SINGAPORE (Bloomberg) - Singapore is prepared to prosecute any Indonesian companies found responsible for the fires that produced hazardous ash clouds afflicting the city state last year, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said, standing his ground even as recent efforts to take firms to account drew ire from Indonesia.
Under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act of 2014, Singapore has ordered six suppliers of Indonesia's Asia Pulp and Paper Groupto provide information on steps they are taking to prevent fires on their land, Masagos said in an interview on June 7.
APP, one of the world's largest paper producers, didn't reply to e-mailed requests for comment, while its parent company didn't reply to calls for comment.
"We are standing on high moral ground," said Masagos. "We have the support of the international community. We are not doing anything criminal nor wrong. We are just asking for the companies and the directors to own up and be accountable for what they've done."
The six companies have been told that Singapore has the right to bring their directors to court, and firms involved in haze-producing fires face fines of up to S$100,000 a day for every day of fire, the minister said.
Singapore, often among the worst hit by haze from forest fires that periodically envelope swathes of South-east Asia for weeks at a time, enacted the 2014 law to address the pollution as Indonesia struggles to prevent the flares.
Caused mainly by palm oil planters and pulp and paper companies using fire to clear peat swamp land in South Sumatra and Kalimantan, the haze has become a public health issue in Singapore, pushing the city-state's Pollutant Standards Index to dangerously high levels at times.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, backed Singapore's plans to wield heftier fines against overseas polluters as long as sovereignty is respected, before he took office in 2014.
Last year, severe haze from fires in Indonesia caused Singapore's three-hour index to peak at 316, near the 321 level reached in 2013.
The pollution forced Singapore to shut down schools and cost the economy an estimated S$700 million in 2015, Masagos said in March. Besides prompting school closures and disrupting sea and air travel in the region, the smog also forced some in Indonesia to flee their homes and cost South-east Asia's biggest economy US$16.1 billion (S$22 billion) of losses, according to World Bank estimates.
Masagos, 53, a former minister of state at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he doesn't believe that pressuring Indonesian companies to comply with Singapore laws will hinder bilateral relations with Indonesia.
"We do respect Indonesia's sovereignty, even their right not to divulge the information we have asked for," he said.
"However, by doing that they give opacity, they give cover to these companies and indirectly encourage such acts to continue, and in the end their own industry can be affected."
Last month, Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told an environmental news website that some joint collaborations with Singapore on forestry and haze issues could be terminated after a review.
She made the comments days after Singapore issued a court warrant to detain an Indonesian company director who failed to appear for an interview with authorities in Singapore.
Singapore this week said it is offering assistance including aircraft to Indonesia to support its fire mitigation efforts, as it has every year since 2005.
Backlash Risk Singapore is currently focused on its own legal approach, though if that doesn't work, the city state can look at international avenues, said Masagos when asked about other options.
Malaysia is considering a similar law to Singapore's on haze, he said.
According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute - which has worked with Google Inc. and forestry agencies in Indonesia to use satellite imaging to pinpoint and respond to wildfires - at the peak last year Indonesia's daily emissions of pollutants were the same as the US because of the haze and the fires.
Kotaro Tamura, an adjunct professor at Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that Singapore may find it hard to prosecute Indonesian companies and risks a backlash from its neighbour.
In the end, both countries may find it easier to opt for arbitration by a third party such as the United Nations, or the International Court of Justice, he said.
"It's tricky, the bilateral approach," Tamura said. "I think he is just showing a strong intention, by going public," he said, referring to the Singapore minister.