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Seeing Indonesia through the haze

There are reasons to be frustrated and angry about the haze pollution, caused by fires in Indonesian provinces. There are also reasons to question whether real action will be taken and can be effective.

Seeing Indonesia through the haze

President Joko Widodo has personally visited the worst affected areas. He sees the haze problem as an ‘economic crime’ that harms Indonesia and her people. Photo: AP

There are reasons to be frustrated and angry about the haze pollution, caused by fires in Indonesian provinces. There are also reasons to question whether real action will be taken and can be effective.

The problem is driven not by natural causes, but by man-made deforestation and land clearance for the expansion of palm oil, and pulp and paper plantations. Addressing the root of the problem is even more problematic because of uncertain land rights, corruption, decentralisation and conflicting rules. Powerful corporations are involved and while some have made pledges for greater transparency and sustainability, others remain opaque and uncommitted. Moreover, rather than consistent priority, there have been periods of inaction and statements by high-ranking Indonesian officials that play down the problem.

It would be easy to be cynical and last week, visiting Jakarta, I felt a sense of deja vu.

Back in 1998, I had gone to see the Indonesian government and their Minister for the Environment. Even after then-President Suharto had accepted moral responsibility, not enough was done. It did not seem to matter that Indonesians had suffered economic costs, estimated at some US$5 billion (S$7.06 billion) in terms of the fire damage, health costs and lost tourism. Today, a “Jakarta only” mindset persists. The fires and haze do not affect the capital where the rich and political elite live. The biggest companies have never faced prosecution. But, my meetings last week give some reasons to be encouraged.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has personally visited the worst affected areas, where the pollution is many times more than what neighbouring states suffer. He sees the problem as an “economic crime” that harms Indonesia and her people. An emergency has been declared and thousands of troops have been sent to help firefighting.

The serious intention shows in the Situation Room in the President’s Palace. The room is fully set up to provide real-time monitoring of the fires in Kalimantan and Riau, the worst-hit provinces. There is a team on hand to analyse the information and to gather reports from officials, as well as the community and NGOs on the ground.

The President’s Chief of Staff, Pak Teten Masduki, assures me that updates are given every day to the President personally, and he is anxious to move ahead. A list of companies has been named for investigation and possible prosecution, and the President has promised to solve the problem.

Is this too good to believe?


Mr Widodo was elected as “the people’s President”, the first person outside the Jakarta elite to take up the top office. He promised to change things to help the vast majority of Indonesian citizens and yet, near the first anniversary of his election, this has proved difficult. Opposition and differing factions within the governing party have slowed progress. A lack of coordination even among some ministers has created uncertainty.

A cabinet reshuffle has followed, with a change of the economic affairs team and in key positions closest to the President, including the chief of staff position that Pak Teten now occupies. The Joko Widodo administration is under pressure to prove it can be effective. In this context, the haze is not only an environmental issue, but a test of government capacity and will.

No one should be naive. The issues and interests behind the fires are complex and will not be resolved just by the word of one person, even the President. A full solution may well take three years, as Mr Widodo has said publicly. Indeed, some analysts reckon that to be a highly ambitious target. Some things can only be achieved in the longer term. One example is Indonesia’s One Map to authoritatively define ownership and approved uses of land concessions. Years of effort have been made, but much more needs to be done.

However, there are steps that can be taken more immediately if, indeed, greater and more focused efforts are being made by the administration.

First, beyond emergency fire-fighting, look to Mr Widodo to publicly set priorities and close any gaps in existing regulations.

For this, a presidential decree can set the agenda, and this can be done by the executive without facing parliamentary opposition.

A second sign is whether the Palace will, indeed, move to speedily investigate and prosecute Indonesian companies, including the larger ones. Such action would be unprecedented. Indonesian authorities should also share information about any Singapore-based companies so that prosecutions can proceed in the Singaporean courts.

Thirdly, Mr Widodo yesterday said that he had asked neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore and even Russia and Japan for help to put out the haze-causing fires, a departure from Indonesia’s past stance of turning down offers for assistance.

This is a good sign and Mr Widodo should take leadership on the transboundary haze issue next month when leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as major powers of the region will meet.

The problem is complex and has persisted, tragically, and for too long. Fundamentally, the “Jakarta only” mindset must change so that it is understood that the fires and haze, first and foremost, affect Indonesia, her people and her economy.

Much needs to be done and can be. But, much depends on Indonesia and Mr Widodo being willing and able to take the lead, with real action. If concrete steps are taken, all should put aside anger and cynicism — not only to applaud, but to lend full support.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which is holding a public exhibition on the causes of the fires and haze from October 16 - 18 at NEX shopping mall in Serangoon.

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