Finding a Way Out of the Haze

by singaporearmchaircritic

Responding to criticisms that the government could do more to tackle the haze, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said: “If it was within our control we will never allow this to happen. My point to Singaporeans is we will continue to do our best, please understand the limitations of international relationships and foreign policy and the fact that every country is sovereign and we have limited control over what happens in Indonesia.”

Shanmugam was referring to how ASEAN has failed to pressure Indonesia into ratifying the 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution after 11 years.

But perhaps “pressure” is not the right word to use. ASEAN is staunchly non-interventionist and works by consensus. This famed “ASEAN way” has long earned the regional grouping the reputation of a “talk shop” that is big on words and small on action.

The haze problem is a good case-in-point.

ASEAN members have been collaborating to resolve the issue since the early 1990s. In the 1990 Kuala Lumpur Accord on the Environment and Development, and subsequent meetings in 1992 and 1994, the issue of tackling transboundary pollution was addressed, culminating in a 1995 meeting at which the ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution was adopted (source).

Yet these did not stop the 1997-1998 Indonesia forest fires with resulting haze that spread far and wide to Southeast Asian countries and even Australia.

The ecological disaster which sent more than 200,000 into hospitals prompted ASEAN to draft and sign the legally binding Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which entered into force in 2003.

Over the period of 2003-2010, all ASEAN member states had ratified the agreement except Indonesia, the primary source of transboundary air pollution.

And this year forest fires in Indonesia rage again, with the choking haze returning with a vengeance. At the point of writing this blog post, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Singapore had soared to a historical high hazardous level of 400, way above the last record of 226 in 1997.

Moral Suasion?

After reiterating our limitations, Shanmugam suggested that we could “try and use moral suasion” on Indonesia.

However, as the Foreign Affairs and Law Minister would already know, state-to-state moral suasion alone will not work because states act out of self-interest.

Forest burning clears land cheaply, efficiently and quickly for the production of GDP generating commodities (source), so how could Indonesia possibly be persuaded to forego a lucrative business solely on moral grounds?

We have to urgently seek other means to pressure Indonesia into resolving the issue.

Think Out-of-the-Box

Given that ASEAN has always sworn by the rule of non-interference and how the haze problem has persisted despite all that has been done through the platform, the regional grouping is perhaps not the right vehicle for Singapore to seek effective change.

The recurrence of the haze and its increasing severity also attest to the futility of bilateral efforts in training Indonesian farmers and sharing information on zero-burning techniques, fire-fighting, improved management of peatlands, and better air quality monitoring.

These efforts, while well-intentioned, do not address the root of the haze problem, i.e. recalcitrant business interests and farmers who resort to forest burning are motivated by money.

Instead of throwing our money down the drain, therefore, funds and resources could be better channeled to programs such as the REDD+ that actually create incentives for forests to be left intact and not be razed for agriculture.

Rope in Environmental NGOs

Singapore’s experience clearly shows that states-only efforts are not enough in tackling the haze problem.

So why not harness the expertise of international environmental NGOs such as these?

In the past two decades, NGOs have taken on increasingly crucial roles in international environmental issues. Equipped with the ground knowledge and field experience, they have been involved in negotiation, monitoring and implementation – activities that traditionally fall in the state domain.

And instead of undermining state sovereignty that Singapore is so obsessed about, experts opine that NGO participation actually enhances states’ capacities to regulate globally.

Small Doesn’t Mean Weak

In the news report, Shanmugam stressed that “in every field, Singapore’s size and geography mean that we are often price takers, not price makers in the areas of economics, geo politics, or the environment.”

Having said that, he also acknowledged that “Singapore has done well and much better than bigger countries with more resources.”

That is precisely the point. Physical smallness does not necessarily mean weakness; what we may lack in size we make up for it in other ways.

Given our track record in the realm of environmental issues – we have built a sustainable water ecosystem and our city is Asia’s greenest metropolis – Singapore could well be an environmental champion in the global arena. We could then use that as a leverage to pressure Indonesia into taking action.

Our government needs to be more imaginative and think out-of-the-box as it has always urged us. Ditch the state-centric mentality and empower NGOs in the fight against transboundary pollution.

May we see the return of blue skies and clean air to Singapore soon. In the meantime, take care all!