MALAYSIA’S energy, science, technology, environment and climate change minister is to write to the Asean Secretariat, if she has not already, on the haze crisis.
If it is action she wants, Asean is the last place to go.
It is not clear what it is she expects of the secretariat. If it is on having a transboundary haze law as reported, that Asean has already, signed in Kuala Lumpur no less in June 2002.
The legally binding agreement applies to all 10 Asean member states, with Indonesia finally ratifying it in 2014.
Malaysia was the first to ratify it in December 2002 and Singapore next in January the following year. These are the countries most affected by the haze.
The urgency with which they ratified the agreement reflects the seriousness with which they view the problem of the haze.
If the minister wants assistance from the secretariat on how it can assist to mitigate the ongoing haze, any number of meetings, expert working groups and road maps can be worked out with result if at all in the distant future.
Indeed, under Article 5 of the 2002 agreement, in consonance with Asean’s penchant for words rather than action, the “Asean Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control” was established, with clear terms of reference contained in the Annex.
This Asean Centre is who the minister should be writing to, although I doubt if she will get much satisfaction there either.
This is because of the way Asean works (sorry, does not work).
Asean prides itself on not being a rigid, rules-based association and claims therefore it is not susceptible to the kind of tensions that beset the European Union, for instance. Certainly in respect of the haze this is a false assertion.
What has the blame game over the haze caused, if not tensions, this time particularly between Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2014-2015, it was Indonesia with Singapore.
There is now a long history of tension creating situations and finger-pointing with Indonesia.
The so-called haze we are experiencing is very bad, coming close to the crisis in 2015, which affected eight Asean countries.
So after 22 years of serious haze, 52 years of Asean existence and 17 years since the transboundary haze agreement, the Asean way is clearly not the way forward.
In Asean even binding agreements are not enforced. What then can be expected of it?
It is disgraceful that the Asean people have had to suffer health problems, schools closed and economic loss for so long.
In November 2009, in my capacity as visiting senior fellow at the LSE, I had organised a workshop in Jakarta, ironically, to address the issue of whether Southeast Asia was up to the challenge of climate change.
The experts from many parts of the world concluded it was not, despite robust arguments that it was from Asean officials led by the late Surin Pitsuwan. Nothing has changed.
Before the workshop there was a ADB study on the economics of climate change which found Southeast Asia will be the worst affected among the regions of the world which would cost the region twice as much as the global average by 2100.
The total damage would be equivalent to losing 6.7 per cent of GDP each year by the beginning of the next century.
In 2009, the WWF established that the floods in the Philippines in October that year were inflicted not by the hand of God but by the act of man.
The WWF study warned of greater devastation to come — in Jakarta, Manila, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
But it all seems so far away to bother politicians and businessmen (except that Indonesia is moving its capital although there will still be millions left in Jakarta).
It is a good time with the devastation taking place now, by the hand of man, to take stock, and to act. President Jokowi, in a Facebook posting, expressed disappointment but no contrition that no action had been taken to prevent and afterwards, to contain, the burning that has caused tens of millions to be suffocated by smog in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (as well as Brunei which has been very quiet).
A group of concerned Malaysian citizens believe one way forward is to seek a declaratory judgment from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Indonesian responsibility for the haze.
This is a tough one. International legal action is not regarded as a friendly act, especially by Asian states, unless they willingly enter into a compromis to go to the ICJ.
Notice how the Philippines action to obtain the arbitration declaration on the South China Sea disputes in 2016 only angered China. More importantly, nothing happened.
Indonesia is the most responsible, again and again, for the haze. It has also been most difficult when called to address the situation and even when offered help to fight the fires.
While the anger is perfectly understandable, repeating this has not got us anywhere.
Misplaced Indonesian pride has certainly been a factor. It also cannot be ruled out that Indonesia may feel admission of responsibility carries the risk of potential liability.
But everyone else cannot be made to sit on their hands and suffer.
There are three things Malaysia can do. First, make Indonesia understand, acting on the haze — and not just yearly when it reaches crisis proportions — is in everyone’s interest, including and particularly Indonesia’s.
More of their people and their economy are affected. Indonesia cannot say it couldn’t care less.
The World Bank estimated the loss to the Indonesian economy of US$16.1 billion during the very serious haze in 2015.
In 1997, 100 million people in Indonesia were exposed to acute health risks, with 20 million suffering from respiratory problems.
Videos on social media show a horrific situation in West Kalimantan in the present haze crisis, with an API reading of 1,000 and visibility of less than 10 metres.
The Jokowi administration should understand this. Indeed before his first term, Jokowi supported Singapore’s move to introduce the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 which criminalises actions that cause the haze outside its territory.
Therefore, secondly, Malaysia must put through Parliament a law similar to the one Singapore introduced in 2014 to show Malaysia has a means to protect itself.
It has not been smooth sailing for Singapore in enforcing its law because Indonesia has not always been cooperative. A warrant to detain an Indonesian company director in 2016, for instance, could not be served. But many people pass through Changi and hopefully Indonesia will realise such enforcement is also in its national interest.
Finally, the laudable concern shown by the group of citizens who wanted the ICJ declaration should be enlarged by engaging NGOs and pressure groups across all countries afflicted by the haze crisis. There must be a show of people power. The people are being suffocated.
There must be a people’s movement on the haze and the environment, to hold governments and companies to account.
There has been too much lip service for too long. When agreements are entered into and when laws are enacted, they must be enforced.
The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister