Singapore wants to partner Indonesia in dealing with errant firms involved in haze crisis

Thick smoke from a forest fire in Leuser National Park, in Aceh province, due to villagers opening the forest area for farming, on April 13, 2016.
Thick smoke from a forest fire in Leuser National Park, in Aceh province, due to villagers opening the forest area for farming, on April 13, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Singapore wants to partner Indonesia, instead of working against it, in bringing to justice errant companies that contributed to last year's haze crisis , said Ambassador Anil Kumar.

"At this stage we are still focused on working with the Indonesian government to go against these companies," said Mr Anil, Singapore's top envoy in Jakarta.

He was referring to Singapore's use of its Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) to go after plantation operators behind illegal forest fires in Indonesia.

The move has been a sore point in relations between the two countries and it came to a head in May when Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) obtained a court warrant against the director of an Indonesian firm linked to fires that caused the haze last year.

Indonesia has ignored Singapore's request for information on the firm as well as other errant companies that it needs to act against the plantation firms.

Such information, however, can also be secured by the authorities from other sources as well as from non-governmental-organisations, said Mr Anil in a video posted online by the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta on Monday (July 4).

"We could go that way as well but at the end of the day, this is part of a legal process," he said. "We want to be working with the Indonesian government to get the evidence that we need to take action against these errant companies, so we prefer to work with the Indonesian government on that score rather than to be seen to be working against the Indonesian government, that is not our objective."

Mr Anil, who was speaking during an interview with Agence France-Presse last week, also said that the haze does not just affect the two countries and "the last thing we want is to treat this as a bilateral issue with Indonesia".

"It is not a bilateral problem with Indonesia because the people who are affected mostly, deeply are the Indonesians themselves, as well as Singaporeans and others in the region," he added. "So we have a common interest to work together to solve this problem and that's what we are trying to do."

Thick smoke from raging forest fires in Indonesia, which was worsened by an unusually dry spell last year, had spread across many parts of South-east Asia, leading to record levels of air pollution in the region.

All eyes will be on Indonesia to see if it has enough resolve to prevent a repeat of the disaster, although some climatologists do not expect the haze this year to be as bad as that last year - with dry El Nino conditions subsiding, followed by the wetter La Nina season.

Despite a more favourable weather forecast, "now is not the time to take our eye off the ball," said Mr Anil.

"On the contrary, if this year is not going to be as bad as last year, hopefully that would mean we are on better grounds to work together, to try and try to deal with some of these root causes of the problem."

He added that there is no question that Indonesian President Joko Widodo is committed to putting an end to the haze problem.

"I recall that even when he was still President-elect, before he took up office, he did talk about the haze issue... and he made it very clear that one of his task as president would be to systemically work towards eradicating this problem," said Mr Anil.

"Having said that, there is still a lot that all of us can do together, and this is where Singapore is hoping to do more together with Indonesia to systematically work towards an end to this problem."

Mr Anil also commented on the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a pact aimed at preventing the haze, that was signed between member states of the South-east Asian bloc.

He said whether the multilateral agreement succeeds was down to the ability of the member states to work together but "for a variety of reasons, progress has been slower than what we had hoped for".

"That is not to say that we give up on the agreement, that is not to say that we think it is useless," said Mr Anil.

"But what it shows is that we will continue to work on the Asean track, but at the same time we can undertake other initiatives bilaterally and even internationally to try to work towards a solution to this problem."

tkchan@sph.com.sg