Thinking Aloud

Asean needs to find better way to tackle the recurring haze

Countries in the region need to work collectively to take quick, decisive and sustained action to tackle the problem

As the Singapore Airlines plane came in for landing, I looked out of the window to take in the familiar view of the skyline.

I was returning home after a recent trip abroad and expected to see the ships at sea and the blocks of flats in the East Coast unfold before me as we approached Changi Airport.

The view I encountered instead was one that might induce sore eyes. The entire island was covered in a choking cloak of grey haze.

Minutes later, the pilot piped up to tell passengers not to be alarmed if anyone encountered a burning smell as the plane descended as it was likely to be the pollution in the air that has been afflicting Singapore and the region.

You could almost hear the collective groan of the planeload of Singaporeans and foreign visitors, so used to enjoying a clean, green and orderly city, at the thought of disembarking to face the haze that has fouled up the air for three months now because of the callous actions of the neighbours.

If Asean is serious about becoming a community... then its members should start behaving more like one, allowing for sovereignty to be pooled in some circumstances to tackle common challenges.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was also heading home, having cut short his visit to the United States after reports of the situation worsening back in his country.

He was right to be concerned, given how damning the numbers are:

  • 19 Indonesians have died of respiratory ailments.
  • More than 100,000 people in Sumatra and nearly half a million across Indonesia are suffering from respiratory ailments.
  • Some 25,000 schools across the archipelago have had to close for weeks, according to a front-page report in The Jakarta Post, which lamented that students had stayed away so long that "they had already forgotten their lessons, particularly in reading and writing".
  • By Indonesia's own reckoning, the haze could hit its economy to the tune of $47 billion, while its Asean neighbours are also likely to be hit hard through loss of business, tourists and cancelled events.
  • This year's forest fires in Indonesia - the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases which give rise to climate change - have so far produced roughly 1.35 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents, as much as what Japan produces in a year from burning fossil fuels, according to a recently published estimate. On some days in recent weeks, CO2 emissions from Indonesia's forest fires have even exceeded the entire amount of CO2 produced that day in the US or China.

Yet, Indonesian leaders continue to wring their hands over whether to declare the raging peat fires a national emergency. While President Joko and his team appear to be trying to get on top of the situation, one cannot help but feel that their efforts have been rather too little, too late.

By their own admission, the authorities in Jakarta failed to anticipate the extent of the dry spell this year and the scale of the operations needed to deal with the fires that flared up.

They have seemed to drag their feet in accepting help to deal with the situation, agreeing eventually to do so when the situation was clearly beyond their control.

Other Asean countries, which have been suffering from the effects, have had to keep lamenting the impact on their people and repeating their offers to do more to help. They have been hampered from doing very much, given the much vaunted "Asean Way" of dealing with regional issues, whereby member states do not intervene in each other's affairs, and avoid stoking controversy, in the name of upholding the principle of national sovereignty.

No doubt there are good political reasons why countries should respect each other's right to govern business within their own territories.

Yet, Asean members have pledged to forge an economic community by the end of the year, when there will be much trumpeting of shared economic interests and promises to work ever more closely together.

These will seem like so much empty talk to their citizens at home and observers abroad, given the group's reluctance and inability to take decisive action to tackle a recurring environmental problem that has clear economic roots and significant social costs.

If Asean is serious about becoming a community - even a limited economic one - then its members should start behaving more like one, allowing for sovereignty to be pooled in some circumstances to tackle common challenges.

Or, to put it more simply, when a fire breaks out in a house in a community, the notion that any member of the neighbourhood might be entitled to tell everyone else to back off, even if his actions threatened to burn their houses down as well, hardly seems particularly community spirited. Those living in the neighbourhood would naturally be expected to sound the alarm, call in the firefighters and chip in to help put out the fire.

This view is well set out in a soon-to-be-published book titled The Asean Way And Haze Mitigation At The Asean Level, by Malaysian academic Helena Varkkey, an abstract of which is available online.

In it, she details how vested elite interests within countries have led some member states to cling to the principle of national sovereignty and reject any pooling of sovereignty to tackle common challenges like the haze. The result is the recurring problem that has bedevilled the region for decades.

Clearly, Asean needs a new way to tackle such transborder issues. Some suggestions that Asean members might consider:

  • Set up a collective authority which would monitor potential haze situations and be empowered to respond to them quickly when they arise. Member countries should contribute resources to this effort, including personnel and funds to purchase tracking systems, and equipment to deal with fires. The authority should also lead efforts to research and promote more sustainable farming and land-clearing methods.
  • Singapore had, in April last year, offered its Asean partners the use of its command and control centre in Changi to help coordinate responses to natural disasters. There seems no reason why this should not include dealing with the annual haze.
  • Asean should tap the expertise of countries which have experience in tackling cross-border pollution and fires, such as the United States and Canada, as well as Australia, which has much experience in dealing with bushfires. These experts should be engaged before and during any outbreak of forest fires.
  • Work with international organisations such as the United Nations, or non-governmental groups like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, to develop environmental standards that Asean businesses and communities should be required to uphold.
  • Engage with the hundreds of delegates who are gathering in Singapore this week for the responsible business forum on sustainable development, which this newspaper is a media partner of. Participants are likely to raise many ideas and ground-up initiatives for more environmentally sound ways of operating, that Asean should support and embrace.

No doubt, some will baulk at these suggestions as being too ambitious, difficult or costly. After all, some cynical Indonesian politicians might say that all the hue and cry over hazy skies usually lasts just a month or so, only to fade inevitably away as soon as the air clears.

Yet, by shrinking from addressing the underlying causes of the haze in a decisive and sustained way, Asean leaders will consign their peoples to facing a lasting and recurring problem that will cloud the grouping's reputation and prospects.

Consider this: Scores of business leaders from America's top technology companies were invited last week to hear President Joko make a pitch for them to invest in Indonesia. Many, however, would have been bewildered by his no-show. Some might have filed a note to themselves, their colleagues or bosses that read something like this:

"Pity the President bailed. Rushed home to deal with fallout from reckless forest burning. In his place, officials spoke at length on economic investment, integration, closer collaboration and so on. Yet, Indonesia and its Asean partners have not been able to deal with this man-made problem that plagues their peoples year after year, despite pledging repeatedly to do so. Some say that's just the Asean Way. A case perhaps of much talk, and lots of hot air."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Asean needs to find better way to tackle the recurring haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe