WE have made it onto the front pages of every major news outlet in the world again. We have made it there for all the wrong reasons, again.
We know the haze is bad this year, you will say. She doesn’t need to rub salt into sore wounds. Or should I say sore eyes, sore throats? I beg to differ. I believe I do need to address the obvious.
Each time we return from our summer holidays, we get ready for the two major events of the new term: our children’s new school year and this year’s haze.
In well over a decade now, the haze has been an issue every single year. It has ranged from a mild inconvenience to total outrage.
For well over a decade now, responsibility has been tossed back and forth between the regional governments like a hot potato. Every year, the fires are eventually put out, the haze dissipates and the subject vanishes from local and international attention. Just like that, puff, like magic. Like the clouds of smoke that it is.
Malaysians, it seems to me, have an incredible ability to come to terms with an adverse situation. Malaysians are patient, accommodating, lenient and stoical even.
These are all very commendable traits of character; and not laying claim to too many of them myself, I sincerely admire people with such gifts.
Man-made air pollution on the scale of this year’s haze, however, shouldn’t evoke sentiments of leniency. “But it doesn’t,” you will say. “Look at us, we are outraged.” Yes, you are, and rightly so.
But how do we all deal with this powerful sense of righteous indignation? We hide it behind ridiculous, and mostly ineffective, face masks. We filter it out with expensive, and equally futile, air filtering devices. We feel sympathy for children with severe respiratory illnesses and birds falling dead from the skies. We measure our good conscience against news reports of who is to blame and what will, or will most likely not, be done about the guilty parties.
Come October however, we fold away the paper masks, pack away the purifiers, go back to jogging outdoors and forget all about it until next year.
You and I know what will happen next September. Yes, haze will happen next September.
In the meantime, we will happily indulge in the convenience of cheap palm oil, presumably sustainable, but mostly from untenable sources.
The choking fumes will simply lay dormant for long enough to fool us into being complacent and hoping for a mild haze season next year.
Somehow this reminds me of a breaking news headline from my youth. On April 26, 1986, a reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the then Soviet Union exploded. At first, we didn’t hear about it. And when we finally did, we thought, “Oh well, it’s so very far away”. Only when our local wet market, some 2,000 kilometres away stopped carrying lettuce and tomatoes due to severe contamination, did we realise the full extent of the disaster. It wasn’t so far away after all.
Of course, we have long since buried our dread and happily blandish nuclear energy for its comfort and inexpensiveness. But if nothing else, the name Chernobyl will forever remain synonymous with man’s greed and inadequacy resulting in unacceptable yet inevitable disaster.
But I digress, you think. No, I don’t!
You see, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of haze is “… fine dust, smoke, or light vapour causing lack of transparency of the air” and the Collins English Dictionary defines it as “… light mist, caused by particles of water or dust in the air...”
It almost sounds cute, definitely inoffensive. If we don’t mind rolling the air purifiers out of storage next year, then, by all means, let’s keep calling it “haze”. If we are content in dealing with this situation in our habitual short-term and short-sighted way, “haze” will do.
If however, we aim at real improvement, it’s high time we call it by a more adequate, more poignant name. “Poisonous Fumes” anyone? “Black Choke” maybe? “Deathly Sorrow”?
Whatever we choose to call this calamity, let’s not sweep its ashes under the proverbial carpet as soon as the air has cleared. Let’s keep it in the newspapers, in the international media even, in the hope that this way, maybe, next September, we can live without face masks.
Oh and by the way, don’t even get me started on what will happen in the region once the Indonesian government starts clearing land for its new capital city in East Kalimantan.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate