The possibility of the dreaded haze returning to Singapore in the next few weeks or even months will concentrate minds on an environmental hazard to which the country and neighbours in the region have been subject to for no other reason than geography. Six provinces in Indonesia, including three close to Singapore, have declared a state of emergency to tackle land and forest fires as the dry season is set to peak this month. Areas in Malaysia, including Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Negeri Sembilan and Penang have already been affected by haze because of fires in Riau. Few would have forgotten the 2015 crisis when Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Thailand and Indonesia were covered with choking haze for more than a month. While the threat of widespread environmental depredation has abated since then, Singaporeans remember how badly their lives were affected as the country came under ecological siege. Forest fires, mainly in Kalimantan and Sumatra, raged for more than three months despite a multinational effort to put them out. Air pollution levels broke records, often staying at hazardous levels for weeks. It was clear then that matters could not continue as usual.
Commendably, Indonesia moved early to ensure that the haze does not become a new regional normal. The change in approach involved recognising that it was not sufficient to move against errant farmers and businesses to contain the effects of irresponsible slash-and-burn methods, but that the methods themselves would need to be altered. In that spirit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called on the authorities, including provincial governors, to help farmers acquire equipment such as excavators and tractors to ensure that they do not resort to the slash-and-burn clearing of plantation land. His warning that officials who fail to tackle the agricultural menace will be fired is a forceful reminder to those on the ground that fires causing the haze are not only a local issue but that they also cloud perceptions of Indonesia as a responsible nation that has the will and the capacity to control transboundary problems that emanate from within its borders.