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Singapore, Indonesia jostle over anti-haze measures

  • The Indonesian environment minister said she was reviewing all bilateral collaborations with Singapore and that some would likely be terminated.
  • Local governments in the archipelago have been instructed to hold off on any joint programs with Singapore for now.
  • Jakarta has protested Singapore’s contention that it reserves the right to fine companies that pollute its air, wherever the firm is located.

The prospects for greater international collaboration in the effort to prevent another Southeast Asian haze crisis hit a bump in the road this week, with Jakarta taking umbrage at Singapore’s threat to detain an Indonesian businessman and threatening to cancel bilateral agreements between the two countries.

The Indonesian environment and forestry minister said she was reviewing all haze-related partnerships with the city state, which lies downwind from Indonesia’s Sumatra and is usually engulfed in smoke when the giant island’s dried-out peatlands go up in flames, usually every year.

Some programs would likely be terminated, Siti Nurbaya said, adding that she had instructed local governments to refrain from any collaboration with Singapore for the time being.

“We uphold the law in an independent manner based on Indonesia’s own laws and regulations,” the minister told “We certainly don’t rely on data and information derived from other countries as the basis for our legal processes.”

Nurbaya did not say why she had embarked on the review, but her comments followed Singapore’s summoning of an Indonesian agribusiness executive under the city state’s extraterritorial Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which allows it to fine companies for polluting its air, even if the firm is located outside the country. Slash-and-burn land clearing by oil palm and pulpwood interests is a prime cause of the annual fires.

Singapore recently issued notices to six Indonesia-based companies under the act, requiring them to explain in an interview with the city state how they planned to prevent a recurrence of the devastating fires, which last year sickened half a million people and pumped an inordinate amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Only two companies responded, Singapore’s environment minister said in a speech last month. The executive for whom the city state’s National Environment Agency had obtained the court warrant represented one of the four derelict firms.

“If the [executive] enters Singapore, he can be detained by NEA officers for the purpose of investigations,” the National Environment Agency said in a statement.

A carbon-rich peatland planted with oil palm burns in Indonesia's Sumatra in 2015. The giant island's vast peat zones have been widely drained so as be planted with oil palm and pulpwood trees, but the dried peat is especially prone to catching firem especially when planters use fire to clear it cheaply. The practice is illegal for all except the smallest farmers, though companies routinely employ it, oftne with the tacit consent of corrupt officials. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A carbon-rich peatland planted with oil palm burns in Indonesia’s Sumatra in 2015. The giant island’s vast peat zones have been widely drained to create suitable conditions for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, but the dried peat is especially prone to catching fire. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Jakarta has always objected to the transboundary haze law, and a foreign ministry spokesman said the archipelago “strongly protested” the threat to detain the plantation executive.

“We stress that Singaporean regulations should not harm the good trade and cooperation that we have now, especially between our businesses,” ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said at a press briefing.

Singapore defended the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act as consistent with international law and infringing upon no nation’s sovereignty.

“The THPA adds to the collective efforts to hold errant companies accountable for their irresponsible actions which have been affecting the well-being of people in the region, including the people of Indonesia who have been the worst affected,” its foreign ministry said. “We are therefore puzzled as to why Indonesia does not welcome these efforts.”

Malaysian schoolboys wear facemasks with Kuala Lumpur affected by haze pollution in 2012. Photo by Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons
Malaysian schoolboys wear facemasks with Kuala Lumpur affected by haze pollution in 2012. Photo by Firdaus Latif/Wikimedia Commons

The diplomatic spat follows a meeting earlier this month between the haze-hit nations of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, after which the Singaporean environment minister said the countries had reached a new agreement for sharing information, without giving specifics.

“Of course, the modality is how this is going to be done, when and how far and so forth,” Masagos Zulkifli said after the meeting. “But we have a big achievement on that, because in the past, there’s a lot of pushback on sharing information, even anonymous information. So in this case, at least we have an agreement and we can move forward on to this.”

Image taken September 24 from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite shows the "haze" as its peak. Red outlines indicate hot spots where the sensor detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fires. Thick gray smoke hovers over both islands and has triggered air quality alerts and health warnings in Indonesia and neighboring countries. Visibility has plummeted. NASA image by Adam Voiland (NASA Earth Observatory) and Jeff Schmaltz (LANCE MODIS Rapid Response). Caption by Adam Voiland.
A satellite image taken by NASA at the height of the 2015 haze crisis shows thick gray smoke from Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan drifting into Singapore and Malaysia. The haze drifted as far as Guam in the Western Pacific. Image courtesy of NASA

Singapore has been particularly vocal in requesting that the Indonesian government share the concession maps of plantation firms in its territory, so that the city state can scrutinize companies with large numbers of hotspots on their land.

The maps, though, have been a touchy subject in the archipelago. Three years ago, the corporate and NGO members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity, agreed in the name of transparency to publish its grower members’ concession maps. To date, though, the maps have yet to be released, with growers in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two palm oil producing countries, claiming they want to share their maps, but their governments won’t let them.

Indonesia’s land minister recently said he saw no problem with companies sharing their own maps, but the archipelago’s growers maintained they would not release their maps until their Malaysian competitors did. The Malaysian government has made no public comment on the issue, but the country’s palm oil companies claim that officials have told them the country’s secrecy laws prohibit the maps’ release — a contention disputed by environmentalists who think the growers are “pulling a fuss,” in the words of the Malaysian Nature Society’s Balu Perumal.

It was not clear how Indonesia’s review of its collaborations with Singapore would affect the haze-hit nations’ plan to carry out a joint study on the economic, social and health impact of the 2015 fires, whose announcement was the major outcome of the meeting held earlier this month.

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