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Haze in the New Malaysia: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same?

Author: Dr Helena Varkkey

After 61 years of single party rule under Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysia welcomed a new political era by voting in a new ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH) during the 2018 general elections. A combination of increasing political and economic dissatisfaction among the non-elite Malays, a groundswell of civil society activism along the urban middle class, and convincing opposition manifestos set the scene for this peaceful transition, which was quickly christened the era of the ‘New Malaysia’.

However, perhaps foreshadowing things to come, many of PH’s top leadership were made up of familiar faces from the country’s BN-centric past. Most notably, and what many argue as being one of the main reasons for PH’s win, was the central role of the highly popular Tun Mahathir Mohamed, Malaysia’s former longest-serving Prime Minister, who joined PH just before the elections and was reinstated as premier following the victory. Claiming a ‘reformed’ political outlook, Tun Mahathir promised to focus on difficult and sensitive issues that have plagued Malaysian politics since its independence, mainly corruption, Malay supremacy, and the rising cost of living.

One of the most immediately visible changes was in the makeup of the new cabinet, boasting ministers who, unlike many of their predecessors, could claim to be highly qualified and experienced in their respective portfolios. Most notably among them was YB (honorific for member of parliament) Yeo Bee Yin, a young female engineer who was tasked to head the new Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, Energy, and Climate Change (MESTECC). Yeo Bee Yin quickly faced a series of challenges and victories at work, including the problematic handling of toxic river pollution in the southern state of Johor (one company implicated was linked to her husband) and the dramatic discovery (and equally dramatic return) of illegally imported plastic waste from Europe.

Soon after, YBYBY, as she is affectionately known, faced yet another, not unprecedented challenge: the return of transboundary haze. Haze is smoke from forest and peat fires, often linked to land clearing from agricultural activity, mainly in Indonesia and to a lesser extent in Malaysia. When this smoke travels across national boundaries, it becomes transboundary and thus becomes a regional political tinderbox. Malaysia last experienced this transboundary phenomenon in 2015, and back then, much like previous episodes, the Malaysian government’s response had largely been plaintive and underwhelming. When the haze reappeared in end of August this year, much was expected of the outspoken and efficient YBYBY.

YBYBY was quick to call out Indonesia for what she regarded as its slow response in bringing their local fires under control, while offering Malaysian assistance to this end. When her counterpart in Indonesia refused this assistance and fired back claiming that Malaysia was not being transparent about their own local fires, YBYBY remained true to form by quickly and accurately citing data from the ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Centre which proved that the haze blanketing Malaysia was indeed from Indonesia. Following this, Indonesia in turn announced that four out of the 30 oil palm concessions (one, again, with links to YBYBY’s husband) that it had seized for investigations related to haze had Malaysian links. Unfazed, YBYBY seemingly approved of the move, declaring that all companies, Malaysian or otherwise, should bear the legal brunt of their actions.

However, opposition to this came from an unexpected internal source: that of YB Teresa Kok, the Malaysian Minister of Primary Industries (MPI). Oil palm is one of Malaysia’s most important primary industries, reflecting Malaysia’s position as the world’s second largest producer of palm oil. While the land use efficiency of the oil palm makes it one of the most sustainable vegetable oils on the planet, unsustainable practices among certain industry players (both locally and abroad), including the usage of drained and fire-prone peatlands for plantations and the practice of burning cleared land in preparation for planting, has seriously implicated the industry in the haze issue. Teresa Kok’s retort ran contrary to MESTECC’s matter-of-fact response, saying that Indonesia’s concession seizures were ‘playing right into the hands of anti-palm oil campaigners’, without confirming or denying the role of firms within her Ministry’s remit in the fires.

While Malaysia’s defensiveness of its palm oil sector is nothing new, what disappointed many was the seeming carbon-copy continuity of the ‘new’ MPI’s strategy under the New Malaysia. The national palm oil sector, which has been an invaluable engine of development for the country for decades, has also long been implicated in issues of elite-level corruption allowing for unsustainable practices. The MPI under Teresa Kok’s leadership renewed its commitment to defending the sector against international criticism, through new efforts like the Mahathir-backed ‘Love MY Palm Oil’ campaign, but this was coupled with only limited initiatives to improve practices, including anti-corruption, on the ground.

Despite this, YBYBY further announced that MESTECC was developing a Cross Border Pollution Act, with the intention of legally bringing to task Malaysian companies implicated in fires abroad. There is a short but interesting history to this proposed law: when Singapore announced its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in 2014 to implicate any parties, local or foreign, causing haze in Singapore, Malaysia announced that it would consider a similar act. However, Indonesia’s terse response to the Singaporean law caused backpedaling in Malaysia, with the country announcing that it preferred diplomatic means of resolving the transboundary issue after all. Hence, the revival of this effort by MESTECC is significant in departing from the Old Malaysia pacifist strategy, albeit this new iteration would focus on Malaysian-linked companies exclusively.

Tun Mahathir himself (ironically, just days before he flew to New York to defend Malaysian palm oil at the United Nations) has expressed his support for such a law, however the draft legislation must still go through parliament and senate to be enacted, where it will likely receive opposition or watering down from MPI and other parties. In anticipation of this, YBYBY has formed a committee to discuss and develop the draft law which includes stakeholders from academia, the Attorney General’s Chambers and MPI as well. However, the toll that the haze issue was taking on YBYBY became obvious when she tweeted with relief that ‘Finally, much awaited monsoon transition is here [sic]’ (and hence the end of the haze season) at the end of September. While this brings understandable relief to all Malaysians, YBYBY’s statement highlights the danger of falling into the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ trap when it comes to haze mitigation.

Even as the New Malaysia has brought in new blood and a new seriousness in resolving underlying problems within the government and society, some old habits are hard to break. While reformed, Tun Mahathir’s legacy of development by way of natural resource exploitation lives on in his second term and has been easily adopted by Teresa Kok. And while YBYBY’s competence and commitment to the cause is promising, her aloof brushing off of conflict-of-interest concerns and calls for resignations in both the haze and river pollution case is redolent of the ‘untouchable-ness’ of ministers in the Old Malaysia. This recent haze episode is just one example of issues that has contributed to the general feeling of disenchantment among the Malaysian population on politics and governance in the New Malaysia.

Old Malaysia or New, haze will always be a sensitive issue, not least because of the different and often conflicting interests of the various arms of the government. However despite this, many remain positive that the New Malaysia contains all the right ‘ingredients’ for change, albeit slow. YBYBY has announced that the new draft law should be ready to be tabled at parliament by early 2020. If this promise is kept, this would, importantly, keep the political conversation on haze alive beyond the haze season, which would already be much more than what previous ministers have done. It would be a welcome first step towards a preventive, as opposed to reactive approach towards transboundary haze mitigation that has long been the modus operandi of Malaysia in the past.

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