KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia may have to pass a law forcing its companies to tackle fires on land they control abroad, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Wednesday (Sep 18), as forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia spread haze across the region.
The smoke, or haze as it is known, has been particularly bad over recent weeks, leading to accusations and angry responses among the neighbours.
Indonesia's Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Reuters last week that some of the fires in her country had been spotted on palm oil plantations operated by at least four subsidiaries of Malaysian companies.
Dr Mahathir said his government would call on the Malaysian companies to put out the fires.
"But of course, if we find that they are unwilling to take action, we may have to pass a law which will make them responsible for fires in their property, even if its outside of Malaysia," Dr Mahathir told reporters.
The Indonesian environment minister had also accused Malaysia of not being transparent about its own forest fires, saying the haze did not entirely originate from Indonesia.
In response to her remarks, Dr Mahathir said on Wednesday a map should be published showing satellite pictures of the hotspots.
Teresa Kok, Malaysia's minister in charge of palm oil, said last week any report of fires on land controlled by Malaysian companies was a "serious accusation".
Contacted last week, two of the companies identified by the Indonesian minister said they had small fires on their land but they had been extinguished.
Dr Mahathir said Malaysia has taken measures in tackling the effects of the haze, such as cloud seeding, "confining" people in houses and closing schools, but there is also a need to find new ways to reduce the haze.
"These measures, we have taken, but we need to find ways to reduce the haze on our own. I think cloud seeding is one of them but maybe also we need to spray water in certain places to bring down the amount of haze," he said.
Last week, Malaysia's Department of Environment imposed a ban on open burning in the whole country except for cremation, religious purposes, grilling/barbecue and flaring until the end of the monsoon period.
When asked if all schools should be closed up to Friday due to the haze, Dr Mahathir said that cannot be done because the Air Pollutant Index (API) differs according to location.
"We have to see the severity of the haze. It is not the same throughout the country," he explained.