JOHOR BARU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Some parents in Johor's Pasir Gudang district are not taking any chances and are keeping their children at home despite the authorities saying that schools will remain open.
Their decision came in the wake of Sunday's (June 30) incident, which saw all 111 schools in the district reopen for the first time since an air pollution incident affected the area last Tuesday, only to have some 130 students and teachers suffer from breathing difficulties.
Parent Jamalludin Abdul Malik said he would not be sending his four children to school for another week.
"I am worried about my children's safety.
"I hope the government can appoint an independent body that can be a voice for the public and sit in the Disaster Management Committee, not the politicians or the local authority," he said.
A total of 475 educational institutions, including 111 schools, in Pasir Gudang were closed for three days from last Tuesday due to air pollution. Schools in Johor observe the weekend on Fridays and Saturdays.
Schools were reopened on Sunday but hours after, over 100 students in Pasir Gudang suffered breathing difficulties and nausea.
Mr Jamalludin said the latest wave on Sunday showed how weak the state government was in handling the crisis, especially when it comes to responding quickly to the public.
He also urged the state government to provide a better communication method, especially with the people within the Pasir Gudang district, so that any change or situation could be quickly dealt with.
"Is any member of the public involved in the Disaster Management Committee? No. Where are the NGOs that represent the community in Pasir Gudang?
"All they (state government) tell us is that it is safe and that the air quality is fine, but they neglect to tell us what the safety level is," Mr Jamalludin said.
Another parent, who wished to be only known as Buvenes, said she was worried about the safety of her two children.
"On Saturday, they told us that it was safe to go to school. The next day, dozens of children and some teachers fell ill. There are all sorts of scary stuff on social media.
"What is happening? I am not taking chances," she said, admitting that while her children's education would be affected, their health was her priority.
Housewife Nurul Hidayah Emily Abdullah said while she would still be sending her 12-year-old daughter to school, she would take precautionary steps and ensure that her child has a face mask on.
"Although I am concerned, I still think it is important for her to go to school and not miss out on her lessons.
"However, I will not be sending her to religious classes in the evenings for at least one more week," she said.
In Selangor, national news agency Bernama reported Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as saying that there was a need for a long-term plan to prevent a recurrence of the pollution in Pasir Gudang.
With the consent of the Sultan of Johor, she said the government might have to think of ways to resettle the residents.
"A long-term solution is necessary, as the issue has affected the health of the residents.
"The Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry has implemented several short-term measures, including building automatic gas monitoring stations in the area.
"This is good because it gives a warning once the amount of toxic materials in the air has exceeded the critical level, allowing immediate action to be taken, including evacuating the residents.
"But this will not provide a comprehensive solution in the long run due to the centralised location of the factories and their proximity to residential areas," she said after closing the Welfare Department's 2019 junior leadership programme.
The recent air pollution incident, which was discovered on June 20, caused more than 100 students from over 30 schools to fall ill last week. Officials have yet to determine the cause of the air pollution and the students' symptoms.
This was the second time in three months that the authorities ordered all schools in Pasir Gudang district to be closed.
In March, schools were closed when thousands were overcome by toxic fumes from Sungai Kim Kim after chemicals were illegally dumped into the river.
Four individuals, including two Singaporeans, have been charged in the Sessions Court for their involvement in the dumping. Three of them are directors of a used tyre processing company and the other is a lorry driver.
In the latest incident, the authorities are believed to have narrowed down the list of suspected polluters to 30 chemical factories. Johor Menteri Besar Sahruddin Jamal said he had directed the Department of Environment and other agencies to find the main culprit.
Three types of flammable and toxic gases had been detected in the area - methyl mercaptan, acrylonitrile and acrolein.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had described the incident as "unfortunate", saying it should not have happened, especially since the Sungai Kim Kim incident occurred just three months ago.
The state government had reportedly spent RM6.4 million (S$2.1 million) cleaning up the toxic waste in the river.
Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar said last week that he would propose to the Johor government to "get rid of or relocate" industries that had negative environmental impact on the state, saying that "they endangered not just the people of Johor but also Singaporeans".