No airing secrets

Scared of losing tourists due to the haze, the Malaysian government makes air quality levels an "official secret"

Published: Wednesday 15 September 1999

Haze revisited: forest fires i AIR quality in Malaysia has been made an "official secret". The Malaysian government has also launched a new Internet site to counter "negative publicity". The two developments reflect the Malaysian authorities' obsessive concern with presenting a positive image of Malaysia that overlooks shortcomings and plays down contentious issues.

Government officials say that the Western media presented a distorted picture of the country with its reports on the 1997 haze, the demonstrations by supporters of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim early this year and the recent "pig virus" epidemic. But Malaysians are increasingly turning to foreign publications and the Internet for news about their country.

Many people have expressed outrage at environment minister Law Hieng Ding's announcement that the government had decided against disclosing air pollution readings so as "not to drive away tourists". Tourism figures dropped in 1997 following the smog that covered most of the country. His statement comes at a time when reports of thick smoke over neighbouring Indonesia threatens to worsen air quality in Malaysia.

Further, newspaper reports say that the government has directed Alam Sekitar Malaysia, the company that monitors air pollution, to make its readings available only for "private consumption". Clients would have to sign a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to keep the figures private. The New Straits Times said this meant that if the newspaper bought the air pollution information from the company, it would not be able to publish it. A company official said there was a clause in its agreement with the government that "touched on official secrets".

An official of Gerakan, one of the smaller parties in the ruling National Front coalition, called on the government to make the air pollution readings public, saying the lack of information could "cause panic" since the haze was noticeable. Opposition legislator Lim Kit Siang said the cabinet's "ridiculous" decision reflected a lack of seriousness about transforming Malaysians into informed people. The president of a consumers' group said people had the right to know what was happening in their country.

The World Wide Fund For Nature has asked if Malaysians were expected to read Singapore's air pollution index to learn the air quality in their own country. Malaysian Nature Society chief executive Low Hin Yang warned the concealment of the readings might "scare away tourists". Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad recently launched a website which would provide information on Malaysian politics, economy, tourism, human and social rights and the environment. But anyone seeking news on air quality will, presumably, have a fruitless search.

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