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S’pore leaders want firms causing haze to be named

SINGAPORE — As the air quality in the Republic hovered around unhealthy levels yesterday — a day after the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading hit a record high since 1997 — both Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam called on the Indonesian authorities to name corporations responsible for the fires.

SINGAPORE — As the air quality in the Republic hovered around unhealthy levels yesterday — a day after the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading hit a record high since 1997 — both Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam called on the Indonesian authorities to name corporations responsible for the fires.

But the suggestion, which Dr Balakrishnan had also posted on Facebook, was promptly pushed back by senior Indonesian government official Sony Partono, who was quoted by Reuters as saying “foreign parties should not be interfering with our domestic affairs”.

Mr Partono added: “The most important thing is that we have attempted to control the damage resulting from the forest fires” and fire trucks had been despatched to affected areas.

The haze, which has also enveloped Malaysia, continued to shroud the Singapore skyline yesterday, with the PSI reaching as high as 134 at midnight. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a photo taken from the Istana on Facebook, with the cityscape “barely visible”.

He added that Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam have registered Singapore’s “serious concerns” and offered Indonesia help to fight the fires.

“We are all affected by the haze,” said Mr Lee. “Farmers and plantation owners in Sumatra are burning crops to clear land in the dry season, and unfortunately the winds are blowing the smoke all the way to Singapore.”

In a joint statement, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa “offered their assurances that Indonesia would address the haze problem”.

The statement added that both Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam had, in their conversations with their Indonesian counterparts, referred to the claim by Indonesian Forestry Ministry official Hadi Daryanto — which was reported in the media — that Malaysian and Singaporean palm oil companies investing in Indonesia may be responsible for starting the fires in Sumatra’s Riau province.

“(The ministers) asked Indonesia to share the names of errant companies involved in illegal burning, though primary responsibility to take legal and enforcement actions against these companies lies with Indonesia as they have clearly violated Indonesian laws within Indonesian jurisdiction,” the statement added.

Writing on Facebook, Dr Balakrishnan added that “we need to exert commercial pressure against companies causing the haze”. He also said that Singapore is waiting for Indonesia to publish concession maps which, combined with satellite images, would “enable us to pinpoint the errant companies”.

The 24-hour PSI reading at 4pm ranged from 112 to 123 for various parts of Singapore, while the PM2.5, which measures levels of fine particulate matter, was 149 to 169 microgrammes per cubic metre — concentrations prompting advice to those with heart or lung disease, as well as children and older adults, to avoid all physical activity. The National Environment Agency reported 187 hotspots detected in Sumatra yesterday, up from 113 detected on Monday.

Supporting the suggestion to name errant companies, Singapore Environment Council Executive Director Jose Raymond and Tampines GRC Member of Parliament Irene Ng said consumers could boycott products of these firms. Mr Raymond said consumers “should demand that the names of the business owners be made public” to show collective displeasure at their conduct, and “perhaps this will force them to change the way they operate”.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said the “answer to the problem” lies with the Indonesian authorities. “The ball is not in our court and we can only hope that more will be done to discourage the burning of the forest,” she said.

Some observers had suggested last year for Singapore’s pollution laws to apply to all polluters, wherever they may be located.

But Singapore Institute of International Affairs Executive Director Nicholas Fang pointed out that the Singapore authorities would need to be present on the ground to monitor the companies’ activities. Satellite technology “does not negate the need for on-the-ground surveillance, as solid evidence will be needed if offending companies are to be taken to task”, he said.

Singapore can do more to engage Indonesian provincial authorities, as it did previously in Sumatra’s Jambi province, said Mr Fang.

Meanwhile, two corporations here with palm oil plantations in Indonesia reiterated that they have a zero-burning policy.

A Golden Agri-Resources spokesperson said the company and its subsidiary PT SMART Tbk use only mechanical means such as excavators and bulldozers in land preparation and step up fire surveillance patrols during dry months.

A Wilmar International spokesperson said that, while it is committed to zero-burning, “we cannot prevent local practices of slash-and-burn for agricultural and other purposes”. “This may lead to high incidences of uncontrolled fires which inevitably spread over to our plantations. To minimise the impact of fire and haze in our operations and surrounding environment, we have a fire management programme that is based on principles of prevention and suppression,” she added.

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