Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

“For what has happened, as President, I say sorry and seek the understanding of our relatives in Singapore and Malaysia.” This was Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologizing on national television Monday evening, a week after forest fires in Sumatra caused a thick blanket of smog to descend on Singapore and many parts of Malaysia.

“Indonesia had no intention to cause this. And we will continue to bear responsibility to overcome what has happened,” Yudhoyono added.

His apology may be somewhat overdue but at least he said what every suffering citizen in Singapore and Malaysia has been waiting to hear for many days already. Thankfully, Yudhoyono’s apology also superseded the initial reaction of his subordinates who called Singapore childish for complaining too much about the haze.

While it is true that forest fire is a recurring problem in the region, this year’s transboundary haze is worse than in previous years. It is bigger, blacker, thicker, and harder to clear. It caused air pollution indexes to soar to record levels in both Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, a state of emergency has already been declared in Muar and Ledang, both in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. More than one hundred schools have suspended classes.

In Singapore, the wearing of face masks as protection against the haze has become the new normal in the prosperous city state. N5 face masks have become ridiculously expensive and many people have had to wait in line for several hours just to buy them. Workers have been advised to go home, travel has been restricted, and the young and old have remained indoors. The haze is clearly more than a health hazard, which makes the rising frustration and anger of many Singaporeans understandable.

Since the haze involves several countries in Southeast Asia, it is futile to put all blame and responsibility on Indonesia alone. What is needed is a regional intervention; and the only institution capable of fulfilling this crucial task is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Resolving transboundary issues is one reason why ASEAN exists. Unfortunately, the current haze disaster reflects the utter failure of ASEAN as a regional grouping.

Indeed, ASEAN initiated various programs to prevent forest fires and transboundary haze pollution as early as the 1980s. Regional workshops have been held annually since 1992. The 1997 haze, which badly affected the region, forced ASEAN to draft the Regional Haze Action Plan. It has three components: prevention, mitigation, and monitoring. Curiously, it assigned Malaysia to take the lead in prevention, Indonesia in mitigation, and Singapore in monitoring of haze – the three countries that are currently suffering.

In 1999, ASEAN adopted a “zero burning” policy targeted at plantation companies and timber concessionaires. Further, it enjoined member countries to develop and promote controlled burning guidelines for small farmers and cultivators. In 2002, the landmark ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed by the ten member countries.

In the past decade, ASEAN has spearheaded numerous activities to fight the haze scourge, which ranged from community level fire-fighting programs to high-level task force meetings of country ministers. Last October 2012, it even recognized the “substantive efforts” of Indonesia to prevent forest fires in the districts of Riau and West Kalimantan.

Clearly, ASEAN has done many things and used a lot of money to stop the dreaded haze, yet all have been ineffective. The haze has continued to return and worsen year after year.

Today there are demands for an ASEAN intervention to address the haze pollution. Indeed, ASEAN should act quickly but it should stop repeating what it has been doing for the past two decades. Albert Einstein purportedly once quipped that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Instead of organizing another meeting, workshop, or conference, ASEAN should simply review its records, implement the action plan, enforce the anti-haze agreement, and punish companies that violate environment laws.

For Malaysian politician Charles Santiago, the option is clear for his country: “Keep a close watch on Malaysian companies in Sumatra and charge those that flout laws, for these companies have committed nothing less than a crime against humanity.”

Dengue Scare Sweeps Southeast Asia

Written for The Diplomat

Dengue cases have been rising dramatically in several Southeast Asian countries recently. Dengue (aka dengue fever) is a tropical virus with no known cure that is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It attacks most often in densely populated urban areas.

Singapore registered only 4,632 dengue cases in 2012 but this year the number has already hit 10,257 and continues to rise daily. This is unusually high for Singapore, which last experienced a dengue outbreak in 2005.

Last week, Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health confirmed that dengue cases are three times higher this year than last year. In the past six months, the kingdom has recorded 43,609 cases of dengue fever, with 50 resulting in death. There were only five dengue-related deaths in 2012. Thailand experienced dengue epidemics most recently in 1987 and 1998.

Meanwhile, dengue cases in the Philippines and Malaysia are slightly lower this year compared to the same period in 2012, but the situation nonetheless remains critical. The Philippines’ Department of Health reported 42,207 dengue cases, which is actually one of the highest figures in the region. Malaysia recorded 10,352 dengue cases in the past six months.

According to a recent survey, there are 123,206 dengue patients in six Southeast Asian countries. Alarmed by this creeping pandemic, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marked June 15 as ASEAN Dengue Day to promote awareness and prevent the spread of the dreaded virus in the region.

Alongside raising awareness, Southeast Asian governments have implemented various programs to fight dengue. Singapore’s National Environment Agency has launched a “Do the Mozzie Wipeout” campaign, a community effort meant to remind citizens of easy and practical steps to disrupt the breeding cycle of the Aedes mosquito. The government also plans to distribute 1.2 million bottles of insecticide to all households next month.

For its part, the Thai government is in the process of establishing a dengue fever “war room” in every province to monitor dengue outbreak on the community level. To date, however, only 26 of Thailand’s 77 provinces have set one up.

The Philippines is promoting a similar community-driven program called Aksyon Barangay Kontra Dengue, which encourages Filipinos to join in the daily “4 o’clock habit” of dropping everything at 4 pm to look for dengue hotspots in homes.

Meanwhile, Malaysia has developed a GIS-based web portal called I-Dengue, which provides updated data on dengue clusters and other useful information such as how to avoid getting the virus.

Because of changing climate patterns and the inevitable rise of mega cities, the dengue virus will continue to terrorize many tropical nations. If left unchecked, it could lead to bigger outbreaks that governments may not be able to adequately handle.

Perhaps the intensified public information drive will wake everyone up to the seriousness of the dengue problem, The virus is one of many deadly communicable diseases in the Asia-Pacific.

Meanwhile, the ongoing dengue outbreak should remind governments to review their development programs. In particular, they should address the challenges posed by rapid urbanization. The epidemic should also prompt officials to improve the region’s health care delivery and the treatment of dengue patients.

In Singapore, netizens were outraged to learn that a dengue victim who died was made to wait five hours in a hospital. It led to the scrutiny of Singapore’s health care system, which some have criticized for being more responsive to the needs of the medical tourism sector than to its own citizens.

One Response to “Haze Exposes ASEAN Failure”

  1. I saw the title and was going to say, “Oh my god you plagiarized this.” then I went back to The Diplomat article and realized you were the writer of that really good piece. Thanks. 🙂


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