The Straits Times says

Haze a blight on Indonesia's standing

Indonesia and the region must be prepared, both materially and psychologically, for a possible worsening of the haze situation, given both the persistence of burning practices and the blight of climate change. In 2013, a record Pollutant Standards Index reading of 401 in Singapore elicited gasps of environmental disbelief even from those who had come to accept the recurrent problem as a sad fact of regional life. For now, the situation is not as bad as it was then. But what if it gets worse?

A range of ameliorative measures taken to regulate exposure to the harmful effects of the haze included the donning of masks and curtailing of outdoor activities. Schools, companies, clinics, the People's Association and the Singapore Armed Forces have ramped up efforts to protect citizens from the enveloping menace.

In neighbouring countries, too, there is reinforcement of personal and institutional efforts to ensure that the haze does not cause a crisis of confidence among citizens. The stark truth is that entire towns and cities are being rendered unliveable. Airport operations are disrupted and commerce to the tune of billions of dollars is affected, including international outdoor events planned painstakingly beforehand. Investors are seeing that, whatever else Indonesia promises to attract them, there are some things that are simply beyond Jakarta's control. What's worse is that this is affecting the business operating environment of its neighbours as well.

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla's infamous retort to haze critics ("for 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us") might be symptomatic of wider inertia in his country. Creditably, Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan is pushing for deterrent punishment for recalcitrant firms behind the forest fires. That tougher stance ought to permeate down the structures of Indonesia's splintered politics and corrupt bureaucracy.

Another reason for urgency is that the environment is closing in on humankind - witness the current El Nino phenomenon, which is set to extend into the next year. Climate change bringing hotter temperatures and prolonged periods of drought can spark uncontrollable forest fires. Consider the plight of the United States which is now enduring one of the worst fire seasons in recent history.

Awakening to the peril of the haze, Indonesia should rigorously tackle the criminal avarice of habitual exploiters of nature. Poor law enforcement, outdated land-use rules, weak corporate governance, blinkered financing practices and end-user indifference all contribute to the seasonal burning which will ultimately hurt everyone. Through the haze, one must see that all are going down a dead-end street.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2015, with the headline 'Haze a blight on Indonesia's standing'. Print Edition | Subscribe