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Singapore gets tougher laws to fight the haze

SINGAPORE — Slightly more than a year after the authorities here began — in the midst of the region’s worst bout of haze — exploring legal options against parties causing the smog, the landmark Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill was passed yesterday with unanimous support from the House.

SINGAPORE — Slightly more than a year after the authorities here began — in the midst of the region’s worst bout of haze — exploring legal options against parties causing the smog, the landmark Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill was passed yesterday with unanimous support from the House.

The new laws allow entities causing or contributing to unhealthy levels of haze here to be fined up to S$2 million. Victims who suffer illness or economic losses may also sue the culprits.

With procedures to be followed, such as assent from the President, the new laws are likely to take effect from next month or October, said a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Seven Members of Parliament (MPs) spoke during the debate yesterday, joining two others who had participated the previous day. They cited issues such as complex land rights and laws in Indonesia that could impede legal action against wrongdoers, stressing the importance of cooperation with Singapore’s neighbours.

Marine Parade GRC MP Fatimah Lateef asked if the National Environment Agency would have a team of trained negotiators to investigate and verify data, while Nominated MP Eugene Tan wanted the scope of the Bill to extend beyond smoke from land and forest fires to include air pollution from factories or fires on offshore rigs or gas pipelines that affect Singapore.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said the scope of the Bill was deliberately kept narrow as it was breaking new ground. “I’m a surgeon, I don’t like making large incisions. So let’s be targeted first, let’s get this surgical operation done, let’s see how this works before you start taking ... liberties,” said Dr Balakrishnan, a former eye surgeon.

Last June, amid record haze levels, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said he had directed the Attorney-General to look into actions Singapore could take. This set in motion the process that led to the drafting of the new legislation to bring to task firms whose activities overseas negatively affect Singapore’s environment and economy.

In response to MPs who felt the fines proposed were too low, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government wanted to be careful not to have unrealistic penalties for the new laws, but would review them after they take effect. He added that there is no cap to civil liabilities errant firms could face, “so that could potentially be a much higher sum” awarded by the courts.

On how extraterritorial provisions of the law could apply, Dr Balakrishnan said it would allow notice to be served on entities with no assets in Singapore when their officers enter the country.

“The National Environment Agency will work closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, so we will know when the person is in Singapore.” Prosecutors can seek court orders for individuals to remain in Singapore to assist with investigation.

On media reports in the past week that Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo had backed Singapore’s plans to impose heftier fines on polluters as long as Indonesia’s sovereignty is respected, Dr Balakrishnan said he welcomed the views of the incoming Indonesian administration.

The role of consumers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was also flagged by MPs such as NMP Faizah Jamal, who said consumers should reflect on their lifestyles and purchases that might be contributing to the problem. She and Associate Professor Tan urged the Government to procure goods and services from responsible sources.

Dr Balakrishnan said increasing product information available to consumers is something on which regulators and NGOs can collaborate. Non-governmental organisations have published concession maps and other data, he noted. “So, I think we need a full menu of options on the table. Not everything is best done through legislation or government action alone.”

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