“The root cause of fires that produce transboundary haze is commercially driven,” said Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Masagos Zulkifli, reiterating the Singapore government’s position on the issue.
“We need to prevent these companies from starting fires, mismanaging land, and causing harm to people in the region,” the minister said in a Facebook post on Thursday.
Mr Masagos made the remarks after attending the 13th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment (AMME) and the 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Hanoi.
Explaining why the government here was taking action against companies and not against countries responsible for the haze, Mr Masagos said this was because “[we] have no interest to take friends to task, since they are doing their best.”
“I appreciated Indonesia’s efforts to bring these companies to task and reiterated our calls for Indonesia to share information on these companies to facilitate our effective enforcement of the THPA,” he said, referring to the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act which Singapore introduced in 2014.
“While I respect Indonesia’s sovereignty and understand that details under investigation cannot be shared, we look forward to receiving information that can be shared,” the minister said, adding, “The Ministers have agreed to share information.”
Such information, he explained, included names of the companies involved in perpetuating the annual hazard which has engulfed the region in recent weeks. Countries will also share information on the managers of these companies and the charges brought against them.
“Hope that all of us can work together to bring these recalcitrant companies to task,” Mr Masagos said. “These companies have been profiting at the expense of the well-being of others and should not go unpunished.”
In his speech at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, Mr Masagos also urged the regional grouping “to institutionalise the request for international haze assistance as a standard practice so that such assistance could be activated at the start of the dry season.”
He noted that Singapore was only able to deploy assistance in early October, nearly 2 months after the fires had started.
“From our deployment over two weeks, we managed to put out more than 50 hotspots,” Mr Masagos said. “If assistance is deployed sufficiently early, we could prevent the wide-spread proliferation of these fires.”
The ministers agreed with the suggestion, Mr Masagos said.
“There needs to be more cooperation to fight fires and enhanced bilateral and multi-national collaboration on this,” he added.
ASEAN has once again come under the spotlight in recent weeks after the haze situation worsened, affecting an unprecedented five out of ASEAN’s 10 member countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.
Southeast Asia's haze crisis “is symptomatic of the weakness” of ASEAN at a time when the grouping most needs cohesion,” said an article in the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday.
“The failure of ASEAN's agreement to curb haze pollution is a sober reminder of the organization's institutional limitations,” the news agency said, referring to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.
Last Sunday, Singapore urged ASEAN to “take firm and decisive action” to prevent the recurrence of the transboundary problem.
“The protracted haze situation this year is a reminder of the need for effective preventive action,” Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement, adding that the country was “committed to cooperating with Indonesia” on the matter.
The MFA said Singapore will work closely with other ASEAN countries to fully operationalise the ASEAN Haze Monitoring System, and other cooperative initiatives.
So far, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Civil Defence Force “have worked tirelessly in very difficult conditions to assist Indonesia in its fire-fighting efforts.”
“The Singapore Government has offered haze assistance packages to Indonesia since 2005, and our assistance this year is in line with what the Indonesian Government had requested,” the MFA said. “The deployment was a demonstration of Singapore’s commitment to work closely with Indonesia, and other affected countries, to address an annual problem which continues to affect Indonesia and many countries in the region, particularly the health and livelihoods of our peoples.”
On a positive note, Indonesia has agreed to jump-start the discussion of the Singapore-Indonesia MOU on Haze mitigation in Jambi in December, Mr Masagos said.
“This will go a long way in making the bilateral initiative and cooperation operational,” he explained. “Malaysia will be working on a similar MOU in Riau.”
Leaders of ASEAN will hold a summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 19. It is still unclear if the haze situation will be on the agenda for further discussion, but it is believed that member countries which are affected by the pollution will raise the issue.