Hazy days ahead – economic inconvenience, or diplomatic convenience?

By Howard Lee

The haze that enveloped Singapore for the past few days and caused an historical low in our air quality met with much anxiety from citizens. But distressing as it might be, this latest incident of our environmental woes with Indonesia will come to past, and is clearly not the biggest environment issue that we have to deal with.

Much has been said recently by our leaders on what can be done about the situation. ASEAN agreements, boycotting companies, name-and-shame efforts using satellite images – all cards are on the table, it seems, so something should work. Or should it?

What happens after a few days, weeks or even months, when PSI levels return to normal? Do we still worry about it, or return to our daily routines? “Business as usual” is Singapore’s trademark response to any crisis (make no mistake, this is a crisis, seeing the number of people walking around wearing masks), and nothing is more pressing to us than getting things back to normal.

The fact is, our haze situation has been constantly “getting back to normal” for the past two decades or so. This time every year, we get smothered in varying thickness of smog. Our government makes some noise, the level which directly co-relates to the PSI readings, and Indonesia pushes back for a while. Then the haze passes, and so do our worries. Until the next year, and the cycle resumes.

We fret because it affects our good sense(s) as much as our health, and these concerns are completely valid.

But we need to fret more than for the month or so, because it is not just about breathing in forest fumes once a year. We need to worry about the possibility that this problem could be forgotten at political convenience, the moment rancid air stopped filling our lungs, or at least for a while.

Why is it that after years of diplomatic battling, we are still facing this problem? What assurance do we have that when the dust has literally settled, it won’t happen again next year?

For that matter, has the dust really settled? We are affected by the haze because the wind blows it our way. Are we to believe that the fires do not burn any other time of the year? Is the annual fogging just a sign of a bad habit left unchecked for way too long?

Our Foreign Minister K Shanmugam has said that this is an issue complicated by geography and trans-national relations. He might have forgotten to mention that it is also complicated by political resolve and economic imperatives.

Any government hoping to keep investors and powerful local companies within their shores will find it difficult to impose direct sanctions on them. Recent history has taught us that wanton acts of environmental degradation were left unchecked because economic imperatives drive the agenda forward.

Take global warming, for instance. It is through online media that we hear about lobby groups made up of large corporate interests that benefit from the causes of global warming that have actively sought to downplay, discredit and  ridicule what has only recently been more widely accepted as valid science.

Indonesia is no small potato, too, in the world of international economics. Seen as the largest growing economy in Southeast Asia, it has turned from a borrower to a lender of the International Monetary Fund.

Hence, escalating this to an international platform might not do any good either.  The world is played with economic words, and Indonesia looks more attractive as a growing economy to woo, than a recalcitrant polluter to impose sanctions on.

This might suggest the background for the audacity of Indonesia’s minister Agung Laksono in calling Singapore a little child. It might also suggest why our Prime Minister did not respond directly – it goes beyond being gentlemanly, because a strongly worded diplomatic response can often be used to set the tone for action, or at least put things back in our perspective.

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution is technically the platform that can help us take this forward, but ASEAN’s usual refrain of not interfering in the internal affairs of member states leaves little confidence about its effectiveness. Again, Indonesia, the clear cause of our hazing woes, has not ratified this agreement, making it all the more useless.

What is most worrying is that Singapore haze task force, as much as its Indonesian counterpart, seem more intent at mitigating the current situation, rather than aim for long-term prevention of a problem that has plagued us for far too long.

We have been called children, so perhaps to share a child’s perspective on the issue:

“Daddy, why it is so smoky outside?”

“Oh, there is a forest burning somewhere…”

“Why are the firemen not putting it out?”

“Well, it is a very big forest, you know.”

“They need to drive the fire truck right into the forest, then they need a very strong water cannon, and then they can put out the fire!”

The logic of a four-year-old seems wrapped up in Lego, but it is at times intuitive for us. First, we need to be resolute in tacking the root of the problem, not just its symptoms. We then need to pull out all the stops, and bring the right tools to the table.

To effect long-term change that benefits us and the environment, we need political will, and a vision that has in its sight not just a change in wind or rain, but eradicating the problem for good through sustainable development.  It involves incentives and penalties, policies and policing. Mostly, it involves a focus on people, not economics.