Sumatra's land-clearing fires ignite Singaporean fury

Sumatra's land-clearing fires ignite Singaporean fury

I lived in Singapore for almost 10 years, from late 2002 to early 2012. Throughout my stay, haze pollution became one of the main health issues facing the city state. This month, the threatening haze has returned. And this time it has managed to break its own record, reaching the hazardous PSI (pollutant standards index) level of 401 at 12 pm on Friday. This is the highest level of haze ever in Singapore.

The Singapore government has come under extreme pressure from unhappy, and somewhat scared, citizens. Air pollution at such levels could possibly impact on the respiratory system. While the government has issued a statement calling for Singaporeans to stay home, as well as distributing face masks, many feel that a strong protest is needed against Indonesia.

For years, farmers on Indonesia's Sumatra have used the method of slash-and-burn to clear their land, instead of relying on the more expensive and inconvenient mechanical approach of using excavators and bulldozers. This method generates forest fires and thus smoke haze brought to Singapore by the wind. Singapore has repeatedly been at the receiving end of the pollution which at times stirs up public panic and fear.

Indonesia has shown a certain willingness to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, the root of the issue has never been dealt with. On Friday, as Singapore expressed its frustration against Indonesia, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the dispatch of two helicopters to create artificial rain in a desperate bid to fight raging fires. Its national disaster agency announced that these helicopters with cloud-seeding equipment were to be sent from Jakarta and Borneo Island to Riau province, where hundreds of hectares of carbon-rich peatland are ablaze.

The next step could be to dispatch water-bombing helicopters to help extinguish the fires. Yet, no timeframe has been set as to when they would be sent. Firefighters on the ground have struggled to put out the fires which have been burning under the surface of the peat.

Meanwhile, cloying smog cloaks Singapore, and the acrid haze has crept into people's flats and downtown offices. Suddenly, Singapore's bustling districts, once visited by thousands a day, and key attractions such as Marina Bay have become deserted. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned the haze could last for weeks.

With little sign of the haze in Jakarta, Indonesian political leaders have remained unenthusiastic about solving the problem in a lasting manner. This attitude has triggered tension between the two neighbours and is undoubtedly threatening the reputation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Already, exchanges of heated words are occurring between the two Asean states. As Singapore's complaints have become louder and the haze problem has gained the international spotlight, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono, who is coordinating his country's relief and response efforts, told a press conference: "Singapore should not be child-like, in such a tizzy."

Mr Laksono also said: "Indonesian citizens also need to be looked after, there are hundreds. It is not what Indonesians want, it is nature". Immediately, his comments infuriated the Singaporeans and some local politicians. They have criticised Indonesia's failure to put an end to the haze problem because the Jakarta government has yet to ratify the "Asean Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution". Meanwhile, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, stated that although ratification has not taken place, his country "has been in full compliance with what is required and expected".

This Asean agreement, focussing mainly on protecting the environment and air quality, was first signed in 2002 in an effort to reduce haze pollution in the region. But observers explain the true rationale behind the agreement as Asean's attempt to send out a strong signal to Indonesia to behave as a responsible member of the organisation. As of March 2010, nine Asean members have ratified the agreement; Indonesia is the exception. Malaysia and Singapore, both affected by the Indonesian forest fires, became the first two Asean members to ratify it.

Circumstances like this dire haze have compelled Asean to become more serious about cross-boundary environmental issues. They represent new areas for Asean, known now as non-traditional security issues _ things more unfamiliar in a region that has long battled with traditional security, such as territorial disputes and military threats. From this viewpoint, the endeavours of Asean in trying to resolve the haze problem must be given credit, although Asean still has a long way to go in terms of putting in place credible and tangible mechanisms to handle future haze.

Sadly, as in other cases, regional efforts are compromised by bilateral complications. There is a list of irritants in Indonesia-Singapore relations, ranging from an inability to work on border and extradition issues, to competition for Asean leadership, which continue to serve as a hindrance to full cooperation in the haze crisis.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun


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