The star-crossed reality of the times is that while great environmental challenges know no boundaries, these are often dealt with on territorial terms, couched in the language of nationalism. That, unfortunately, has been the fate of the region as it grapples with a scourge that has bedevilled it for over 40 years: man-made forest fires. The gagging smoke created periodically brought life in cities and provinces alike to a standstill, causing ill health and even death. While tensions have arisen over misplaced concerns of sovereignty, there have also been efforts to cooperate, which led to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze in 2002. That was formally ratified by Indonesia only 17 months ago, as it was tied up by unresolved issues like illegal logging.
Over the decades, the path of environmental diplomacy has been anything but smooth. When a Singapore official raised the haze issue at a United Nations meeting on sustainable development in 2006 to seek international assistance, Jakarta's stand was that there was no need to go to the UN. The previous Indonesian president, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to his great credit, had offered statesman-like apologies for the haze; and Asean has from time to time emphasised the need for more consultation and cooperation. The present President Joko Widodo has gone further in showing his determination to put an end to the yearly blight on the region, visiting sites of the fires and personally overseeing efforts to put matters right.
Alongside these, there have been tetchy reactions when calls surface for more action to deal with haze. The latest being the sudden announcement by an Indonesian minister that a review is now under way on all bilateral cooperation with Singapore in environment and forestry matters. Addressing the need to cultivate "a new mindset", two recent commentaries - first appearing in Indonesian newspapers Jakarta Globe and Kompas - urged Jakarta to put in perspective Singapore's efforts to investigate an Indonesian businessman in connection with last year's devastating fires. One observer commented that it was wrong to surface "issues of national pride" and a "derogation of sovereignty" in this regard, as those culpable must be brought to book. Another felt that Indonesia's diplomatic "strategy must be capable of balancing a variety of dynamic interests in the Asean environment".
Singapore's position has long been that of taking a constructive approach to a problem that affects millions in the region - and especially citizens of Indonesia itself - and of viewing bilateral relationships from a long-term perspective. Much more is to be gained from joining forces to address the underlying causes of a problem that tarnishes the reputation of Indonesia, and the region, among tourists and investors alike.