KL minister denies weak handling of issue

MUAR/KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's natural resources and environment minister has denied that the government has been weak in its handling of the haze situation, saying that it has been in constant communication with its Indonesian counterpart behind the scenes.

Datuk Seri G. Palanivel said the government has voiced its concerns to Indonesia, but added that the situation "is not simple".

"It is not true that Malaysia has not been firm in airing our grievances with Indonesia," he said. "Malaysia and Singapore are the most active in pursuing this with Indonesia."

Speaking to reporters while on a visit to the haze-affected town of Muar on Friday, he said he would visit Indonesian counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya in Jakarta this Wednesday. "We are very worried about the open burning there. We will press to them the seriousness of the haze in Malaysia."

His comments came amid criticism from opposition politicians and the public that the government has not been vocal enough in engaging Jakarta on the issue.

Despite the air quality here worsening rapidly in the past two days, Malaysia has been cautious about pointing fingers at its neighbour over what is a potentially sensitive issue for bilateral ties.

The Prime Minister's Office on Friday issued its first statement on the haze, quoting a spokesman as saying: "It is important that ASEAN nations work together in a spirit of cooperation to tackle this problem."

It added that Malaysian-owned companies operating in Indonesia should abide by all local laws and regulations, and "ensure they do not contribute to environmental degradation".

Opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang has called on the government to end its "deafening silence" and to convene an emergency meeting of environment ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

He said it should also detail its contingency plans for the worsening air quality, and what common action it proposes to take with Indonesia and Singapore to control the forest fires in Sumatra.

On Friday, areas in Johor saw the Air Pollutant Index (API) remain at hazardous levels, including Pasir Gudang (323) and Kota Tinggi (314). API readings countrywide eased by evening, but five areas in Johor, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca remained above the "very unhealthy" level of 200.

Tens of thousands more students in Johor were also affected by additional school closures, as 195 schools in Kota Tinggi and Pontian were told to close. This followed closures in Muar, Batu Pahat and Pasir Gudang on Thursday.

On next week's meeting, Mr Palanivel said he would ask Indonesia what laws it can use to clamp down on open burning, although he acknowledged that it is hard to nab the culprits. He said Malaysia will consider lending Indonesia cloud-seeding aircraft.