Row between Indonesian and Malaysian ministers over haze draws mixed reactions

A view of the city skyline shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 11.
A view of the city skyline shrouded by haze in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 11.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR/JAKARTA • The diplomatic row between the environment ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia has elicited mixed reactions from netizens of both countries as to who is at fault for the hazy conditions.

As more Malaysians head to pharmacies to stock up on N95 face masks while the Air Pollution Index climbs, tensions between government officials have also escalated with back-and-forth arguments.

Malaysia's Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin, citing data from the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC), has said that the haze in the country originated from Indonesia's Kalimantan and Sumatra, where more than 1,600 hot spots were detected yesterday.

According to ASMC, most of the fires were located in peatlands - indicating that such fires were occurring on agricultural land.

However, Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar denied that Malaysia's haze came from Indonesia, asserting instead that the haze came from Malaysia itself.

According to Kompas news, Ms Siti Nurbaya said: "The smog that entered Malaysia, to Kuala Lumpur, is from Sarawak that spread to Peninsular Malaysia and perhaps some was from West Kalimantan."

She added that Ms Yeo's explanation should have been more objective.

Angered by the annual haze, netizens in Malaysia lauded Ms Yeo's swift remarks on Facebook to debunk Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister, posting that the data spoke for itself and "minister Siti Nurbaya should not be in denial".

On Facebook, Ms Yeo's account was filled with mostly positive comments. One user, Eskay Tan, wrote: "Our minister got all the facts. Not shooting (from) the hip."

But while many praised Ms Yeo for sticking to data, others also called for immediate action to tackle the root causes of the haze and to provide solutions to ease air conditions.

 
 
 
 

"It is a no-brainer on the source ever since it (the haze) became an annual occurrence a decade ago. A more relevant question now is, what are we going to do about it?" Facebook user Phui San posted in the comments section.

Indonesia is the world's biggest producer of palm oil, with plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra accounting for 96 per cent of the country's palm oil production.

The persistent hot spots reported by ASMC correlate with regions known for oil palm plantations.

On social media, not everyone was angered over the situation, with some netizens poking fun at minister Siti Nurbaya's comments.

"Kalimantan also belongs to Sarawak. Her claim is correct," Hastomo Tommy said on Facebook.

Ms Siti Nurbaya also faced a mix of support and ridicule back home.

Some, like Facebook user Dwi, backed the minister's claim that haze from Malaysia came from the country's own forest fires.

"They are turning a blind eye to what is happening in their own forests. Indonesia is an easy target. Yes, we have hot spots, but that doesn't mean we should be the only one blamed," she wrote.

But the Indonesian minister's comments did not go down well with others, who called her an "embarrassment".

"That is enough, Bu. Let's just resolve our forest fires. It is hard to dispute our neighbour's accusations if our forests are still burning," said Twitter user akta_ID.

Perhaps the best solution to the ongoing debacle was summed up by Facebook user Judy Lam.

"Perhaps the annual fires will stop when the Indonesian capital is moved to Kalimantan." 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2019, with the headline 'Row between ministers draws mixed reactions'. Print Edition | Subscribe