MFA seeks answers from Jakarta to conflicting views on whether Singapore firms caused haze

THE Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) yesterday conveyed a diplomatic note to Indonesia's ambassador here on the haze issue, raising questions and concerns about the alleged involvement of Singapore-linked companies in the Sumatra fires.

The note to Mr Andri Hadi sought clarification on statements by Indonesian ministers and officials on Singapore-linked companies said to have a part in illegal land-clearing practices, and asked Indonesia to share evidence of involvement by any Singapore firms. Itwas signed by MFA Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong, and follows similar comments made by Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at the weekend.

In a press statement, MFA noted that Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of Indonesia's presidential working unit for development supervision and control, had reportedly said many hot spots were on land owned by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited.

Both companies have offices in Singapore. However, Indonesia's Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan was quoted as saying that there was "no strong evidence" against these companies.

Mr Kuntoro's remarks, MFA added, also contradicted comments by Indonesia's Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to his Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan at a meeting last Friday. He had informed Dr Balakrishnan that "no Singapore companies were involved in illegal land clearing practices".

MFA also said that if there was credible evidence that Singapore-owned companies or companies operating here were involved, the Government intended to take further steps against them. However, Mr Chee told the ambassador that the primary responsibility for legal and enforcement action lay with Indonesia, where the firms were allegedly conducting these illegal activities.

He also said it was important to focus on dealing with the haze rather than engaging in "megaphone diplomacy" that was "neither helpful nor constructive".

He took exception to comments from Indonesia's Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Jero Wacik who said that Singapore was not a good neighbour, and that Singapore had benefited from gas supply and tourist arrivals from Indonesia.

Mr Hadi said he would convey Mr Chee's points to his government. He added that it was important for both sides to keep the lines of communication open, and that dialogue and cooperation was the way forward.

Separately, Mr Shanmugam, responding to a media question on whether he knew if Sinar Mas or Golden Agri-Resources contributed to burning activities based on his past experience with them, said he could not speak for them as he left the boards of both firms over a decade ago.

Golden Agri and APP are the palm oil and paper and pulp arms of Sinar Mas, and all three are allegedly involved in slash-and- burn farming in Riau, though they have denied the charges.

Mr Shanmugam said: "I left the board more than 11 years ago. I can't speak for them. We will await the evidence and will act based on evidence, as advised by the Attorney-General's Chambers. My involvement with Sinar Mas started with a request from SGX and is a matter of public record."

A lawyer known for his expertise in securities laws, Mr Shanmugam's links with the firms started in 1996 when he was asked by the then Stock Exchange of Singapore to become a director of an insolvent firm, Amcol.

He handled its affairs together with a judicial manager, and arranged for the firm to be bought via a reverse takeover. The white knight was Sinar Mas, and Amcol was renamed Asia Food & Properties (AFP).

He continued as an independent director of AFP at the request of Sinar Mas, and was also appointed an independent director of Golden Agri - an AFP subsidiary - in 1999. He stepped down from both boards in 2001, and has never held any shares in the firms.