Prepared by Nur Sakinah Alzian
22 October 2023
The clock strikes 7 am on a dreary Monday morning. You reluctantly drag yourself out of bed, hoping for a fresh start to the week. As you muster the energy to open the curtains, your anticipation turns to disappointment - the outside world is shrouded in a thick haze that shows no sign of lifting. This scene has replayed itself every year and has become a disheartening routine. The once vibrant sky is now a muted canvas, obscured by the haze, yet again.
The Annual Haze Blame Game Kicks Off Again
Haze is a persistent issue in Southeast Asia. This month, the region has been experiencing deteriorating air quality caused by rampant forest fires, the El-Nino event and rising temperatures from climate change. The Department of Environment (DOE) reported alarming Air Pollutant Index (API) readings between 101 and 200 in nine areas of Malaysia, indicating hazardous levels of air pollution(1). Satellite imagery from the ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Centre (ASMC) has unequivocally pointed to forest fires in Indonesia as the source of the problem, primarily in Sumatra and Kalimantan(2).
The complexity of the haze issue stems from its transboundary nature, the intricate web of actors involved, palm oil patronage and the distinct non-interference approach within ASEAN countries. Consequently, when pollution occurs, a cycle of blame ensues, often continuing endlessly until the haze season subsides. The script remains unchanged each year. Haze envelops the region, prompting an affected nation to issue a formal complaint to Indonesia. Subsequently, an ASEAN meeting is convened to explore regional cooperation, yet progress often stalls. Indonesia, in response, denies direct involvement, shifting blame to Malaysian and Singaporean companies operating within its borders.
The familiar pattern repeated itself again this year. In June, delegates from ASEAN member states gathered in Singapore for discussions on the transboundary haze problem(3). Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, issued a formal letter to Indonesia in October, expressing concerns of transboundary haze(4). However, Indonesia's Environment Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, dismissed the accusations, asserting that no haze had crossed into Malaysia nor Singapore. This cycle of finger-pointing continues until the winds finally carry the haze away. Nik Nazmi has assured Malaysians that the haze will subside as a result of wind changes predictions from the Malaysian Meteorological Department (Met Malaysia)(5). As usual, this annual problem will fade into the background only to resurface with the next season.
What Are We Missing? The Normalization of Haze
Discourse is a powerful means of influencing social practices. The way a political issue is framed affects how it is addressed and handled(6). As sociologist Michel Foucault theorized, discourses also imply prohibitions of certain actions as it limits the questions that can be raised and cases that can be argued(7). In effect, discourse establishes exclusionary systems permitting only specific individuals to engage in it. In this context, governments and corporations use specific discourses to legitimize and divert attention from their shortcomings in mitigation and adaptation efforts. In this patronage network, discourses from civil society organizations stand alone as challengers, critiquing unsustainable agricultural practices tolerated by governments and companies.
The specific discourse utilized by political actors in the haze issue has been unveiled in a research study on the politicization of the haze season in Southeast Asia, conducted by Varkkey et al(8). They revealed that the framing of the haze as a seasonal phenomenon by political actors contributes to the persistence of the haze problem. Their research identified three prevalent storylines, which are 'it keeps coming back,' 'it will go away,' and 'it is normal.' In other words, the haze is normalized and regarded as a temporary problem that will go away on its own.
We can see the same discourse pattern this year when our Minister of Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change assured the public that the haze season will subside(9). In doing so, he tapped into the narrative of 'it will go away,' as highlighted in Varkkey et al.’s research. This particular narrative, though seemingly comforting to the public, carries deeper and serious implications. By portraying the haze issue as a passing phenomenon akin to natural seasonal changes, it implies that society merely needs to endure this period before it eventually goes away.
Negative Effects of Normalizing Haze
The 'it will go away' storyline suggests that haze is a temporary inconvenience that society should tolerate. Additionally, this narrative implies that haze seasons are becoming normalized in society. Society might start viewing haze as an inevitable, uncontrollable force, potentially forgetting its anthropogenic roots and hence preventable. This normalization can inadvertently release pressure on governments to address the problem proactively.
Normalizing haze as a seasonal phenomenon is costly. According to Al Jazeera’s reports, the 2015 haze event cost Indonesia a substantial 1.9 percent of its GDP, while Singapore's economy suffered a 0.17 percent loss(10). Immediate economic costs in Indonesia totaled approximately 221 trillion Indonesian rupiah ($16.1 billion), an amount that exceeded the reconstruction cost following the 2004 Aceh tsunami(11).
Managing illnesses caused by haze incurs significant economic costs as well. Malaysia faced a significant increase in treating haze-related illnesses between 1997 and 2013, with costs soaring 20 times during this period(12). However, this data does not account for population growth or inflation, making the economic impact even more significant. Furthermore, a study conducted by Shahwahid demonstrated that haze has far-reaching implications for the economy, encompassing expenses related to illness, medical treatment, hospitalization, medical leaves, and the purchase of air pollution masks for protection(13). Moreover, the haze's adverse effects extend to human productivity as well. More sick individuals means less people working and thus lost income opportunities.
Changing the Discourse Through The Transboundary Haze Act
Nonetheless, discourses are not permanent. It can be challenged and negotiated to prompt broader social change. In this situation, it is crucial for the government to heed the voices of NGOs, environmental groups, and civil society organizations who have been advocating for the enactment of the transboundary haze act. Certainly, transboundary haze pollution is undeniably a regional concern. While it's crucial to respect the principle of non-interference, it doesn't render us powerless or devoid of responsibility in combating this annual pollution.
The effectiveness of the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement of 2002 hinges upon the implementation of domestic legislation by individual countries. This approach, in line with Article 3.3 of the Agreement, emphasizes the necessity for each member state to proactively adopt precautionary measures. These measures should include anticipating, preventing, and monitoring transboundary haze pollution, as well as mitigating its adverse effects, even in the absence of complete scientific certainty(14).
While several experts have criticized the ineffectiveness of Singapore's Transboundary Haze Act, it doesn't imply that our law will face the same shortcomings. According to environmental politics expert Dr. Helena Varkkey, Malaysia can actually draw valuable lessons from Singapore's experience to create a more robust law(15). This new legislation could specifically target Malaysian companies instead of any companies causing the haze. Moreover, she suggested that the emphasis of the law should lean towards prevention rather than punishment. This approach should aim to gain the support of Malaysian companies and may involve establishing legal frameworks to ensure oversight and control over the activities of these companies, both within the country and internationally.
In sum, the haze issue in Southeast Asia demands urgent attention and a transformative shift in discourse. The normalization of haze as a natural, recurring event must be challenged, and this calls for a proactive approach from the government and civil societies. Our government must demonstrate strong political will and commitment to addressing the issue of haze pollution. This entails allocating sufficient resources, manpower, and funding to effectively address the problem. Ultimately, the haze issue is not merely an environmental problem; it is a social, economic and public health concern that demands a united response. By reshaping the discourse and enacting effective legislation, Malaysia can foster a future where clean air and clear skies are the norm, not just a fleeting hope during the haze-free season.
Mohd Noor Musa, “LETTER | Transboundary Haze: Managing Asean’s Wicked Problem,” Malaysiakini (Malaysiakini, October 4, 2023).
Mohd Noor Musa. Transboundary Haze, Malaysiakini.
CNA. “As Haze Beckons, Malaysia Wants Its Plantation Firms in Indonesia to Formally Report Forest Fire Measures,” CNA, 2021.
The Star Online, “M’sia Has Sent Letter to Indonesia over Transboundary Haze Issue, Says Nik Nazmi,” The Star, October 4, 2023.
Qistina Sallehuddin and Mohamed Basyir, “Haze Situation Unlikely to Persist, Reassures Minister,” NST Online (New Straits Times, October 9, 2023).
Hajer, Maarten A. The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernization and the policy process. Clarendon Press, 1995.
Hajer. The Politics of Environmental Disocurse.
Varkkey, Helena, Felicia H. M. Liu, T. E. L. Smith, and Sophie Trott. "'Seasons of the Anthropocene': politicisation of the haze season in Southeast Asia." (2023): 1-30.
Malay Mail, “Nik Nazmi: Haze Situation Unlikely to Persist,” Malay Mail (Malay Mail, October 9, 2023)
Samantha Ho, “By the Numbers: Economic Impact of Southeast Asia’s Haze,” Aljazeera.com (Al Jazeera, September 13, 2019)
Samantha Ho. Economic Impact of Haze.
Ab Manan, Norfazillah, and Rozita HOD. "The Malaysia Haze and its health economy impact: A literature review." Malaysian Journal of Public Health Medicine (2018): 38-45.
Shahwahid, Mohd. What impact is the haze having on Peninsular Malaysia? Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA), 2016.
Malay Mail, “Transboundary Haze Legislation in Malaysia Has Been Due for at Least a Decade — Hafiz Hassan,” Malay Mail (Malay Mail, October 7, 2023),
Samantha Ho, “Asean Still Lacks Legal Redress against Transboundary Haze, in Focus ahead of Leaders’ Meeting,” Eco-Business (Eco-Business, June 5, 2023), .