The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The finical politics of the “haze” in southeast Asia
May be real

Southeast Asia’s concern about the “haze” recalls the man whose astrologer told him he would be poor, diseased and starving for 20 years. “And then'” the man asked excitedly, expecting bliss after misery. “You’ll have got used to it!” was the laconic reply.

What one gets used to and what one doesn’t involve more than just physical tolerance. What one wishes to get used to and what one doesn’t — the psychological level of acceptance — is even more pertinent. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted long ago, Calcutta, “necropolis, city of the dead and dying, vast, putrefying, forsaken” and Singapore with “the highest urban living standard in the world” stand at the two extremes of lifestyle. Singapore may have become slightly less glitzy since then and Calcutta slightly less decaying, but what is normal in one is still exceptional in the other.

Language obeys the stern dictate of necessity. A Calcutta editor ruled in the early Eighties that it was inappropriate to call prolonged spells of load-shedding, when even generators sizzled into silence, “intolerable”. I am not sure whether he was concerned only with semantic exactitude for if something is intolerable, there must be a collapse when the toleration limit is exceeded. Or, perhaps, he thought the word insulted the city’s limitless endurance. “If this had been Dhaka,” a Bangladeshi diplomat declared sweltering in the humid dark, “they would have crushed Zia’s entire gushti to death!” No one dreamt of similar retribution in Calcutta as industry fled because of power failures and agriculture withered when the pumps dried up. Grumbling did not lead to exacting from the government or its leaders (whose air-conditioned abodes were naturally spared the discomfort that was our lot) the price of criminal incompetence.

Such equanimity seems unthinkable in southeast Asia. The haze’s recurrence has again exposed deep fissures in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, prompting demands for legal action and compensation. The haze means atmospheric pollution caused by minute (10 microns or smaller) particles of ash (particulate matter) that meteorologists call PM10. There’s a slightly acrid smell and reduced visibility. It’s no worse than Calcutta on a normal day and far better than it used to be in Delhi where a reddish brown band striped the horizon until fuel regulations were introduced and enforced. But I long ago ceased to introduce Indian parallels into conversation. London or New York yes, Delhi and Calcutta never. Singaporeans — especially prickly ethnic South Indians who still find it difficult to get over the distance they have travelled from their village roots — tend to look on any comparison with India as diminishing their achievements. The haze might be more acceptable if I told them of the smog that shrouded industrial towns in the north of England in the Fifties, reducing visibility to nil so that we groped our way along pavements and handkerchiefs were black with grit.

Though ASEAN’s internal politics sharpen complaint, the agonized response would have been impossible if prosperity had not transformed personality. Finickiness is carried to extremes. Even outdoor smoking is forbidden on the sprawling university campus where I live. Universal airconditioning is more than a comfort or even a necessity: it is a state of mind. Last Monday — when the Pollutants Standards Index rose to 130 and visibility dwindled to a kilometre — was instantly dubbed “Black Monday”.

Frequent references to “the Dark Days of 1997” recall the time when the PSI shot up to a record 226 and the word, ‘haze’, entered the vocabulary. Rather like the nursery tale princess who was black and blue all over and couldn’t sleep a wink because of the pea under her 20 mattresses, a Chinese Malaysian colleague of mine who had just acquired Australian citizenship talked incessantly then of the haze’s perils. He told us, with more than a hint of satisfaction, of the money he spent on psychiatrist’s fees because his wife and children suffered from disorientation. Before migrating to Perth, they lived in a small village in the interior of Malaysia where my colleague’s father ran the local grocery shop. Malaysian villages then were full of the fumes of wood, coal and oil stoves.

Of course, there is also a political reason for making much of the haze. It was and is caused by massive slash-and-burn fires in Indonesia. The practice is illegal but the law looks the other way when large corporations set fire to forests to plant cash crops like acacia and oil palms. Some of Suharto’s golf-playing chums (ethnic Chinese, as it happened) used to be the main offenders. Even now, offenders are above the law.

Indonesia’s leaders are charged with a range of offences starting with Kronfontasi (diplomatic and economic confrontation against Malaysia), continuing through an alleged attempt to assassinate Lee Kuan Yew, laying claim to the Malaysian territories of Sabah and Sarawak and dismissing Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Today, the fundamentalist Jemaah Islamiyah group, suspected of links with al Qaida, is based in Indonesia and led by an Indonesian cleric. Despite a benign Sufi heritage, every tenth Indonesian supports jihad.

The haze allows old animosities to erupt. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, recently warned Indonesia’s president that pollution could damage investor confidence in his country and affect the credibility of ASEAN as a whole. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president, did apologize to Malaysia and Singapore, and initiated a six-nation conference last week to discuss the problem. But while his vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, tartly reminded neighbouring countries that they should be grateful to Indonesia’s forests for providing them with oxygen, Jakarta newspapers have sprung to the attack. Some blame Malaysian buyers of illicit Indonesian timber for the forest fires; others accuse Lee of interfering in their domestic affairs.

They also blame Singapore for giving refuge to rich and corrupt Indonesian (read ethnic Chinese, like the Salim family who stash away their fortunes in Chinese-majority Singapore) businessmen. “If Singapore says it had no intention of inviting rich Indonesians, especially those with ill-gotten gains, to its shores, we can also say that we did not intend to send the haze there,” says an editorial in the Koran Tempo newspaper. “Blame it on the wind.” Indonesia has sought an extradition treaty with Singapore for nearly a decade. Though Jakarta has announced belatedly that 16 suspect firms will be investigated, there is little sign as yet of Indonesia ratifying a trans-boundary pact that was signed in 2002 or drawing up an environment protection plan for the short and long terms.

No doubt the haze is causing problems. Airports have closed down and flights had to be cancelled or rescheduled with consequent dislocation of tourist traffic. The loss of forests is estimated in billions of dollars. Fires in the Tesso Nilo national park endanger elephants in their natural habitat; in Tanjung Putting they could affect the survival of orang-utangs. But it’s the human response that prompts questions about what is called development. The World Health Organization warns Filipinos to stay indoors with doors and windows shut. The American Cancer Society claims that death from lung cancer and heart disease has gone up by 8 and 6 per cent respectively and that the increased PM10 also aggravates other fatal diseases. Singapore’s National Environment Agency advises against vigorous outdoor activity. The agency website, updated every hour, reported 170,000 hits in one day. With people complaining of breathing and visual difficulties, clinic attendance has shot up.

Some ailments may be real, some psychosomatic, some only a status symbol. There are no signs of an epidemic. But even making allowance for the political motivation against Indonesia, signs of incipient panic are a reminder that nothing builds human immunity and resilience, mental and physical, better than growing up in the heat, noise and dust of a Third World society.

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