Singapore — Singapore is prepared to prosecute any Indonesian companies found responsible for the fires that produced hazardous ash clouds last year, a minister said, standing his ground even as recent efforts to take firms to account drew ire from the countrys largest Southeast Asian neighbor.
Under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act of 2014, Singapore has ordered six suppliers of Indonesias Asia Pulp and Paper Group to provide information on steps they are taking to prevent fires on their land, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said in an interview on June 7. APP, one of the worlds largest paper producers, didnt reply to e-mailed requests for comment, while its parent company didnt reply to calls for comment.
We are standing on high moral ground,” said Masagos. “We have the support of the international community. We are not doing anything criminal nor wrong. We are just asking for the companies and the directors to own up and be accountable for what theyve done.
The six companies have been told that Singapore has the right to bring their directors to court, and firms involved in haze-producing fires face fines of up to S$100,000 ($74,000) a day for every day of fire, the minister said.
Singapore, often among the worst hit by haze from forest fires that periodically envelope swathes of Southeast Asia for weeks at a time, enacted the 2014 law to address the pollution as Indonesia struggles to prevent the flares. Caused mainly by palm oil planters and pulp and paper companies using fire to clear peat swamp land in South Sumatra and Kalimantan, the haze has become a public health issue in Singapore, pushing the city-states Pollutant Standards Index to dangerously high levels at times.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, backed Singapores plans to wield heftier fines against overseas polluters as long as sovereignty is respected, before he took office in 2014. Last year, severe haze from fires in Indonesia caused Singapores three-hour index to peak at 316, near the 321 level reached in 2013.
The pollution forced Singapore to shut down schools and cost the economy an estimated S$700 million in 2015, Masagos said in March. Besides prompting school closures and disrupting sea and air travel in the region, the smog also forced some in Indonesia to flee their homes and cost Southeast Asias biggest economy $16.1 billion of losses, according to World Bank estimates.
Masagos, 53, a former minister of state at Singapores Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he doesnt believe that pressuring Indonesian companies to comply with Singapore laws will hinder bilateral relations with Indonesia.
We do respect Indonesias sovereignty, even their right not to divulge the information we have asked for,” he said. However, by doing that they give opacity, they give cover to these companies and indirectly encourage such acts to continue, and in the end their own industry can be affected.
Last month, Indonesias Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told an environmental news website that some joint collaborations with Singapore on forestry and haze issues could be terminated after a review. She made the comments days after Singapore issued a court warrant to detain an Indonesian company director who failed to appear for an interview with authorities in Singapore.
Singapore this week said it is offering assistance including aircraft to Indonesia to support its fire mitigation efforts, as it has every year since 2005.
Singapore is currently focused on its own legal approach, though if that doesnt work, the city state can look at international avenues, said Masagos when asked about other options. Malaysia is considering a similar law to Singapores on haze, he said.
According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute — which has worked with Google Inc. and forestry agencies in Indonesia to use satellite imaging to pinpoint and respond to wildfires — at the peak last year Indonesias daily emissions of pollutants were the same as the U.S. because of the haze and the fires.
Kotaro Tamura, an adjunct professor at Singapores Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that Singapore may find it hard to prosecute Indonesian companies and risks a backlash from its neighbor. In the end, both countries may find it easier to opt for arbitration by a third party such as the United Nations, or the International Court of Justice, he said.
Its tricky, the bilateral approach,” Tamura said. “I think he is just showing a strong intention, by going public, he said, referring to the Singapore minister.