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Asean spirit in tackling transboundary haze: Wan Junaidi

  • "People often think what Singapore does is the best. As a matter of fact, we are the most vocal on this matter... Please understand that we are really doing something!" Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 20 (Sin Chew Daily) -- it has been more than two month since the transboundary haze first struck on August 22.

Despite the fact that the public are getting increasingly fumed over this perennial problem, with many calling for compensation from Jakarta, natural resources and environment minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar believes massive economic losses due to transboundary haze has been an overstatement while the legal aspects of compensation have to be based on actual research data.

During an interview with Sin Chew Daily on October 17, Wan Junaidi said, "You haven't conducted a study. So how do you know how far is the extent of economic loss due to the haze?" in response to the claim that haze has caused enormous economic losses due to closures of schools and airports, cancellation of outdoor activities and flights, poor hawker business and reduced fishery production, adverse impact on tourism as well as other health-related cost, and as such the Malaysian government, private businesses, organizations and individuals should claim compensation from the Indonesian authorities.

"You must not assume that the country has suffered tremendous losses just because the business of one or two people is affected (by the haze)."

He admitted that while the transboundary haze indeed had some adverse effect on the economy and community activities, as many activities had to be suspended due to haze, these were but preventive measures.

He said we would need to go back to the actual situation when it comes to the legal aspects of compensation.

"We must not just assume. You don't even have medical studies or other research data to support your claim!"

Asean spirit

Wan Junaidi insists that the country needs to adhere to the Asean spirit when tackling the transboundary haze issue.

He said under the Asean spirit, transboundary haze could be handled at three different levels, namely through the 10-member Asean, sub-regional (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Indonesia) and bilateral (Malaysia and Indonesia) meetings.

He said that at the Asean heads of government and ministerial levels, the ten member states have already ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP). Although Jakarta took a relatively longer time to ratify, the agreement has nevertheless been ratified by all member states of the 10-nation grouping.

"The Asean Five (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam) met in July, when it was decided that a memorandum of understanding would be signed between Malaysia and Indonesia, which is a bilateral agreement, to prevent transboundary haze pollution."

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed on June 10, 2002 by the ten member states of Asean for implementation from November 25, 2003. The agreement is the first such legal binding agreement in the world requiring neighboring countries to address the issue of transboundary haze caused by land clearings and forest fires. The agreement was ratified by Indonesia as late as September 16, 2014, and deposited the Instrument of Ratification with the Asean secretary-general on January 20 this year.

Upon this agreement, both Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding to implement the AATHP, which covers both the legal and enforcement aspects, best land clearing practices, zero burning policy, peat soil management, early fire prevention and collaboration during haze pollution.

Wan Junaidi has said on numerous occasions he will travel to Jakarta to meet his Indonesian counterpart to expedite the finalization of MoU. The originally scheduled meeting on Sept 18 was postponed to Sept 25 but deferred again due to the critical conditions of haze in Indonesia.

-Ministry doing its best

Wan Junaidi pointed out that his ministry's responsibility is to tackle things that have already happened and protect the well-being of the people. Externally, the ministry will do its best to help Indonesia and continue to urge that country to resolve the problem of transboundary haze.

"This is the way we deal with our neighbors under the Asean spirit. And this is also why Singapore has never talked about suing Jakarta. They have only taken actions against Singapore companies involved in the burning activities in Indonesia."

He reminded Malaysians that we are a part of Asean and the good relationship between Malaysian and Indonesia must not be jeopardized.

On the 27th Asean Summit in November, Wan Junaidi said transboundary haze would be among the agenda for the regional meeting.

"Malaysia being the Asean chair for 2015, the prime minister will definitely include the issue of transboundary haze in this year's summit."

Wan Junaidi said Asean heads of governments would be discussing the impact of transboundary haze created by specific nations on their neighbors during the summit. For example, the impact of haze from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan on Malaysia, Singapore and even southern Thailand.

'Most vocal'

Although the Malaysian government is generally perceived as passive when it comes to transboundary haze from Indonesia, Wan Junaidi said the country was in reality the most vocal among Asean countries.

He cited the example of prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. He said the first thing Najib asked about when he touched down in Malaysia after his New York trip was the haze issue.

"This really touched my heart. I was waiting for the PM at the airport. He did not talk to anyone else and came straight to talk to me before he proceeded to Balai Bunga Raya (at KLIA).

"This shows that he is very much concerned about the haze.

"I thought he would take a short rest first but when I told him I had a letter for the Indonesian president, he just told me to send it out immediately."

Wan Junaidi went on, "We then went back to our respective offices and before I even managed to sit down on my chair, my assistant rushed in to tell me the PM wanted to talk to me.

"We talked for about ten minutes and he wanted me to brief him everything from August 22 until then.

"Can you imagine the first thing the PM handled when he got back was actually the haze problem? Can you imagine the PM made an arrangement to meet the Indonesian president within very short time?"

Meeting international standards

First-time environment minister, Wan Junaidi said he had done plenty of things including public education on Air Pollutant Index (API) computation and why PM2.5 has not been included in the calculation and why the country is still using PM10.

"I have explained that our API conforms to international standards, the Air Quality Index (AQI) adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I have also explained that Singapore is a little ahead of us because it is a small country. We have 52 API reading stations but only 12 can measure PM2.5/ The entire network will only be fully upgraded by 2017 and once this is done, our air surveillance network will be far ahead of other regional countries."

Wan Junaidi said the government had done a lot of things, and hoped Malaysians would not underestimate their own government.

"People often think what Singapore does is the best. As a matter of fact, we are the most vocal on this matter.

"Did Thailand do anything, or did Brunei say anything? What about Singapore? Tell me what they have done other than taking action against Singapore companies involved.

"That's about all. Have they done more than us? No. They only taking action on their own companies operating in Indonesia. We still need to see whether those companies really burned the forests. If they didn't, that's the end of i t. Just a kind of propaganda!

"We are all Malaysians. So please understand that we are doing something!"

Very limited effects from act

When asked to comment that the environment ministry is studying the legislation of a transboundary haze pollution act to deal with Malaysian companies creating the haze pollution overseas, Wan Junaidi said the act is meant to tackle the problem caused by Malaysian companies or individuals involved in land clearings and forest burning resulting in haze pollution.

"We will have a transboundary haze pollution act to deal with Malaysian companies or individuals committing the offense abroad, be it in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines or Brunei.

"But the act cannot do anything to foreign companies committing the offense overseas. We don't have such laws and the international community will not accept too."

Singapore implemented the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in 2014, allowing the government to fine Singapore companies up to S$2 million for causing transboundary haze pollution.

The republic's National Environment Agency sent Preventative Measure Notices to four companies under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 for the first time on September 25 this year, demanding them to undertake preventive measures, discontinue or not start burning activities, and submit a plan of action to extinguish or prevent the spread of fire. Six companies have received such notices as of October 12.

Wan Junaidi feels that there is one major issue with Singapore's transboundary haze pollution act, i.e. how to unquestionably prove that the haze in a specific part of Singapore has originated from the burning activities carried out by a specific company operating in a specific area of Indonesia.

He also said the act is only applicable to Singapore companies operating in Indonesia that have caused the haze pollution in Singapore.

"The transboundary haze pollution act will not solve the problem because has conducted a study that points to the fact that only 3% of forest fires have been caused by plantation companies while the rest are caused by the local individuals."

As such, he said while we need a similar act here in Malaysia, the effect might be limited because only very few Malaysian companies are actually involved in burning activities in Indonesia.

However, he said the act is still at the discussion stage and that we might not follow the Singapore act wholesale, adding that dentals will only be finalized after discussion between the environment ministry and the AG's Chambers and approval from the cabinet.


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