Last week, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg inspired millions of young people to gather in cities around the world to protest against apathy and inaction in the face of climate change. The response in Southeast Asia, however, was tepid at best: demonstrators in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur numbered in the hundreds, even as Indonesia and Malaysia endure suffocating smoke from forest fires. Given the scale of the disruption – an assault on biodiversity as well as people’s 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? Environmental awareness in the region remains limited. However, a handful of individuals are doing their best to change the situation and actress Maya Karin – the half-German, half-Malay “Scream Queen” turned “Green Queen” – has emerged as one of the most prominent and committed advocates. “I’ve always been a person that just goes with the flow,” she says. “My career has never been planned. I never had any ambitions or particular aims to be a celebrity.” Earlier this month, she spontaneously posted a tweet imploring Indonesian President Joko Widodo to intervene to address the toxic haze, asking “shall we let greed prevail?” Her message went viral. Much of her activism has followed the same trajectory. The #MayaKarinChallenge impels people to submerge themselves in water to draw attention to the purity of Malaysian streams and rivers. The social media challenge was born of her taking a selfie while lying in a river on a trip back from the Belum rainforest in Perak, which was shared with her 1.4 million Twitter followers and 950,000 fans on Instagram. “It wasn’t planned. I took a selfie,” she says. “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!” There is of course a serious undercurrent to her activism. “[Scientists and environmentalists] are so busy doing what they do, they don’t have the time to promote their work,” she says. “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.” She recently returned to Belum for an animal conservation event, visited a community garden in Cheras and participated in river clean-ups. She insists Indonesia must do more to protect the environment. “The challenge is still implementation,” she says. “So, although the government and its officials talk about it but 100 per cent pure commitment is not there yet. I haven’t seen any politician take a stance on it.” Karin’s most pressing concern is the destruction of biodiversity in the name of profit and she has singled out the palm oil industry for criticism. “When we talk about palm oil plantations, the real winners are just a two or three people,” she says. “It’s not something that the whole village or community benefits from. “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 if palm oil was abandoned altogether? 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,” she says. “ 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.” Cynics may claim that celebrity activism trivialises these important issues. However, in Malaysia and Indonesia, high-profile voices are needed to increase awareness and shape the debate. Plantation companies have been conspicuously silent as the haze has intensified. They need to realise that silence is not golden. It will not defend them – and they are in real danger of losing support in their home countries. We need to decide whether the palm oil industry is part of our future or our past. We must make sure the industry serves the interests of the people and not the other way around. Our future depends on it.