On Friday, with the sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thurnberg as their icon, millions of young people massed in cities across the globe to protest against continuing apathy in the face of climate change (#climatestrike).
Interestingly the response in Southeast Asia was tepid at best (demonstrators in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur only numbered in the hundreds). Still, Malaysia and Indonesia both enveloped by the suffocating smoke from forest fires are at the forefront of this existential contest.
Given the scale of the disruption (a huge assault on our precious bio-diversity as well as our general health) where is the public anger and outrage? Indeed, who should be blamed? Governments, the all-powerful palm oil corporations or the smallholders and farmers?
Sadly, broad-based environmental awareness in the region is extremely limited.
Still, a handful of individuals, some of whom are celebrities are doing their best to change the situation and the actress, Maya Karin (the star of the box office hit and horror movie Munafik 2) is by far the most prominent and committed advocate.
Indeed, last weekend, just before she went to bed, the actress posted a tweet imploring Indonesian President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) to intervene in the haze - ending with a plea “shall we let greed prevail”?
Overnight, the message went viral. At the time of writing, it’s been retweeted 28,600 times.
Soon-to-be forty, the half-German, half-Malay “Scream Queen” turned “Green Queen” is a glamorous figure. Clutching her own (reusable) water bottle and sitting cross-legged in the sofa during an interview, she has a charming and youthful ‘hippie-chick’ vibe.
“I’ve always been a person that just goes with the flow. My career has never been planned. I never had any ambitions or particular aims to be a celebrity.”
Much of her activism has followed the same trajectory. The #MayaKarinChallenge, (of people submerging themselves in bodies of water and therefore drawing attention to the cleanliness and purity of Malaysian streams and rivers) which also went viral on social media, was a result of her spontaneously taking a selfie whilst lying in the river on a trip back from the Belum rainforest in Perak.
“It wasn’t planned! I took a selfie. And it so happened that a fan of mine decided to copy it. I thought it was quite funny so I retweeted it. The whole thing sort of exploded!” Which given her social media presence (Twitter: 1.4 million, Instagram: 950K and counting) is unsurprising.
Maya can also be firm when she needs to be.
“[Scientists and environmentalists] are so busy doing what they do, they don’t have the time to promote their work. Then, there are young people who do not know where to go. So, I am really hoping that I can be a link between the two and make them more productive.”
In the past few weeks, she has gone back to Belum for an animal conservation event, visited a community garden in Cheras and participated in river clean-ups.
And yet, she feels that the country can still be doing more for the environment.
“The challenge is still implementation. So, although the government and its officials talk about it, but 100% pure commitment is not there yet. I haven’t seen any politician take a stance on it.”
Maya confessed that her biggest fear is the destruction of Malaysia’s biodiversity in the name of profit.
She was particularly critical of the palm oil industry, arguing that:
“When we talk about palm oil plantations, the real winners are just a two or three people. It’s not something that the whole village or community benefits from.”
But why did she start caring?
Perhaps it was her upbringing: her German father and great-grandfather (who was a park ranger), instilled in her a love for forests and the environment in general. Maya’s father would often take her to the hills to collect blueberries and visit the rivers.
“Malaysia has this enormous biodiversity and so does Indonesia…we still have so much to protect and to cherish. We still have the chance.”
But what then, if we were to abandon palm oil? And hasn’t the damage already been done?
“I’m not in any position to say, whether we’ve gone over the edge or not. But I am in a position to say that we should be concerned, and we should look into it. I would like to have more professionals to do this.”
Aidil (who Tweets at @sunfloweraidil), a fellow environment enthusiast, explains: “Maya’s biggest strength is in her approach. She has a way of taking all these environmental concepts and saying it in such a way that the public understands. She makes environmentalism accessible.”
As Maya herself notes: “There’s only so much people can digest of environmental issues.”
Cynics may claim that celebrity activism trivialises. However, in Malaysia and Indonesia, we really need these high-profile voices to increase awareness and shape the debate - after all it is OUR forests that are burning.
At the same time plantation companies have been conspicuously silent during the onslaught of the haze.
They need to realise that silence is not golden.
Silence will not defend them because they are in real danger of losing the support of their home countries.
Finally, we need to decide whether the palm oil industry is part of our future or our past?
And if it is our future then we have to make sure that the industry serves the interests of the people and not the other way around.