Sounding the alarm for collective action
The haze in Singapore is at a historic level, exceeding the worst seen back in 1997-98, and blankets the global city in a rancid shroud of grey. Neither is Malaysia spared; several parts of the Peninsula register unhealthy pollution readings.
Reports again point to land and palm oil plantation fires in Indonesia as the cause. The haze is a recurrent phenomenon and its return is greeted with a mix of anger and fatalism. People feel there has been plenty of time to fix the problem, so finger-pointing ensues — at Indonesia, the Singapore Government or palm oil plantations.
It is right to expect that regional governments should send the strongest political signal to address the situation. This is especially as the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting will take place next week, notwithstanding other items on the agenda such as ASEAN economic integration and tensions in the South China Sea.
In raising this issue, however, finger-pointing can be counterproductive — because, fundamentally, Indonesian cooperation is needed.
INDONESIA HAS INCENTIVES TO DO BETTER
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did the right thing when he raised the issue with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during their bilateral dialogue back in April. Other Singapore ministers — Dr Vivian Balakrishnan for the environment and Mr K Shanmugam at foreign affairs — have now contacted their counterparts.
Parts of the Indonesian establishment can respond positively. The bilateral relationship between the two countries is positive on many fronts. Indonesia has also taken up a high profile in leading ASEAN and will try to avoid tainting their growing reputation. In addition, Indonesian authorities need to act for the sake of their own citizens — the very worst of the haze afflicts the towns and peoples of Riau, which is nearest to the fires.
The global implications of the fires and haze for climate change are another dimension. The haze represents a huge spike in climate change gases that sends Indonesia into the uppermost bracket of worldwide polluters.