The use of state legislation to deal with a multi-faceted, transnational scourge is often limited in application. This could be why the framers of Singapore's enabling law to act against perpetrators of haze pollution were careful not to raise expectations. Passage of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act by Parliament last week may have cumulative bite if more countries in the path of the pollutants adopted Singapore's approach, to complement the Asean-wide anti-haze agreement and tackle the problem as a regional effort. But national economic interest is a barrier as Indonesia and Malaysia - besides Singapore, to a smaller extent - are home to conglomerates with plantation interests in South- east Asia, mainly in oil palm cultivation.
Asean foreign ministers who met in Myanmar at the weekend urged Indonesia, the only holdout, to ratify the Asean pact which after a decade has scarcely lived up to its name. With President- elect Joko Widodo's administration soon to take charge in Jakarta, diplomatic efforts need to be stepped up to achieve compliance by the primary source country of the seasonal pollution. Only then could exchange of technical data like beneficial plantation ownership, forestry maps and satellite imagery of hot spots be used for purposes of containment and also prosecution.
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan disclosed to Parliament that Indonesian environmental officials had been invited to give their comment on the Singapore draft law. The goodwill and mutual concern evinced will smoothen collaboration on a matter which has direct impact on the state of public health and the economy of both countries. Indonesians have choked as badly on the haze as have Singaporeans, but the island state's smallness makes it a major social, economic and environmental concern.
Although the legal move is by necessity circumscribed as pursuing cases in a foreign jurisdiction is not the intention given the current scope, the effect is not to be underestimated, either. The Act empowers prosecutors to question representatives of suspected offending companies who happen to visit Singapore, even if these firms have no registered office or assets here. They may be charged if pollution attributed to their company's activity exceeded 100 on the Pollutant Standards Index for a full day or more. Companies and individuals acting in concert may also sue for damages. Offenders might think twice if lawsuits eventuate.
It remains to be seen if legal sanctions can exert a brake on recalcitrant polluters. But the true worth comes from the message put out to governments about Singapore's serious intent to help bring a persistent problem under control.