Singapore to push for action at haze meeting

Top of agenda at Asean meet: Seeking accurate land concession maps

SINGAPORE will seek several concrete outcomes at an Asean haze meeting in Kuala Lumpur next week, and topping the agenda is an urgent push for Indonesia to provide official and accurate land concession maps.

These maps, combined with satellite technology, will be instrumental in holding companies or individuals who clear land illegally to account, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

"Without those maps, it's very difficult for me to point fingers... authoritatively, bearing in mind that these activities occur in another sovereign land."

Dr Balakrishnan, who was one of five ministers who addressed Parliament yesterday on the haze issue, will lead a delegation to Malaysia for the three-day meeting, which begins on Monday.

There, Singapore will also urge the other participating countries - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand - to agree on a date for launching a sub-regional haze monitoring system. It will help identify errant companies whose activities contributed to the air quality soaring to record hazardous levels last month.

The KL meeting will be the 15th time the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution is coming together. The group was formed in 2006 to help Indonesia combat the annual haze, which has dogged the region for years.

As the haze is not just an environmental problem, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore will also ask for high-level officials from all relevant agencies and ministries in the five countries to be involved in tackling the scourge. It will also urge Indonesia to renew a collaboration on fire prevention and sustainable farming practices, and to commit to ratifying an Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement as soon as possible.

Indonesia is the only Asean country yet to ratify the 2002 agreement, a point made by MPs like Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) yesterday.

At least 15 MPs asked about the haze, while various members of the House had tabled 30 questions for the session.

The extensive range of topics discussed over three hours included questions such as whether the Government could have done better in communicating with the public, and whether Singapore could impose criminal sanctions on errant companies.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed that the Government was looking at introducing extra-territorial laws to punish Singapore-linked firms if there was "credible and usable evidence". Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Minister, however stressed that the primary responsibility for taking action lies with Indonesia.

Tackling the haze through regional cooperation was a point raised by Dr Balakrishnan as well.

He expressed appreciation for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's commitment to tackling the haze, and added: "We need continued vigilance and we need decisive action by the Indonesian authorities to prevent another recurrence of the haze over the next two to three months."

But looking back, Dr Balakrishnan and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the haze brought out Singaporeans' resilience.

Dr Ng, who chairs an inter-ministerial committee on the haze, said Singapore needs two essential elements to withstand similar threats in future - trust between leaders and people, and care for each other. "The day we lose that trust, the day we stop caring... any crisis will be too big for us."