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Indonesia ‘making progress’ on tackling haze

SINGAPORE — Despite a sharp exchange of words between leaders from Indonesia and Singapore over the haze situation, the Republic’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said today (Sept 29) following a two-day working visit to the country that he was assured that progress is being made in Indonesia to deal with the problem, which has caused suffering to its people.

SINGAPORE — Despite a sharp exchange of words between leaders from Indonesia and Singapore over the haze situation, the Republic’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said today (Sept 29) following a two-day working visit to the country that he was assured that progress is being made in Indonesia to deal with the problem, which has caused suffering to its people.

As Singapore continues to be shrouded in smog — the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PS) level was in the “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” ranges for most of today — Indonesia’s disaster management agency said that more than 135,000 Indonesians were reported to be suffering from respiratory diseases. The country has sent almost 21,000 personnel to fight forest fires raging in its northern islands but the situation remains dire, prompting Riau province acting governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman to extend a state of emergency for another 14 days.

During his trip to Indonesia, Dr Ng held meetings with Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan and Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu. Among other topics, they discussed the haze situation.

Speaking to Singapore media at the end of his visit, Dr Ng stressed that it was “more productive to deal with the problem, the haze, than with the words”. Dr Ng said the two Indonesian leaders whom he met were motivated to resolve the problem because of the impact on their citizens’ health. “General Luhut described how they went to Kalimantan and the PSI there on some days had even exceeded 1,000. They fully recognise that the tourist industry is being affected; planes are grounded if not diverted,” said Dr Ng. “But more importantly, the health of Indonesians – they are subjected to these conditions and are affected... So to me, that was a very good starting point — that they wanted to resolve the haze problem for their own citizens.”

The Indonesian leaders also understood that the haze was an “engineering problem” that has to be prevented, instead of being reacted to, Dr Ng said. “The prevention of haze requires engineering solutions to stop... forest fires before they occur, as well as enforcing legislation to stop errant companies that are resorting to slash-and-burn techniques for commercial reasons. But I think the realisation that it is better to prevent fires than it is to put it out, if followed through, gives us a bigger greater chance that it will be solved.”

Dr Ng said he was also assured by the fact that Gen Luhhut was willing to work with non-governmental organisations. “The more they open up – not only to Singapore, but to other countries to help deal with this regional issue, whether it is in ASEAN or international countries – I think the better, as quicker solutions will be found,” he said.

Dr Ng reiterated that the haze is a “chronic health issue” that affect tens of thousands, or even millions of people in the region.

“So it will have to be dealt with and I am reassured that (Indonesian President Joko Widodo) is personally taking note of the issues,” he said.

In the past week, Mr Widodo had gone to Borneo and Sumatra islands to check on efforts to stop the forest blazes. He had set a deadline of two weeks to a month to stop the burning.

Dr Ng said that “every (Indonesian) leader” whom he spoke to understood the negative impact of the haze on not only Indonesia but the region as well. Noting that travellers would give South-east Asia a miss during periods of haze, he said: “(The Indonesian leaders) recognise that if this continues over a long period, jobs will be lost, the economy will suffer... If somebody put a cost to it, it would amount to enormous opportunity cost and ultimately, the loss of not only the health but livelihoods.”

During his meetings with the Indonesian leaders, Dr Ng reiterated Singapore’s offer of an assistance package that includes a C-130 aircraft for cloud-seeding operations, a Chinook helicopter with a water bucket for aerial fire-fighting, and up to two C-130 aircraft to ferry the Singapore Civil Defence Force fire-fighting assistance team. “Whether it is adequate or not, it is up to them to decide...The Singapore Armed Forces is always open to considering offering more help,” Dr Ng said.

Indonesia has rejected Singapore’s offer for help several times, with its Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar saying that the assets being offered were not enough. Dr Siti also raised concerns yesterday about the assessment team the Republic is offering to send.

Dr Ng said: “As with all assistance that we have offered in situations like this, we have been very clear that we go into this region fully respecting the sovereignty of the host nation. And that we cannot act in a manner that infringes on their sovereignty, and command and control.”

Separately, Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he was “more than willing” to help Indonesia tackle the forest fires, and cautioned that bilateral relations could be affected if the situation continues. “If you let it drag, simple things like fighting haze can become something that will affect bilateral ties,” said Mr Hishammuddin, stressing that a regional effort was needed to address the problem. WITH AGENCIES

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