Malaysia's murk prompts welcome transparency


Chris Leahy
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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.

Even the nightlife is curtailed. At The Beach Club Bar, a favourite tourist watering hole on Jalan Sultan Ismael, the dearth of punters is further evidence of the devastating effect of the smog on tourism.

"The bar's half empty," says Ruby, herself a tourist. "It's because of the haze. A lot of people don't want to leave the hotel."

As the air pollution index soars to 321 in KL, visibility drops to a few hundred metres. Through the acrid smoke that burns the back of the throat and stings the eyes after just a few minutes, the twin Petronas towers are barely visible. Traffic crawls along the highways, exhaust adding to the soupy air.

It's bad enough in KL, but spare a thought for the nearby towns of Kuala Selangor and Port Klang, where the API has hit 530, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency, closing schools, factories and government offices. Any API above 100 is deemed unhealthy; above 300 it's reckoned hazardous.

Back in KL, tempers are starting to fray. "This is crazy," says taxi driver Khalib. "They should take these Indonesians and throw them on the fires! Every year it's like this."

Malaysia's government is busy blaming the Indonesians for the smog. A delegation was dispatched to Jakarta to remonstrate and succeeded in extracting an apology, but little else. There is not all that much that can be done. The haze is the result of forest fires lit by farmers clearing land. The fires often spread to underground peat deposits, making them particularly difficult to extinguish.

Some in the city are not convinced by the government's explanations. "It's crystal clear in Penang and in Singapore," says Stephen, an expatriate businessman in KL. "So it's not just Sumatra. There are also local slash-and-burn smallholders. It's much cheaper for them to burn it, but these peat fires can go on for months."

It does indeed seem curious that fires blamed solely on a neighbouring country could affect Malaysia's Klang valley without any apparent problems in Penang or even Singapore. Eight years ago, when Indonesian forest fires last affected the area this badly, Singapore suffered the same fate.

Whatever the source of the haze, Malaysians are clearly getting fed up with the situation and are starting to blame their own government.

"This happens year after year," says one local at a kopi-tiam, a Malaysian coffee shop. "Why does it keep happening? What is the government going to do about it?"

Not everything is shrouded in smog in Malaysia. When the haze last hit this badly, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad promptly banned the disclosure of the API on the grounds that it might put off tourists. Malaysia's API remained a state secret until August when the smog hit and Abdullah Badawi's administration promptly lifted the restriction.

API or not, tourists couldn't fail to see, taste and smell the deteriorating air quality but locals point to Badawi's actions as evidence that there is a growing trend of transparency within government in Malaysia.

"The bad side of all this is they should've learnt their lesson from the last time," says Stephen. "The positive side is that at least the press is publishing the API. That's a signal that things are getting better on the disclosure side."

Malaysians can take some solace in the fact that the government is gradually clearing the political air even if it can do little about the air on its streets.