Indonesia– Last year, the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) was instrumental in getting retailers here to stop selling products from firms believed to be behind Indonesia’s choking haze.
Ironically, the council’s former chief, Mr Jose Raymond, has now joined Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), the Indonesian company accused of being one of the biggest culprits – much to the surprise of green groups in Singapore.
But Mr Raymond, 44, who heads APP’s communications and stakeholder management efforts, has brushed aside any criticism of being a turncoat.
By joining APP, Indonesia’s largest paper and pulp firm which has been blacklisted for its alleged role in the haze-causing fires, he believes he can “help them move along their green journey, which they have already started on”.
“During my time at SEC, I worked with many companies, such as City Developments Limited and StarHub, all of which are renowned for their sustainability practices,” he said.
There are many things to learn from each of these companies, he told The Straits Times during a visit to one of APP’s pulpwood concessions in Riau, Indonesia, last week.
Mr Raymond had left the SEC in January last year to join the Singapore Sports Hub, but became APP’s vice-president of corporate affairs in Singapore last month. He said he decided to join the company as a challenge to himself and to change the public’s mindset about it.
During the haze crisis last September, APP was served a notice under Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to provide information on its subsidiaries and measures taken by its Indonesian suppliers to put out fires on concession lands.
The SEC, under the leadership of its new executive director Edwin Seah, also leapt into action. It took the unprecedented step of asking major retailers here to declare that they did not sell products from alleged haze culprits, including APP.
Supermarkets such as FairPrice and Giant pulled APP products off their shelves and there were calls for people to boycott APP products, which range from the Paseo brand of toilet rolls to the FairPrice brand of facial tissue.
Mr Raymond declined to comment on the council’s move but said that it “is and will remain a major stakeholder for the APP”.
In 2014, Mr Raymond had also called for strong deterrent action against companies which continue to “not just damage the environment with their slash-and-burn tactics, but whose actions are also a threat to human health and lives”, and said that Singapore would “do whatever we can to protect our rights to clean air, all year round”.
Mr Raymond insisted that his views on the haze have not changed, and that he has all along believed that APP was not to blame.
“If I ever had a doubt, I would not be on their team,” he said, adding that he had worked with APP since his time in the SEC.
“APP has had a ‘no burn’ policy in place since 1996 and it is important to understand the complexities of what’s happening on the ground when it comes to land governance, and why the haze occurs.”
On his new job, Mr Raymond said he has received nothing but support from friends and mentors.
“I won’t be too concerned about negative comments as long as my conscience is clear over my motivations behind taking up this role with APP,” he said.
The SEC declined to comment on Mr Raymond’s new appointment.
He said his first step is to build bridges with retailers, non-government groups including the SEC, the Singapore Government as well as academics.
“It is important for us to engage with them, to let them know about the journey that APP is taking, its forest-conservation policies, fire-management systems and the issues that APP faces on the ground,” he said.
He also hopes to get APP’s products back on retailers’ shelves as soon as possible.
He declined to give more details, saying: “Part of my role requires me to have intense stakeholder engagement across many levels.”
Environmental groups here expressed surprise at Mr Raymond’s new appointment, saying that it remains to be seen if he can help improve the situation.
Mr Tan Yi Han, president of volunteer group PM.Haze (People’s Movement to Stop Haze), said: “We trust that he will give the people of Singapore an answer soon as to the reasons for the widespread fires on APP’s suppliers’ concessions, the fate of the burnt land and why there is a new mill being built even as APP is unable to manage existing concessions properly.”
Professor Ang Peng Hwa, who co-founded the Haze Elimination Action Team volunteer group, said that given Mr Raymond’s work at SEC, it was “a little surprising” to hear that he had joined APP.
“We want the burning to stop,” he said. “If Jose can be allowed to play his part as a former environmental activist, that would be a major boost to setting plantations and concessions on the path of sustainable practices. And for us in Singapore, it would be literally a breath of fresh air.”
He noted that there have been companies that have turned around on health, safety and environmental issues.
“But like any academic, I will be awaiting the data,” he said.