Parliament: New law passed to combat haze

People taking in the view along the Sentosa bridge at 6pm on June 19, 2013, unfazed by the haze. The penalties in a new law to combat haze could rise if future reviews find them insufficient, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian
People taking in the view along the Sentosa bridge at 6pm on June 19, 2013, unfazed by the haze. The penalties in a new law to combat haze could rise if future reviews find them insufficient, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Tuesday, Aug 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The penalties in a new law to combat haze could rise if future reviews find them insufficient, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Tuesday.

Penalties and the practicality of enforcing a Singapore law on firms overseas, among other things, were debated in Parliament before the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was passed.

The Act targets companies and other entities which either cause or condone fires that lead to unhealthy levels of haze here.

It garnered unanimous support from Members of Parliament across party lines.

In all, nine MPs, Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated Members of Parliament spoke on the Bill over two days. They broadly agreed that penalties, which are up to $100,000 per day of unhealthy haze and go up to $2 milion, were too low compared to the size of firms' profits and the harm caused by haze.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said: "This is new legislation. We don't know yet how this will work in practice. We want to be very careful that we don't over-reach or have unrealistic penalties. So we'll start now at this level."

He said the state will review the Act and assess whether it has sufficient deterrence after it comes into effect.

A round of public consultation on the draft law earlier this year had resulted in the penalties being raised to a $2 million cap from the maximum of $300,000 originally proposed.

Dr Balakrishnan said the law also allows people or companies to sue haze culprits with no set limit on amount of damages. Rather, the court can decide in each case.

MPs also asked how the law will be enforced, especially if companies are based overseas.

Firms' representatives can be served notice when they are in Singapore, Dr Balakrishnan said, and the National Environment Agency will work closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to do so. "Where necessary, the Public Prosecutor could apply for a court order to require the person to remain in Singapore to assist in investigations," he added.

But the new law is not a "silver bullet", he said. Consumer interest groups and non-government organisations can help too by tracking agricultural supply chains and monitoring the fire situation on the ground.

Singapore and Malaysia have been blanketed from time to time by smoke haze, caused by fires set to clear land for agriculture in Indonesia. Last year, fires in Indonesia resulted in Singapore's worst-ever spell of haze.