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Malaysia’s Role in Transboundary Haze Pollution: Reconciling Policy with Public and Consumer Values

By Wong Pui Yi[1], Helena Varkkey[2], Matthew Ashfold[3], Laura De Pretto[4], Christopher Ives[5], Siti Asdiah Masran[2], and Prashanth Vasantha Kumar[3]


Malaysians are increasingly aware of the importance of environmental health on their wellbeing after suffering from recurring issues over the past few years such as river contamination affecting water supply and air pollution from the indiscriminate burning of plastic waste. The government has tended to overlook the significance of preventive measures for environmental protection. In the face of pressures to deliver economic growth, downplaying the severity of pollution or the significance of forest protection is not uncommon. Often, action is taken only after environmental disasters have happened.

This type of response is not unique to Malaysia and can be observed throughout Southeast Asia, as exemplified in the case of transboundary haze pollution. Haze has been a regional problem since the 1980s and affects up to eight Southeast Asian countries depending on the severity of each episode. Haze is largely caused by fires on peat swamp forests in Indonesia[6], occurring when these areas are disturbed or drained mainly for agriculture. The fires burn deeply through layers of peat carbon, producing toxic, thick smoke that can travel across national boundaries. It has serious effects on public health, social and economic life, and also causes severe damage to local biodiversity and ecosystems. Recent research estimated that the region-wide 2015 haze episode caused around 40,000 to 100,000 excess deaths among affected populations.

The haze problem persists despite historical actions taken by governments to overcome it. ASEAN has been at the centre of such efforts, developing instruments such as the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution and the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy 2006-2020. Such multilateral political efforts to address haze have been ongoing for over 30 years, to little effect. The latest haze episode in September 2019 was again blighted by finger-pointing between the governments of the three most affected countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. As political solutions to this recurring crisis remain elusive, it is important to continue searching for novel and comprehensive policy approaches to mitigate the haze. In this article, we offer ideas on better accounting for public values in haze-related policymaking that have emerged from a recently completed research project. Here, we focus on the situation in Malaysia.

Aligning policymaking with public values

In Malaysia, during a haze episode, the National Haze Action Plan, Fire Prevention Action Plan, and the Clean Air Action Plan guide the decision-making of the National Haze Committee at the national level. Outside times of haze, fire prevention measures are outlined in the National Action Plan for Peatlands and the Fire Danger Rating System, while health protection strategies are laid out in the Haze Impacts and Health Management Action Plan.

However, there appears to be a disconnect between carefully laid out preventive action plans and what occurs in practice across different levels of government, especially outside of fire and haze seasons. For example, in early 2020, the Selangor state government proposed the de-gazettement (easing the usage restrictions) of 931 hectares of protected peatlands in the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve.[7] This proposal baffled the public, not least because the state government had already invested RM2.2 million worth of fire prevention infrastructure in the forest reserve, in line with the peatlands action plan. Subsequently, more than 45,000 written public objections were submitted to the government, followed by the formation of CSO coalitions to challenge the de-gazettement. The government currently remains steadfast that a mixed-development project should continue in the area, despite elected representatives in the Selangor State Assembly echoing public sentiments on the need to preserve forest reserves.

The preservation of peat forests merely captures one aspect of haze prevention, but this incident shows that there is some reservoir of awareness among the public related to fire prevention and haze. However, there is a need for more research into public values that may inform policymaking. While past research by ourselves and others have uncovered aspects of public knowledge and attitudes towards the haze, these findings have yet to be connected to more deeply-held and stable underlying values (defined here as individual and collective judgements of what is important in life) and beliefs that shape how people and institutions think and behave (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: A visual representation of the cognitive hierarchy. Concepts towards the bottom are more stable and fewer in number than those towards the top (Adapted from Ives & Kendal, 2014)

Understanding the composition of values related to a certain issue within a community can significantly improve policy design and effectiveness by predicting likely public opposition points, tailoring messages to be more accurately received by the public, and helping policy reflect public sentiments. Public involvement specialist Linda Firth called for the inclusion of public values as “a credible component of the rational decision-making model”, warning that if this is not done, there would be a deepening spiral of distrust between the public and government agencies.

Our project

Our research, funded by the Toyota Foundation[8], investigates how publics in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore relate to the haze and how this information can be effectively integrated to find policy solutions to the problem. Using a combination of online surveys, focus group discussions (FGDs) and in-depth interviews in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, we collected data on how public values, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours relate to the haze problem. We explored values associated with individual concerns - consumer, environmental and religious values - and collective values related to politics and community.

This article focuses on insights from two FGDs conducted in January 2020 at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, involving 17 participants to gather feedback on our survey findings. These participants were diverse in terms of background (employment, education, religion, and ethnicity) and sexes. All participants had personally experienced both the 2015 and 2019 haze episodes in the Klang Valley.

Individual values in a diverse society

A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre revealed that around seven in ten Malaysians prioritise environmental protection, even if it comes at the expense of economic growth and the creation of more job opportunities. This reflects the public response to the forest reserve degazettement as summarised above, as well as our survey and FGD results. 78% of our survey respondents considered protecting the environment and preserving nature to be a guiding principle (value) in their lives. However, while the Malaysian FGD participants strongly agreed that environmental protection was important to them, they pointed out that the survey results may differ if the survey was administered in other areas of Malaysia. One participant noted that a person’s “socioeconomic background influences how much you want to protect the environment.” Policies would need to consider the heterogeneity among stakeholders.

Environmental values held by the FGD participants, however, did not translate into behaviour as consumers. Haze-producing fires have often been linked to unsustainable agribusiness practices, but participants showed little awareness of sustainability labelling on consumer products. Knowledge of specifically anti-haze product labels was even less. When shown examples of sustainability labels (see Figure 2), almost no one could identify any labels, including the home-grown Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) label. They believed that this was the same for people in their communities.

Figure 2: Examples of sustainability labels related to fires and haze

Despite some of our Malaysian FGD participants emphasising sustainable consumer values through their commitment to buying organic products or shopping at zero-waste stores, most participants stated that they did not examine products for sustainability labels. A similar trend was found in the Indonesia and Singapore FGDs, departing from the survey data across all countries.[9] Price was the primary consumer concern, followed by health – product safety, expiry dates, ingredients, calorie content etc. – although a participant observed that it has become trendy among youth to buy sustainably-sourced products.

The MSPO label for Malaysian sustainable palm oil was aggressively promoted abroad by the government. However, domestically, the more visible campaign was “Love MY Palm Oil” (see Figure 3), currently rebranded as “Palm Oil is God’s Gift”. The message of “buying local” was therefore given prominence over “buying sustainable” by policymakers. This represents a missed opportunity by the government as the link between individual consumer choices and the burning of peatlands was immediately recognised by the FGD participants. This new campaign slogan also points to the role of religious narratives in Malaysia, being used to cultivate nationalistic consumer habits in this instance.

Figure 3: Love MY Palm Oil campaign logo

Religious values have also been related to environmental stewardship. The FGD participants shared experiences of sermons in churches and mosques on caring for the environment, the Malaysian Catholic Archbishop banning single-use plastic cups in churches, mosques organising communal clean-up activities, and the Tzu Chi Foundation (Buddhist organisation) organising recycling drives.

When discussing religious values and the haze specifically, the diverse Malaysian participants offered a variety of responses. They were divided on whether Islam explicitly gives instructions to protect the environment. In addition, some non-Muslims participants were perplexed by how religion could be associated with environmental protection. A participant could not “think of a verse in the Bible that relates to the environment”. Others expressed dismay at Chinese religious rituals which contribute to air pollution in the burning of incense and prayer materials as well as the practice of cremation.

Further, while there have been instances of government-sanctioned special prayers (solat hajat) for rain during haze episodes in Malaysia, most participants reflected that they did not significantly increase religious activity during haze in search of divine intervention. Instead, there was a strong opinion that “science has to play a role in this. Religious leaders can influence people…(but) people cannot just hope and pray and expect things to work out”.

The Malaysian FGD responses on religiosity were markedly moderate[10] compared to the other countries surveyed. As we have written elsewhere, Singaporean FGD responses reflected a high level of secularity, while Indonesia’s FGD participants placed much higher importance on religious values and the role of religious figures in advocating environmental protection. These observations are noteworthy because while there is a growing appreciation for the relevance of religion to environmental sustainability, its potential to mobilise effective haze responses can vary considerably within and between individual countries.

Shared responsibility for a regional problem

Malaysian FGD responses generally attributed the responsibility for the haze not with individuals, but with governments and businesses (particularly palm oil and pulpwood sectors). Relating this to political values, participants reflected that haze “is a political issue because the government sets the policies”, but if one “implements the law and it (threatens) the palm oil industry… with voters out of jobs, then the politicians won’t get re-elected”. Others opined that solving the haze is deeply political, involving multiple considerations, as it is a “diplomatic problem involving business malpractice” stemming from a deeply rooted political-business nexus. An illustrative example was in 2019 when Indonesia announced that six Malaysia-linked palm oil concessions were being investigated for fires and the Malaysian government was quick to defend these companies.

Unlike in Singapore, where we found trust in the government to solve the haze problem was high, Malaysians expressed less confidence in the government, especially in politicians. One participant commented that “in Malaysia, politicians don’t keep promises. (Even) if there is a green party, it will be like Pakatan[11] (where) promises are not met”. Another participant observed that environmental issues are not politicised in Malaysia, noting that “environmental consciousness is not used as a political tool yet”. Yet another concluded that solutions to the haze had not featured prominently during elections simply because “we don’t have our elections during the haze”. This speaks to the seasonal nature of the haze problem, which also led to several participants calling out what they considered to be reactionary government responses: “Let's not talk about coming together when a disaster happens. What is happening to prevent the disaster?" As noted above, Malaysia does have preventive action plans, but we found a low knowledge of government policies towards the haze in Malaysia, combined with a high expectation of government responsibility. Malaysians want to see their government doing more to prevent the haze.

The pessimism over political solutions to the haze problem was compounded by significant antagonism among FGD participants towards corporations, a sentiment also reflected in our survey results: more than 50% of Malaysian respondents supported legalistic approaches to manage the haze[12]. While the Pakatan government was pushing ahead with a Transboundary Haze Act that would hold accountable Malaysian companies implicated in causing haze abroad, the new administration has shelved this effort. This misalignment with public sentiment may have further implications on public trust towards the government, emphasising the dire need for better communication and engagement between the government and the people, to both disseminate information as well as elicit public participation.

The negativity surrounding haze could be attributed to the sense of community and social (in)justice felt by the Malaysian participants towards others, including neighbouring countries, the environment, animals, and even future generations. They expressed sympathy and empathy for Indonesians, evoking the powerful image of the hazy red sky and noting, "we are only experiencing the haze, but not the heat." Some also admitted feeling embarrassed because of Malaysia's role in the Indonesian fires. While most survey respondents attributed high responsibility to the Indonesia government to solve the haze, the FGD participants strongly believed that criticising others was not constructive and responsibility should be shared equally among the three countries, particularly when Malaysian government-linked companies are involved in the palm oil sector, as "we are all suffering together".

Malaysian survey respondents assigned more responsibility to ASEAN in solving the haze than did survey participants in Indonesia and Singapore, but the Malaysian FGD participants were split over the role of ASEAN. Some were very skeptical of ASEAN, stating that "ASEAN is not a body that controls Southeast Asia," while others were completely unaware of ASEAN's haze efforts. While some agreed that ASEAN should facilitate collaboration and move forward as a block, others felt that bilateral negotiations would be more effective.

What hope for the future?

Insights from our study shed light on how Malaysians who experience haze reconcile with the fact that Malaysian companies also cause the haze, whether they as individuals felt responsible, and how that affected their behaviours towards the haze. Our findings also underscore the complexity of policymaking: there appears to be not only a disjoint between state and federal (and indeed international) policies, but also between certain policies and beliefs held among the public.

The low confidence in governments and corporations for solving the haze, empathy for Indonesia, and calls for stronger mechanisms directed towards solutions, reflect feelings of helplessness and frustration among the Malaysian public. When asked "how do you foresee the haze situation in your country 25 years from now?", 69% of survey respondents opined that the haze situation would be somewhat worse or much worse, while 15% felt that it would be the same as now. The FGD participants offered equally somber prognoses, stating that "people do not see changes in the way they have anticipated. People are pretty pessimistic about the future and the government…nothing-can-be-done kind of philosophy".

This sense of hopelessness again speaks to the need for improved communication and engagement between the government and the people. Encouragingly, Deputy Secretary-General of the Ministry of Environment and Water, Dr Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu, has stressed the need to build awareness about the impact of consumption and production patterns on the environment. Better communications on government efforts, including messaging on preventive measures outside of haze periods, and targeted policies on empowering responsible consumer choices, would help Malaysians better connect their beliefs in corporate responsibility to their own consumption patterns and individual agency.

This demonstrates that policies, especially when they have been proven to be less than effective over time, need to consider additional factors. Systematically understanding and applying deeply held public values in haze-related policymaking and governance decisions at both the national and state levels are vital in ensuring buy-in among key stakeholders. Our findings show the urgent need for a multi-stakeholder consultative approach in policymaking, incorporating both public education and engagement.

The Malaysian government has outlined a Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 to restructure Malaysia's development priorities over the next ten years. Guiding Principle 15 on "Sovereignty and Sustainability" declared that "the implementation of sustainable socioeconomic development should consider environmental preservation and natural resources to meet the needs of present and future generations". To achieve this goal, policymaking should be geared not only towards solving problems on the surface, but also towards more sustainable ecological and consumer behaviours, holding perpetrators accountable, and enhancing the people's confidence in the government.

Endnotes [1] Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya [2] Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya [3] School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia [4] School of Social and Health Science, Leeds Trinity University [5] School of Geography, University of Nottingham

[6] While such fires also occur in Malaysia, the resulting haze tends to be localised.

[7] The important ecosystem services provided by peatlands and the significance to peatland conservation has been acknowledged regionally in the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy 2006-2020. Reasons for the forest degazettement offered by the Chief Minister flies against these principles, as he explained that the development of the land was a strategy to prevent future forest fires in the degraded peat.

[8] This research is supported by the Toyota Foundation Grant Program 2017 through our project “The Southeast Asian haze crisis: Public values as a pathway towards constructive cross-border sentiments and engagement” (D17-R-0421). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Toyota Foundation.

[9] Across all countries, a majority of the survey respondents indicated that they check sustainability labels on products. Research has suggested that survey respondents in Asia tend to have higher levels of acquiescence (generally defined as the reluctant acceptance of something without protest, or in this context, answering survey questions according to how they think they should respond) than respondents in Western nations, which may explain these results. This revealed the value of the FGD method when used to triangulate against survey data. The scepticism of FGD respondents towards this survey finding helped to moderate our interpretations of such results.

[10] Our survey findings consistently positioned Malaysian respondents moderately between Singapore and Indonesia on several aspects, including environmental and religious values, hope for the future and holding politicians accountable.

[11] The FGDs took place in January 2020, before the change of federal government in March 2020. Pakatan refers to Pakatan Harapan (PH) which fell to Perikatan National (National Alliance) as a result of shifting political alliances among elected representatives. Sentiments reflected during the FGDs were directed towards PH. At that time, confidence in the then federal government was at an overall low because of PH’s unfulfilled promises of institutional reforms to liberal segments of society, pressures from conservative groups stirred up by political opponents, and persistent whispers of political realignments which ultimately proved true.

[12] This included suggestions for joint public interest litigation against all three countries' governments for not protecting the right to clean air.

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