Singapore targeting private firms linked to Indonesian fires, not national sovereignty

Residents in Palembang, South Sumatra province, were among the people who were worst hit when air pollution soared to record levels in October last year.
Residents in Palembang, South Sumatra province, were among the people who were worst hit when air pollution soared to record levels in October last year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ministry says use of transboundary haze law aimed at preventing recurrence of crisis

Singapore's move to go after companies linked to fires in Indonesia that led to last year's haze is not an issue of sovereignty or national dignity, said a Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) spokesman yesterday.

The ministry said its actions under the country's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) was aimed at deterring and prosecuting entities that are responsible for transboundary haze pollution.

"The THPA was drafted with advice from experts in international law and complies with international law," added the spokesman. "It is not directed at any individual nor company based on nationality."

 

MEWR was responding to comments in recent days by Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla as well as the country's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar about Singapore's decision to take court action against an Indonesian company director via the THPA.

Mr Kalla said that Singapore cannot take action against its citizens responsible for last year's forest fires, while Ms Siti accused the Republic of not exercising "mutual respect" by invoking the THPA.

She said the Asean agreement on transboundary haze pollution is a multilateral one, and not a bilateral pact between Singapore and Indonesia. As such, "Singapore cannot step further into Indonesia's legal domain", she added.

Ms Siti also said the THPA remains a "controversial" law that is still being debated among Asean officials from Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

That is why she feels that Singapore's action under the law against errant firms in her country is not a show of "mutual respect".

MEWR, however, said the key driver of the recurring transboundary haze is commercial. It said companies' blatant disregard for the environmental and social consequences of the haze, which affects millions of people in the region, should not go unchecked.

"The phenomenal amount of greenhouse gases also emitted during the burning of peatland will have a profound effect on climate change that the world is battling to slow," said the spokesman.

"This is therefore not an issue of sovereignty or national dignity."

The ministry emphasised that Singapore respects Indonesian sovereignty and it is for that very reason that Singapore has repeatedly requested local authorities to share information on companies suspected of illegal burning in Indonesia.

Fires burning on concession land owned by private companies are said to have caused the haze crisis which affected many countries in South-east Asia.

The smoke from fires last year sent air pollution to record levels, resulting in at least 19 deaths from haze-related illnesses and more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory infections.

The World Bank estimates that the fires and haze caused at least US$16 billion (S$21.7 billion) in economic losses for Indonesia alone.

Indonesian officials, however, do not expect a repeat of the crisis this year, though that may be due more to favourable weather than progress in addressing the underlying causes of the blazes, reported Bloomberg News yesterday.

Satellite imagery detected about 730 hot spots so far this year, down from more than 2,900 in the first six months of last year, according to government data.

Mr Raffles Panjaitan, the Environment and Forestry Ministry official tasked with overseeing fire prevention, said integrated fire patrol teams have been deployed in villages where forest fires are an annual occurrence.

"Normally forest fires are quite rampant in February and March, but there are no fires in villages where patrols are deployed," he said.

SEE OPINION

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore targeting private firms, not national sovereignty'. Print Edition | Subscribe