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Friday, August 6, 1999 Published at 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Row over Malaysian haze

Malaysia's Environment Ministry: "There is nothing alarming"

The Malaysian Government is under attack from opposition parties for being secretive about the extent of the smoke haze hanging over large parts of the country.

Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party, said the decision not to disclose the air pollution index was "completely indefensible" when warnings were being sounded in Indonesia that the haze disaster this time around could be as catastrophic as two years ago.

The Malaysian People's party said that non-disclosure of the API readings would not mean that the haze would go away magically.

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On Wednesday, the government said it would not start publishing the index again because it might scare away tourists.

The haze hurt Malaysia's tourism industry in 1997, with the number of visitors falling by 13% to 6.2 million, compared with 7.1 million the year before.

The environment ministry, which gave out API figures in 1997 and 1998, refused to do so this week. All it said was that the API was below 100. Above that level it becomes hazardous to breathe.

A private company which runs the air monitoring stations said that it had been ordered not to disclose the figures because it was an official secret.

Even some politicians linked to the ruling coalition were unhappy.

"If the country's overall air quality was good ... the truth should be made now to reassure the public," said Mah Siew Keong, a leader of the Gerekan Party, which is part of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's 14-party coalition.

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The attitude of the Malaysian Government is in sharp contrast to haze-hit Singapore where state-owned radio and television stations have been regularly providing the pollution index.

Timber industries in Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia are blamed for starting new fires which are clouding the region. Ecologists say there are at least 441 fires burning. They are used to clear land.

For four months in 1997, severe smog brought about by forest fires in the same area enveloped south east Asia, closing down airports and schools and causing thousands of people to seek treatment for respiratory disorders.

The problem abated in 1998 because of heavy rain.

Smoke from the fires has slowed shipping traffic through the busy Malacca Straits, which separates Singapore and Malaysia from Indonesia, and has spread far enough to blanket Malaysia's capital in a mild haze.

Flights to Indonesia's worst-hit Riau Province were diverted and residents in many areas were advised to stay indoors as much as possible and wear masks outdoors.

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Malaysian Department of the Environment

Haze alert website

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