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Waking up to the haze

If the ecological disasters of recent years have failed to shake Malaysians out of their complacency, the recent haze crisis will have succeeded in forcing them to take environmental protection seriously.

While the authorities may try to put the blame totally on the Indonesian forest fires, we should be more concerned about the invisible gases created by industrial and vehicular pollution which are trapped in the smog.

At last, we hope that Malaysians have begun to realise that it is pointless pursuing growth per se when it is the 'quality of growth' which should be our concern. Malaysian environmentalists have warned the nation of this crisis for years, only to be derided by the authorities time and again for being 'anti-development' and 'stooges of the West'.

The negligence on the part of the authorities is beyond question when we recall the past record. The problem of air pollution in Malaysian cities already existed in the 1960s, but the government did not take it seriously. In the early 1980s, especially in 1982 and 1983, the problem worsened and an 'Action Plan' was mooted in 1984. But as soon as the haze cleared, the government reverted to 'business as usual'.

At the time, the Environment Ministry admitted that local industrial pollution, vehicular emissions and open burning were contributing to the problem.

In the early 1990s, Kuala Lumpur already stood at 14th among the most polluted cities in the world. Our reputation further suffered when Emperor Hirohito could not fly to Ipoh during his scheduled visit to the country in 1991.

It was in 1991, described as "the worst haze problem in Malaysian history", that a national committee on haze was set up. The Environment Ministry announced "short and long-term awareness programmes" to prevent a recurrence of the problem. However, few if any measures were adopted as the Mahathir government pursued its 'economic miracle' of untrammeled growth.