, the use of violence and the constant portrayal of people as weak and worthless should be eliminated as a cultural tradition. It is, thus, not about preserving cultural traditions, it is about preserving a status of power relations. Culture can be empowering for human rights. Power politics a hindrance. Relativists often argue in favour of the latter, and hijack the evolution of culture in the process. Watching a recent National Geographic documentary about India, a marriage ceremony was explained and glorified as a celebrated cultural tradition while the (female) narrator recounted the process of symbolising the bride becoming the property of the husband and her subjugation in marriage. The whole procedure romanticised the tradition while ignoring its symbolic meaning for the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in India, an issue that has dominated international media since the brutal gang rape and death of an Indian student in New Delhi in December 2012, and countless others since.

Time and time again women’s rights, and other rights are seen as relative issues subject to cultural and religious beliefs rather than as a core human rights issue. Arguably the question should not be whether human rights are compatible with values and cultural traditions, but whether values and cultural traditions are compatible with human rights. In that case, the values of both Western and non-Western nations are put to the test.

Nonetheless, culture is the only way of understanding the content and implementation of human rights because it places those rights in the specific context. We should avoid the trap of believing that culture is fixed and learn to identify cultural values and practices that serve to perpetuate the subordination of peoples, discrimination, unfair treatment or violence, and those that promote human rights. Culture is not incompatible with human rights. Politics, power relations, lack of education and a State that fails to implement its obligations are. Ignoring the role that culture can play in advancing, as well as hindering, the human rights agenda is doing a disservice to the project of universalising human rights.

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.

Children for sale


– “Madam, you are white and your husband is white, how come these babies are so dark?”

– “Ah well, they are adopted. Do you understand adopted?”


– “Well, a mother who was pregnant but could not keep the babies decided to give them up for adoption so other parents could look after them”

– “Aaaaaah, and you gave her money yes?”.

That is how the average conversation about my sons’ background goes in Malaysia. The lady that helps me look after them is often asked “how much did they pay for the babies?” “Ah no, they did not pay anything” she replies. My sons were free.

Child trafficking is a big problem around the world. It is a very, very complex issue that goes far deeper than the smuggling, paedophile rings or prostitution networks that we sometimes hear about in the news. As I write, a 20-month-old British baby was taken from his house last night in the same suburb I live in. It could be a family or business related issue, or it could be a trafficking ring that then sells the baby, who is then taken to Thailand for the sex industry. But the reality of this issue is that there are many layers, drivers, causes, contexts.

In Malaysia, buying babies is scaringly common. I heard of a Malaysian-Indian baby boy just born in hospital. The devout Christian parents too poor to keep him, were looking for a family to adopt him. It was their fifth baby, two of them had already been placed in orphanages. All they wanted was RM4,000 (about AUD 1,500) to make ends meet. And just like that, making babies becomes a business. Most reports focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a huge problem in Malaysia compounded by a lack of appropriate legal frameworks and protections, and Malaysia’s geographical location. But I am talking about a different kind of trafficking, one that serves to meet the demand for babies from couples seeking to adopt, while at the same time becoming a source of income for desperate women and families.

Young girls, unmarried women, foreign workers, are often those who fall pregnant and are unable or unwilling to keep their babies. Baby dumping is incredibly common in Malaysia. So much so that a local organisation, OrphanCARE, decided to create a baby ‘hatch’ for mothers to leave their unwanted babies so they can be taken care of rather than dumping them elsewhere. This has proven to be fairly effective in cutting down the number of babies being dumped and raising awareness. Even providing counselling to the mothers, some of whom change their mind and keep the babies. The Malaysian government, rather than addressing the causes of baby dumping (religious reasons are a big impediment, as well as socioeconomic factors), is set on curbing the trend with a strict regime of deterrent measures including 10 years jail for those found guilty of baby dumping. The Government thinks strengthening the laws will act as a stronger deterrent. In the process those being punished are the, often desperate and in need of help, mothers. This approach does not seek to understand the complex reasons behind such a tough decision and leads to widespread impunity, particularly worrying in those cases in which men have been involved through forceful and criminal acts.

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Some mothers are willing to sell their babies. There are significant child trafficking syndicates in Malaysia and, with a large demand for babies for adoption on the one hand, and religious and education limitations compounded by complex socioeconomic factors on the other…you get the picture. But not all children are caught in criminal trafficking networks. Some mothers just want to find families for their children and prefer to leave their babies directly with families who want to adopt. If you are a foreign worker, or a teenager whose family is unaware of your pregnancy, taking your baby to an orphanage might not be an option for a range of reasons. There is a process called private adoption where there are (generally and supposedly) no financial transactions involved other than support with medical costs during birth, followed by a court process that establishes the legal guardianship of the adoptive parents with the consent of the birth mother. This process can be problematic at many levels, but it also fills a very wide gap in a conservative society complicated by the presence of high numbers of female foreign workers, a human rights vacuum and pretty low socioeconomic conditions.

People adopt for many different reasons. Families with children of their own simply consider adoption as another option to add to their family, others are motivated due to awareness about the amount of abandoned children in Asia. Others might be desperate to adopt due to an inability to conceive. There are other more sinister reasons behind an adoption, including slavery. Many families are willing to pay the high prices for children, and often they might be unaware that the adoption process is illegal. These families can be caught in police investigations later on with devastating consequences for the children. There are many, many complex factors at either end of the ‘demand and supply chain’. And right in the middle are these helpless, innocent babies some of whom have been born out of wedlock, some fruit of a heinous act, others ‘commissioned’ to alleviate poverty conditions, and yet others simply born out of a lack of sexual education and contraceptive means. Many, many, slip through the bureaucratic and legal cracks.

There are perfectly legitimate ways to offer alternatives to an institutionalised life, but often the processes are burdensome or hampered by bureaucracy (for example orphanages here get subsidies for the children they host, when a child is adopted, the allocated subsidy is lost – you do the math). Education and a strong and sound legal framework that is truly protective of all sides is essential – Malaysia for example is not a party to the 1993 Hague Convention on inter-country adoption.  But even this is not enough for babies born to, for example, non-nationals. Those babies when born in a country that is not the home country of the birth mother become stateless and, in the case of Malaysia, are not recognised as Malaysian. This makes them even more vulnerable.

For those of us educated enough to know and understand root causes, consequences and national and international legal frameworks, and who have gone out of our way to ensure the best course of action is taken, it hurts to walk down the street with our precious children knowing people will wonder how much we paid for them, as one would enquire how much that nice handbag might cost. For as long as adoption remains one of those novelty topics rarely discussed in public, characterised by long, costly, lengthy and burdensome processes, a desperate last resort option rather than a perfect way to starting a family; for as long as mothers are not supported and instead penalised and/or criticised for their inability to raise their own children; for as long as duty bearers fail to educate societies, and to provide the protections and legal frameworks needed to address root causes; for as long as cultural and religious underpinnings are abused in favour of power politics and gender injustice, vulnerable women and children will continue to fall victim to our inability to protect them. And I will continue to receive inquiring looks, inappropriate questions or whispered comments as I walk past. My sons are the most painful gift that I will ever have the privilege to receive.