WHEN what has now become an annual smoky fog phenomenon first became so significant in Malaysia as to require a name for it, the term "haze" was applied -- to play down the severity of the air quality so as not to frighten people.
The air pollutants index (API) was a closely guarded secret; the public was only allowed to know whether it was good, moderate, unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous. But since the range between each category could be between 50 or 100 points, this wasn't much help. The worst was in 1997, when, for more than three months, the whole of Malaysia was blanketed by a haze so thick that it psychologically obscured the future. The API was classified an official secret, and remained so until 2005, after which it became openly available on the Department of Environment (DOE) website.
After more than 20 years of the haze, the phenomenon has become a season for us -- right next to "dry" and "monsoon"; so much so that we might as well call it for what it really is: smog. Still, the Southeast Asian haze differs from the Californian and other versions in that it crosses borders and leaves its receiving countries at something of a loss. The favourite and usual culprit is the forest fires in Sumatra or Kalimantan. Farmers or land clearers on Indonesia's biggest islands apparently have no other means of removing vast tracts of old growth. Depending on the direction of the wind, different parts of Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand would be affected; or sometimes all of them. Of course, the haze could and would also be caused by local fires, and these, too, could blow across borders. The haze season is thus a great test of neighbourly relations and has been the subject of high level committees in Asean.
But now that it's back, so are the health issues the season brings. Regular occurrences of the haze have put in place standard procedures. Everyone should know the drill by now. For example, rigorous exercise, whether outdoors or indoors should be avoided. Schools should know, without having to be instructed, not to hold sporting or outdoor activities until the haze lifts. Facemasks should be worn as needed. And by now it should not even be necessary for the DOE to announce a ban on all open burning, since it has been prohibited by law since 1998, haze or no haze. Even if we can't stop the fires in Indonesia, the least we should be able to do is stop those from the striking of our own matches.