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Malaysia's murk prompts welcome transparency

Wreathed in a thick summer smog, it seems that Kuala Lumpur is not so much what tourist ads call "truly Asia" as "truly hazier". But the decision to publish air pollution data – previously a state secret – is at least a signal that Malaysia's politics are becoming clearer.

Malaysia has spent millions on its latest tourism campaign: "Malaysia, truly Asia". Advertisements depict blue skies, crystal-clear waters and smiling Malaysians greeting deliriously happy tourists. The skies over the capital city of Kuala Lumpur in August, however, offered a rather different picture. In fact there was not much to see at all, so thick was the smog, purportedly the result of forest fires on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sumatra. It's more "truly hazier" than "truly Asia". There is little time for locals to greet tourists as they rush about their business, their smiles hidden by surgical masks or buried beneath handkerchiefs covering their mouths from the acrid smoke. Not that there are too many tourists out and about on the streets of KL to be friendly to.

"We've had a lot of tourists checking out early because of the smog," says Linit, a receptionist at a five-star hotel in downtown KL. "We've been advising them to stay indoors."

Those tourists who do venture out seem to be mainly of Middle East origin. Men of Arabic descent, casually dressed in shorts and polo shirts, are followed obediently by their wives clad head to toe in the traditional black burka, some perhaps sporting sly smiles behind their veils as they watch their husbands choke on the smog.

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