As status quo fails, experts moot long arm of law to punish haze culprits

A man wears a mask as haze blankets Kuala Lumpur September 12, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
A man wears a mask as haze blankets Kuala Lumpur September 12, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 17 — With the status quo failing to curb the almost annual occurrence of transboundary haze, several experts have proposed for Malaysia to legislate against the disaster in order to protect the country’s interests.

The laws proposed by them included penalising any Malaysian entities involved with any activities that contributes towards haze here, much like neighbouring Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) 2014.

“In fact Malaysia had once announced that it was considering a similar law after Singapore announced theirs, but this was retracted shortly after,” said Helena Muhamad Varkkey from University of Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies.

“Although such an Act is hard to implement, it will show that Malaysia is taking more serious steps forward,” added Helena, a widely-cited researcher on transboundary haze.

The THPA, enacted in September 2014 was designed specifically to allow legal action taken against companies in or outside of Singapore involved in environmental pollution.

Under the THPA, any entities proven guilty of engaging in conduct which causes or contributes to haze are liable to a fine not exceeding S$100,000 (RM303,279) for every day Singapore suffers from haze, with a maximum fine of S$2 million (RM6 million) ― regardless of whether they are inside or outside the country.

Despite that, Helena warned of a possible political tussle that may deter Putrajaya from pursuing this Act ― the Asean informal policy of non-interference.

“There was a diplomatic tussle, with Indonesia saying that Singapore was being un-Asean. 

“Malaysia generally does not want to be viewed this way. There is also the concern that Malaysian companies in Indonesia may be implicated in the Act,” she said.

Should Malaysia adopt this Act, Helena said it would face similar limitations as Singapore is facing now, where it can only arrest suspects on home soil, for instance passing through at the airport.

Meanwhile, Anthony Tan of Sustainability Innovation and Network Development echoed the sentiment, saying that if fires are happening locally the Environmental Quality Act 1974 is sufficient to penalise those who are contributing to the haze, while the National Forestry Act 1984 can be used for fires which involve forested areas.

Tan, who is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in sustainable development management at Sunway University, added that huge penalties must be imposed in terms of prison time and heavy fines.

“The natural occurring ones need constant surveillance and immediate action. Government agencies need to snuff the fires as soon as possible,” he said.

This comes as Asean-level discussions so far appear to be ineffective, with Helena suggesting that said the dynamics of cross-border politics or cooperation over haze has not changed much despite a new administration in Malaysia.

“[Right now] it is still largely Asean-level engagement, diplomatic notes and offers of help standing by (but ultimately awaiting permission from Indonesia, which may or may not come).

“In fact, productive engagement is transgressing slightly, as before this, we had a memorandum of understanding for land use and fire prevention training with Indonesia under the Asean Agreement.

“But recently Indonesia has refused to renew it in favour of handling the problem internally,” she said.

Helena said if Malaysia decides not to use such an Act it should conduct more stern checks on Malaysian plantation owners in Indonesia and here even during clear season, to ensure they abide by standard operating procedures.

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) was inked in 2002 between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia due to the haze incident in 1997.

The AATHP was referred to again in the 2015 haze incident. Since then, no renewed discussions took place.

Distribution of hotspots detected from September 1 to 16, 2019. ― Picture via ASMC
Distribution of hotspots detected from September 1 to 16, 2019. ― Picture via ASMC

Legislation not a cure-all

Despite that, the academics agreed that laws is not the end all be all to solve haze. Helena urged both the federal and state governments to make careful considerations on earmarking new areas for development ― especially peat areas which catches fire easily and produces smoke or haze when burnt.

“Both the federal and respective state governments are still earmarking new areas for development. A lot of these areas are in Sarawak,” she said.

Meanwhile, climatologist Fredolin Tangang said the current haze condition could have worsened due to Indonesia receiving no or much less rainfall since early July this year, making the region prone to forest and peat fires.

The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Centre for Earth Sciences and Environment chairman also said that climate change played a part in severe haze episodes.

“Haze may become much more severe in the future if climate change is not mitigated,” he said.

Based on his research findings, he predicted droughts over Indonesia occurring annually from June to October in the decades to come, even without natural climate phenomenons such as El Niño or the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), if the world fails to mitigate human-caused climate change.

The IOD was behind the current prolonged drought over Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, he explained.

“But with the presence of El Niño, there may be mega droughts in future periods over Indonesia,” he warned.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia needs cooperation from other countries first, particularly neighbouring Indonesia, before it can tackle the annual haze problem on a long-term basis.

This comes as Malaysia and Indonesia went on a diplomatic row over the haze, which satellite data and images showed was caused mostly by persistent hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

A group of Malaysian professionals has even proposed for Putrajaya to sue the Indonesian government for RM1 over the transboundary haze, in order to compel it to be legally responsible for the almost annual occurrence.

The group, made of among others, doctors, lawyers, academics, social activists and economists, said such a move can be a viable move to demand Indonesia’s commitment to put out current fires and prevent future fires.

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