OPINION: Chandran Nair is the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent think tank that focuses on political, social and economic issues from an Asian perspective. He believes the region must jointly tackle the haze
Why has Asean been so slow to act on the haze problem?
It’s to do with the incoherence of Asean as a body of nations to deal with problems. Much of its agenda is based around simple definitions of creating economic cooperation without really understanding that this requires long, visionary approaches to maintaining the vitality of society and resources. And Asean’s weakness is its attitude of ‘let’s not confront any of our members if there’s a problem’. It thinks that dealing with this would require confrontation with Indonesia.
Do you think the haze is an issue that will force Asean to think in broader terms?
Asean has a very narrow definition of what economic activity and economic costs are. To them, economic activity is all about trade, but there’s no understanding of the exponalities [natural cycles that have no value] of economic development. This is a very dangerous oversimplification of economic progress. But you can’t just blame Asean for that. Most trading pacts are built around the primary purpose of economic growth, which is extraction, exploitation and externalisation of costs. We have economists and policymakers who are all one-dimensional and trapped in a very narrow definition of what economics is and what regional cooperation should be. I would argue that the fires are the number one economic challenge and basis for regional cooperation in Asean.
If Asean were to get it together, what could it do to assist Indonesia?
Asean needs to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ I call for imposition of martial law, not in terms of military rule, but in the sense that we have a catastrophe and the only way to stop it is to mobilise the forces at our disposal. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are not fighting any wars, so send some troops there and get the situation under control. I also call for the setting up of a resource fund to look at a 30-year plan to reflood and reforest [degraded peatland areas]. Thirdly, I call for real-time maps, so that every square kilometre is mapped and we can track illegal activity. The fourth thing I call for is a regional environmental court to go after culprits. I call for these things and not some temporary strategy for fighting the haze that is piecemeal and doesn’t go anywhere.
What can other bodies, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) do?
The ADB and World Bank could be key players in a regional fund that looks at restructuring the agricultural industry. I’ve asked for sovereign wealth funds such as Temasek and Khazanah Nasional to come together and decide what to do. Instead we have silly ideas, such as renewable energy funds, which are all about making money. So here we would be using sovereign wealth funds to do what they are supposed to do, which is to protect the interests of citizens.
Can Indonesia tackle its toxic haze? – A record amount of poisonous smoke is billowing into the region’s atmosphere as a result of fires in Indonesia. The hazardous haze is likely to keep returning year after year, unless Jakarta finds the political will to deal with the causes