(Ipoh, Friday): During the winding-up of the three-day debate on the haze disaster in Parliament on Wednesday, I asked the Minister for Science, Technology and Environment, Datuk Law Hieng Ding, whether the Government could give an assurance that the 1997 Haze would be the last worst haze, and that the cycle of 1990 haze being the worst haze in a decade, the 1991 haze worse than the 1990 haze, the 1994 haze worse than the 1991 and the 1997 haze worse than the 1994 haze would not be repeated in future.
Law’s reply was that the government could not give such an assurance as it is all in God’s hand.
This is most unsatisfactory, as the 1997 Haze is a global environmental disaster and has been described as "Asia’s worst man-made environmental catastrophe" as a result of reckless raging thousands of forest and plantation fires in Indonesia, although it had been compounded by El Nino, an abnormal weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean which has triggered the worst drought in a half-century and delayed monsoon rains needed to extinguish the flames, clear the air and save crops.
It is tragic that after the 1990, 1991, 1994 and now the 1997 haze, with each later haze being worse than the earlier one, despite the declarations by the government at each haze that the environmental disaster could not allowed to be repeated, the government is so completely helpless that it could not give an assurance to Malaysians that barring a natural catastrophe, the Malaysian government would take all national, regional and international measures to ensure that the 1997 Haze would be the last worst man-made haze disaster to be suffered by Malaysians.
Law said that the Indonesian fires were a matter within the domestic jurisdiction of the Indonesian Government. This is unacceptable as once the Indonesian fires cause grave transboundary pollution to neighbouring countries, creating health and life-threatening environmental disaster to the economy, livelihood, environment, health and safety of other countries, this man-made global environmental catastrophe can no more be regarded as a matter within the exclusive jurisdiction of any government or nation.
This is why the Malaysian Government must submit a full claim for compensation for damages suffered by Malaysia, whether to the economy, environment or health of the people, as a result of the haze disaster.
The damages suffered by Malaysians is not trivial. The Minister for Science, Technology and Environment, Datuk Law Hieng Ding said Sarawak suffered RM100 million losses a day during the 10-day haze emergency, which would mean a total of RM1 billion damage to the Sarawak economy. A conservative estimate of the damages to the whole of Malaysia as a result of the haze would therefore be in the region of billions of ringgit.
Such a demand would make the Indonesian Government more responsible in future and take all possible pre-emptive measures, whether on its own or in unison with regional and international efforts, to ensure that there would be no recurrence of the raging thousands of forest and plantation fires from next year onwards to create perennial global environmental disasters in the region.
Such a claim to Indonesia for damage for the regional environmental disaster would serve notice to the world that every country must be responsible for the transboundary pollution emanating from within its borders and pay compensation for the damages to the environment, economy and health of neighbouring countries.
The Information Minister and Chairman of the National Disaster Management and Relief Committee, Datuk Mohamed Rahmat, said after the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the government had decided not to claim compensation from the Indonesian Government over the national haze disaster as a result of the forest fires in Indonesia.
This is most shocking news. Why should the Cabinet surrender the legitimate rights of the people and nation for compensation from Indonesia for the haze catastrophe, when the government could not give an assurance that the 1997 haze would be the last worst haze?
It would be understandable if the Cabinet decides not to claim compensation from Indonesia after the Indonesian Government had given an undertaking that it would take all possible measures as well as work with neighbouring ASEAN countries and international agencies and efforts from next year onwards to check and control the open burning and spread of forest and plantation fires.
The Malaysian Government is being too soft with the Indonesian Government on the haze disaster issue, when both the Malaysian and Indonesian Governments should take heed of the demand of over 30,000 Malaysians who have endorsed the "Clean Air For Our Children - Let 1997 Haze be the last worst haze" signature campaign in demanding compensation from Indonesia for the billions of ringgit of lossses suffered by Malaysians.
The over 30,000 signatures collected in less than 10 days have already made it the most successful signature campaign in Malaysian history. This is not the final target and I would urge all Malaysians to give full support to the "Clean Air For Our Children - Let 1997 Haze be the last worst haze" mass signature campaign to demand compensation from Indonesia as the most effective way to ensure that the 1997 Haze is the last worst haze.
Although the Indonesian forest fires had caused the serious environmental haze disasters in 1990, 1991 and 1994, the Indonesian Government had not shown much interest nor responsibility in all these years to make a success of the various ASEAN and international initiatives and mechanisms to address the perennial environmental disaster of the haze caused by the Indonesian forest and plantation fires.
At the Seventh ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment (AMME) held in Jakarta on Sept. 16/17, Indonesia had at first even opposed Malaysia’s proposal to address the haze issue in the Jakarta Declaration to be signed at the end of the meeting.
Although President Suharto publicly apologised to neighbouring countries for the haze disaster (as he did during the 1994 haze), the Indonesian authorities must show greater seriousness and commitment to submit to regional and international initiatives to control the perennial problem of the haze disaster at source - the forest and plantation fires in Indonesia.
For this reason, I would call on the ASEAN Summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur in December to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN to issue a special Kuala Lumpur Declaration on haze as a global environmental disaster to demonstrate the commitment of Indonesia and ASEAN Governments to join forces and enlist international support to resolve the haze disaster, and to pledge to the peoples of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines and Thailand that the 1997 haze would be the last worst man-made haze disaster in the region.
The ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December should also make the path-breaking decision and elevate clean air and quality environment to the very top of ASEAN agenda, and direct that the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment (AMME), which now meets once in three years, should meet every year to address the serious transboundary pollution problems in the area.
These two initiatives at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur would make the 30th anniversary of ASEAN more meaningful to the peoples in the region.
While the Indonesian fires are the primary cause of the worst haze disaster in Malaysia, we must concede that the haze disaster in Malaysia has also been compounded by our failure in the past few years to take firm and effective measures to implement a Clean Air Policy and reduce the air pollution levels which are already at dangerous levels.
This had been admitted by the Department of Environment, as for instance in its 1994 Annual Report when referring to the 1994 Haze:
"In 1991, the country experienced very hazy weather condition due to the forest fires in Sumatra. After a lapse of three years, during the month of September 1994 the haze recurred and lasted for over a month, only this time more severe compared to 1991. Serious forest fires in Kalimantan and Southern Sumatra were again identified as the main cause of the problem. The dry weather, and stable lower wind conditions coupled with emissions from local pollution sources such as from motor vehicles, industries, and open burning of wastes also aggravated the situation. "
For this reason, the Cabinet should make a commitment to present a Clean Air Policy for adoption at the current meeting of Parliament with the will to fully implement it, and I hope the five Cabinet Ministers, including the Minister for International Trade and Industry, Rafidah Aziz and the Minister for Transport, Datuk Dr. Ling Liong Sik, who had opposed the adoption of a Clean Air Action Plan in Cabinet in 1994 would stop their obstruction and opposition.