Hazy Days, Health & Other Concerns: How Long More and How Bad?

By Dr David Quek

The superstitious-inclined is wont to have said that calamities always strike in threes. Of late, Malaysians have been beleaguered one after another by some rather unprecedented disasters.

First, as if as a forerunner for worse things to come, was the enterovirus epidemic which spooked the entire nation particularly the hapless Sarawakians, sending many families scurrying for cover within their own homes, or away to neighbouring countries. Then, fortunately, as quickly as it appeared to have emerged, the enterovirus infection subsided with a whimper, albeit over a painful 3 to 4 months. 30 young children perished in that sad episode, with perhaps a few more having suffered the same fate, but which were unreported .

(To date, through careful necropsy studies, the University Hospital of Kuala Lumpur has meticulously documented and confirmed 4 acute fulminant encephalomyelitic syndromes caused by the enterovirus 71. Other sporadic cases elsewhere, could conceivably have been misdiagnosed as unexplained deaths.)

Then when our ASEAN neighbours began experiencing the throes of currency turmoil, we too got sucked into the second whirlpool of distressing currency devaluation and stock market crashes. When we reacted too strongly with shock and disbelief, we were accused of having been blinded by our own poor economic behaviour and conduct.

The Economist in the latest issue (Oct 18-24,1997), accuses South East Asia of being trapped in the phase of economic denial. This being made as a cynical comparison to the so-called 4 phases of economic grief reaction -- shock, denial, anger, and finally, hopefully, acceptance.

We were (and still are) being told that we have to put our own house in order and to correct our untenable fundamentals (exactly how, they have as yet failed to divulge, besides the usual cliched warnings and soundings).

Essentially, we would have to tighten our belts, which most sensible citizens would agree to and would be prepared to do so. But, these so-called experts have since been pressing us to be more drastic in our show of remorse and reaction -- that perceived near-insolvent businesses and so-called unproductive activities be amputated henceforth, from our hemorrhaging economic torsos.

Yes, they would like to see some actual blood in the streets, as signalled by their anticipated forecast of widespread bankruptcies and hardships, of lost jobs, higher unemployment, higher interest rates, even sociopolitical unrest among the newly disadvantaged citizens. Businesses which have long thrived on political cronyism and connections in their eyes should be surgically dissected out, they harped.

Perhaps, they would also like us to debunk or even replace our leaders, with others whom they might find more accommodating. This, they have been insinuating quite blatantly in their repeated innuendoes about possible conflicts among our leaders.

We would have to halt many grandiose projects which would have consumed too much of foreign capital and which produce too little in terms of real productivity gains. Yet, we were told that our infrastructural projects should not be sacrificed in these times of hardship, they are still needed to spearhead growth.

Such wishy-washy and ambiguous ideas cannot really be of help to anyone, except to further fuel the uncertainties which have already convulsed the economies in the region. Every so-called expert is expecting far worse to come, rather than just the mere "hiccups" which Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had cautiously said in trying to placate the regional sentiments.

Curiously, just less than 6 months ago, except for a few detractors and nay-sayers, everyone including foreign investors, fund managers, media-savvy foreign news agencies, were full of awe, praises and even envy for the Asian Pacific rim countries. They were clamouring over themselves in trying to project how the ASEAN and Asia Pacific region would be the powerhouses of dynamic growth into the next millennium.

Surprisingly, there were relatively few whisperings and mumblings about possible signs of overheating and unheard-of growth rates, but the optimism was effusively overwhelming. Everyone wanted a piece of the economic pie, and funds flowed freely into and out of the regional markets, reaping quick kills and stupendous untaxed profits and capital gains.

Then suddenly, all of South East Asia has got it all wrong, and all their supposedly rotten termite-infested foundations were crumbling, and were exposed in their most negative aspects, for all to see. Now, economists, talk show hosts, news bureaus and foreign fund managers and companies, offer repeated snide remarks about how bad the real situation is, and how they would now avoid our markets conceivably forever, but certainly for the next few years.

Can we trust all these vacillating media and harbingers of despair and doom? Can they really expect us not to be a little bit paranoid? Can they really expect us to believe that our economies are so bad that we should be pegged below such nations, whose wealth distribution are so abysmally discrepant, whose productivity's are even lower, whose inflation rates run havoc, whose foreign debts make ours pale by comparison?

And now these same experts, are trying to convince us that even Mexico has learnt its lesson of 1994, so well indeed, that it is quickly on the way to economic recovery. This current sentiment coming in the wake of a still huge national debt, a US$4 billion current account deficit, a not too marginal inflation rate of 19%, rampant poverty, ongoing corruption, dubious drug connections and policies, and political uncertainty.

In recent days, even the most laissez-faire of economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea have come under vigorous attack and pressure to defend their currencies and stock markets. All of Asia appear to be under intense scrutiny, and their economies have been buffeted by the relentless pounding of the ongoing winds of financial turmoil, change and uncertainty, potentially wrecking their hitherto customary calm!

Do we not smell a whiff of a conspiracy, a sniff of going for the jugular from some shadowy foreign economic plunderers? Perhaps, this was just an exercise to demythologize the so-called Asian miracle economies which have in the past decade posed such a tremendous competitive threat to those in the West.

And finally and unfortunately, as if to spite our own face by biting off one's nose, the third calamity was entirely self-inflicted by South East Asians. Slash burning and ruthless clearing schemes in Indonesian jungles have brought about the worst regional air pollution in history. The resulting haze knows no boundaries, and soon engulfed the entire region in a blanket of smog so thick that one of our states, Sarawak, had to declare a state of emergency.

This is compounded by the fact that this region is experiencing one of its worst drought in decades, perhaps aggravated by the most potent El Nino effect to date.

The horrendous scale of the disaster is of course extremely onerous on one nation, but Indonesia has to be more forthright in its dealings with the perpetrators of such irresponsible and negligent acts. Companies should be hauled up in court, and their owners even jailed and fined, so heavily, that it would be cheaper for them not to indulge in such nefarious activities. But this has to be tackled at source, with no ambivalence in action. That some 1.5 to 2 million hectares of forest and/or peat-land are still burning, bears testimony to the fact that we have not yet tackled the issue at hand.

The transboundary smog has already cast a nasty toll on lives and livelihood on many in the region. The longer term effects which might even be more sinister, have as yet not been quantified or measured.

In this issue of the Berita MMA, we highlight some of the important issues and pollutants and their potential health effects. But clearly, we would not be able to know just how big a health problem, this continuing haze will cause to Malaysians. We do indeed require vigilant monitoring of health trends and indices, so that we can learn from this debacle.

In the meantime, however, we will have to learn to breathe in air whose quality has deteriorated, with the potential to develop serious ailment in the future. With this ongoing haze, we will definitely be losing more of the tourist dollar, since they have been advised to avoid this region, altogether, notwithstanding that our lower currency might have made Malaysia cheaper as a destination.

How much more can we take these calamities, and for how long? How bad can our problems get? In truth we don't know, but we can only hope for the best, that the worst is over.

Perhaps, as Asians, we are too sentimental, too paranoid, even too xenophobic. Perhaps, like our outspoken Prime Minister, we rant too much .... But perhaps most importantly, we should be allowed our anger at this turn of events, to vent our frustration. We certainly cannot allow such events to repeatedly overtake us and bring us down to our knees. We have to stand up and be counted.

Of course, we should all strive to be more resilient and hardy. We should be able to weather these storms no matter that they might have shattered our erstwhile overconfident mindset. We should be shaken, but not too irrevocably stirred, to take remedial actions in this fast-changing world where the punishing reality of globalization has made a mockery of each and every nations' economic fundamentals or mistakes.

We would probably have to plug into a new era of extremely flexible and plastic potentialities, to keep abreast, and yet to depend on our own strengths and beliefs, to be ultimately a self-reliant nation or region.

/Oct 97

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