Singapore’s minister for the environment and water resources
is all fired up about the health of his nation
By Sacha Passi
Illustration by Victor Blanco
In March, Singaporeans could do little more than watch and wait as smog from forest fires, exacerbated by an ongoing dry spell, threatened a repeat of the toxic haze that engulfed the city-state in June last year.
Back then, smog that blanketed parts of Southeast Asia spiked the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to hazardous levels of above 400 points in Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
Recurring blazes designed to clear the way for palm-oil plantations on Indonesia’s Sumatra island have regularly sent plumes of smog across the region, not just recently but for decades, causing neighbouring states to grow impatient with Indonesia’s failure to take action.
“Singapore is at the mercy of haze pollution from neighbouring countries, chiefly Indonesia, each time plantations there resort to open burning to clear land,” said Yang Razali Kassim, a political scientist with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
“At least three of Indonesia’s immediate neighbours – Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei – have resorted to Asean-level diplomacy and moral suasion to deter plantation owners and workers in Indonesia from open burning – without much success.”
The severity of Singapore’s air pollution last year prompted its government to confront Indonesia about its forest fires.
“No country or corporation has the right to pollute air at the expense of Singaporeans’ health and well-being,” Vivian Balakrishnan, environment and water resources minister, told Al Jazeera in June.
Eight months later, the former medical professional announced a draft bill on trans-boundary haze pollution.
If the law is passed it will allow criminal charges as well as civilian claims against companies found to be causing haze pollution, regardless of their ownership and where they operate, and a maximum fine of SGD450,000 ($355,843).
“The minister has moved as fast as he could. Indeed, Singapore, being one country at the brunt of the haze, has moved as fast as Asean would allow because much of Singapore’s diplomacy has been at the Asean level,” said Kassim.
“But until the new law comes into effect, not much can be done if Indonesia, as a source of the haze, still does not ratify the overarching 2002 Asean Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution.”
Fifty-three-year-old Balakrishnan will meet other Asean environment ministers this month in Brunei to review the implementation and ratification of that agreement.
Although there are reasons to doubt that governments will address key issues decisively – Indonesia’s Riau province on Sumatra is the centre of the world’s largest palm-oil industry – in March, nearly 65% of lawmakers in the Indonesian parliament agreed to ratify the agreement.
The next step will see a draft bill being discussed, before the agreement is formally ratified in parliament, legally binding the country to cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor and mitigate cross-border pollution caused by forest fires.
Singapore’s resolve to address the haze issue shows its commitment to finding a solution to the enduring environmental hazard, but more needs to be done to solve the issue in a long-term, sustainable manner.
“Air pollution is a trans-boundary environmental issue, so it can only effectively be addressed with the involvement of all the stakeholders,” said Dr Alistair Cook, a research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
“This includes key people not only in the capitals and central government, but also those at the provincial level inside and outside of government and the enforcement authorities.”