October 2015

As the yearly haze rolls again, what are your views regarding this persistent problem?

1st Place - Joshua Goh

Haze is not a word used often in the English language. If you ask Google what “haze” is, it might tell you that it is “a slight obscuration of the lower atmosphere, typically caused by fine suspended particles”. However ask any Singaporean what the “haze” is and if the answer isn’t clouded by obscenities directed at the offending country, you may find that it generally refers to the result of the seasonal burning of forests on the Indonesia island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan and when the prevailing winds carry the smoke northwards to choke Indonesia’s neighbours. Academically called the “transboundary haze”, this problem in Singapore is summarised as simply as “haze”.


How bad is it?


This is not a recent problem, I remember in 1997 having to endure the haze while at Kindergarten. Given that I hardly remember much from that time, it is quite remarkable. However the haze problem goes even further back.—The Straits Times reported that the haze problems stretches back to the 1970s with a 1972 Straits Times article headlined “Persistent haze” warning Singaporeans to prepare for more weeks of haze caused by fires in Sumatra and Indonesia Borneo. Sounds familiar?


The haze, regrettably, has become part of Singapore’s history and even education, with Geography students learning how the fires in Indonesia are created and their terrible effects on Indonesia’s ASEAN neighbours. Students are taught how the unsustainable farming practices such as burning forestation to clear land for farming leads to both the haze as well as poorer soil conditions. Clearing of farmland this way is illegal under Indonesia law but lax enforcement only encourages the practice. Recently the spotlight has fallen on Indonesian logging companies who clear land in this manner and there have been calls in Singapore to boycott companies that obtain pulpwood from these Indonesian companies. Furthermore there has been serious effort on the diplomatic front by Singapore to get Indonesia to tackle the problem. Within ASEAN, an ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was established to explore ways to fight the haze in 2002 with most countries ratifying it not long after. Indonesia however only ratified the agreement in September 2014 and Singapore’s frustrations with the region’s inability to combat the haze problem led to the enactment of a Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in 2014 that aimed to make companies, local or foreign, involved in the haze fires criminally liable for such acts. However such laws are limited by the fact that Singapore’s laws are irrelevant in Indonesia, our courts do not have any jurisdiction over acts committed on Indonesian soil though the enactment of the law does send a strong signal to Indonesia regarding Singapore’s commitment to tackling the problem.


Perhaps another way to look at the haze problem is to understand what the climate is like in Indonesia itself, aside from being hazy. Indonesians also suffer from the effects of haze and no doubt wish that it could end, the Pollutant Standard Index in Riau on many days is much worse than Singapore on its worst day. There is no doubt domestic pressure on the government to act. However the haze has remained here since the 1970s and that cannot alone by blamed on ineffective government and there are more intrinsic reasons why the problem is still so rampant.


What’s the intrinsic problem here?


Much has been made of Singapore’s diplomatic efforts to combat the haze and its willingness to prosecute companies involved in it. However two considerations stand out as being unexplored in Singapore, mostly because they pertain to Indonesia and hence do not receive that much exposure in Singapore. Firstly there is the issue of burning farmland as a matter of customary practice in Indonesia. Secondly, the haze problem is a domestic Indonesian issue with international repercussions for it. The statements made by certain government officials may seem ludicrous and insensitive to foreigners, but they do indicate Indonesia’s own domestic concerns in front of their own people and this sheds more light on the intractability of the haze problem.


Burning as custom


An article carried by The Star on 1st October 2011 by Francis Ng titled “Why Indonesia cannot stop the fires and haze” provides the interesting perspective that instead of greedy corporations trying to cash in on the easiest means of clearing land, the fires and the haze caused by it are a result of customs practiced by locals, and by simply blaming the logging industry and big companies, the real issues are ignored and solutions that are used miss the problem.


The article outlined how the settlers causing the fires in Kalimantan were children of the original Transmigrasi migrants from Java, encouraged to move there by the Indonesian government. The children of these migrants who had moved there under these land schemes were now spreading out all over Kalimantan and clearing land for themselves.

Against this backdrop, a custom developed—any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it and any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. This of course would mean that each settler would want to clear as much land as possible and that he would set fire to land not used whenever the weather is dry to prevent it from reverting back to jungle. This vicious cycle would only end when the land was bought and converted to permanent organised agriculture such as oil palm growing.


To these poor farmers, such actions were necessary for their economic survival and in the absence of a land ownership system that would enable farmers to legally own the land without resorting to burning it, the farmers would always end up setting fire to their land to ensure their livelihood.


Another set of fires are set by Bugis rice farmers from Sulawesi in peat areas near the coast who cleared the forests by fire after their gigantic ramin trees had been extracted by loggers. As the peat is many metres deep and unsuitable for growing rice, the farmers grow pineapples and other acid-tolerant plants most of the year but during the dry season, they set the peat on fire and burn off a part of it. This would, after about 10 years, burn off all the peat the farmers would be able to grow rice on mineral soil.


Francis Ng in his article criticised solutions like sending in firefighters or proseucting landowners for creating fires as being good only on paper and noted that it served the purposes of environmental organisations and media outlets to simplify the problem. His opinion has some merit. Indonesia is a vast country with many islands, each with its own unique customs and practices. The targeting of large corporations who participate in the burning is not a poor solution, but it is only a partial solution to a bigger problem. There is no doubt that independent farmers are continuing such unsustainable practices but given that some of them depend on farming for their livelihood, can we really say to them that they should resort to less effective means that would reduce the haze but lessen their earnings from the land? It is not an easy decision to make either way. There needs to be community engagement on the ground in Indonesia and a willingness by both the government and farmers to explore their options.


The problem of diplomatic posturing and Indonesia’s own domestic concerns


Most Singaporeans are familiar with Indonesian Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, if only for his comments in March 2015 about Indonesia’s neighbours, that “[f]or 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset”. This mostly served to enrage Singaporeans even more. This comment seems unthinkable to us, but consider how it must sound to an Indonesian. Not all Indonesians suffer from the haze, Indonesia is an archipelago with over 1,904,569 km2 of land area, the haze as rampant as it as now, is not evident over much of it. Those Indonesians living in Riau and other affected areas are understandably furious over government inability to resolve the haze crisis. Nonetheless attacks on the government’s handling have also come from Singaporean ministers such as former Minister for Foreign Affairs, K. Shanmugam who in reference to statements made by Indonesian officials he did not name, questioned, “How is it possible for senior people in government to issue such statements, without any regard for their people, or ours, and without any embarrassment, or sense of responsibility?”. His strong comments understandably underscore the tensions caused by the haze but the fact that they are being traded in the international arena creates a situation where Indonesian officials are put on the defensive. Under siege by both international and domestic pressures, it is unfortunate but understandable that Indonesian officials would lash out at international comments criticising their efforts. Elected officials are always concerned about their perception in the eyes of the electorate and Indonesia is no different especially when faced with international criticism. The key to understanding Indonesia’s response towards its regional neighbours is to understand their own responsibilities and concerns regarding their own people, this is understandably difficult as Indonesia has been sluggish in the past in clamping down on the haze.


It has appeared that Indonesia, in accepting Singapore’s offer of assistance, revealed that it had earlier rejected Singapore’s offers of assistance because it was concerned that the city state would claim credit for solving the problem. As exasperating as it is to hear Indonesia play politics even at this hour, we must understand that it does not serve any of us any good if we put Indonesia in a corner and make it look bad in front of its government’s domestic audience. In previous years Indonesia has seen fit to lash out at its international critics or offer apologies but with no substantial actions. What Singapore and its ASEAN neighbours need to do is to engage Indonesia in a cooperative and collaborative manner, to rise above the temptation to resort to political mudslinging and work together to offer solutions. Singapore’s continued offering of firefighting assistance to Indonesia is indicative of such an attitude, the continuance of the offer no doubt a indication of the Republic’s wish to end the haze and not merely score a few political points at Indonesia’s expense. Singapore’s attitude towards solving this crisis is one that must continue if we ever wish to see blue skies in September.


What’s the solution?


Singapore has done a very great deal to solve or at least mitigate another country’s problems. We have enacted the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act that makes companies liable for prosecution if they engage in illegal burning. However as Professor Alan Tan of the NUS Law Faculty in his Working Paper 2015/002 titled “The ‘Haze’ Crisis In Southeast Asia: Assessing Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014” at page 43 comments, the Act has more value in its symbolic stance rather than making much headway in turning the tide in the haze battle.


“Of course, a successful prosecution could go a long way in mollifying an angry public, but there is no guarantee that it will resolve the problem. This is simply because there are too many other entities or plantation interests using fires to clear land in Sumatra, Kalimantan and other parts of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. Ultimately, Indonesian enforcement and prosecution action on the ground will matter most to resolve the problem at its core, together with cooperation mechanisms among regional states”

Prof Tan highlights a critical point that it is Indonesian action that is the key to solving the haze crisis. Singapore’s actions are at best, symbolic, simply because of our small size and the difficulties in governing Indonesia. The recent call by CASE to boycott goods made by companies engaging in illegal burning will result in said companies losing money and Singaporean feeling better about themselves, but will it stop the haze? Unlikely.


At the end of the day, it is a matter of will of the Indonesian government regarding the fires that will stop the haze. President Joko Widodo has made positive steps in this direction, accepting international offers of help including Singapore’s and embarking on building water reserves in the forest and canals to provide water to the hotspots while promising laws against such burnings will be enforced. He told the BBC that “You will see results soon and in three years we will have solved this,” whether or not his words will be kept remain to be seen but it is hopeful that in 3 years’ time, with the support of Singapore and ASEAN, Indonesia would have solved this haze on both our skies and in our bilateral relations.

2nd Place - Akankshita Dash

It’s that time of the year again; when Singapore’s beautiful, lush green surroundings are marred with thick smoke from neighbouring Indonesia. Outdoor activities have become minimal to non-existent; schools are being closed for several days at a time due to health hazards, and the N95 mask has become the new fashion trend.


2015 could be alliteratively branded as the height of the horrible haze.


Although illegal slash and burn farming has been prevalent in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan for many years, due to the El Nino phenomenon, the haze this year has been particularly severe with serious implications; not just in Singapore, but throughout Southeast Asia.


In Singapore, the haze started early September this year, and peaked during the middle of the month, the time of the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix and the FINA Swimming World Cup. Although the Grand Prix proceeded as usual, the FINA World Cup was, unfortunately, cancelled due to the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) rising to dangerously unhealthy levels. Primary and secondary schools were closed, hospitals saw a rise in the number of patients suffering from respiratory ailments, employees across industries started taking the Ministry of Manpower’s guidelines seriously and minimized their working hours, while the general populace (some sheathed in N95 masks) ventured out cautiously, to carry on with their daily tasks. At the beginning of October, when the PSI levels finally started subsiding, everybody believed that the worst was over and there would be clean air for everybody to breathe for the rest of the year. Alas, that proved to be untrue, when the PSI levels hit a record high of 471 μg/m³ in the West, on October 19 (Today Online, 2015).


I unfortunately happened to be out (without a mask) in NUS during the night of October 19, and I actually witnessed the haze becoming progressively worse with each passing moment. When some of my friends started experiencing burning eyes and breathlessness, we knew it was time to get to an air-conditioned place. Finally, on October 28th, thunderstorms during the morning brought a much-needed respite from the haze- to expose clear blue skies, clean surroundings, and good air- raising the island’s spirits.


2015 has brought to focus this persistent problem that Singapore has been facing for the past four decades. Had this problem been nipped in the bud all these years back, maybe the situation wouldn’t have aggravated to such intense proportions. On 25th September, the Singaporean Government disclosed the names of 5 firms they believed were principally responsible for the haze. These firms could be fined up to $100,000 a day.


While Singaporeans tend to point their fingers at neighbouring Indonesia, we have to remember that Indonesians have it worse; low visibility has led to several road accidents and fatalities, respiratory ailments are at an all-time high, schools have been closed for more than 4 weeks, people have stopped going to work. There are other issues like flight delays, fires, emergencies; issues that Singapore is not facing (and hopefully will never face). All these problems have compounded and led to Indonesia facing losses up to $70 billion.


So even though the air we’re breathing is of a substandard quality, we have to remember that our neighbours have it even worse, so maybe instead of holding Indonesia’s culpable, we should empathize and offer to help them instead. We should also remember that there are rumours rampant that certain Singaporean and Malaysian firms may be responsible for the illegal forest fires in Indonesia, so if at the end it turns out to be a pot calling the kettle black sort of a situation, it could get extremely embarrassing for Singapore.


The Government has done its bit, offering consistent assistance to Indonesia to help combat the haze situation. After lots of deliberation and diplomatic meetings, Indonesia finally accepted the Singapore Government’s offer for help.


The Government is doing everything possible in its capacity to deal with this problem; negotiating with Indonesia, distributing N95 masks to at risk peoples, releasing guidelines for schools and firms, as well as issuing general advisories for the population. Thus, in the end, it all falls upon the attitude of Singaporeans and how they wish to deal with the haze.


In the spirit of SG50, there needs to be slight change in the attitude we employ while dealing with the haze. Instead of attaching negative connotations to each and every single occurrence, maybe instead of complaining all the time, we should take a good, hard look at our lives and realize we have a lot to be thankful for.


Personally, I believe that this situation could be a lot worse. I come from New Delhi, which is ranked as the world’s most polluted city, so I know how it feels to experience bad air all year long. Singapore faces this transient situation for a maximum of 1-2 months in a year, unlike cities like Delhi, Beijing and Shanghai.


I constantly worry about my parents, who’re unconsciously damaging their lungs. I feel breathless when I land in the city I called home for 18 years. When I compare Delhi’s situation to Singapore’s, I only feel grateful; grateful that I’m not breathing poison every day, grateful that the Singaporean government is doing everything in its hands to resolve this situation, grateful that the haze is not permanent; grateful that Singapore is not Delhi. And if I, an international student from the world’s most polluted country can be grateful about the haze, so can you. It just takes perspective.

3rd - Nina Lim Yan Qing

43 years after the haze first assailed us in 1972, we still remain vulnerable to its harm and helpless in its prevention. Dating back 40 years, this problem peaked in 1975 where smoke and ash particles from a fire across the Causeway in Johor Bahru resulted in a mysterious curtain of red haze that stained even the sun orange. This recalls the Chinese axiom, to ‘cure the symptoms and not the disease’; because that is exactly what the Indonesian government is doing now to stop the haze: cures, rather than prevention. The annual procedure of extinguishing fires only after the haze proves uncontrollable is neither sustainable nor feasible. More ought to be done to ensure farmers utilise proper methods of deforestation rather than the harmful slash and burn tactics that result in poisonous haze. On diplomatic onus, the Singapore government’s offer of assistance has been met with a contradictory Indonesian stance on acceptance. The problem is compounded by haze being inherently transnational, affecting other neighbouring countries like Thailand, marking ‘the first time it has reached hazardous levels so far north’. Thus, this haze is a pressing issue affecting not only one’s health, but bringing with it diplomatic undercurrents.


We should heed the words of Anthony J. D’Angelo once: ‘When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves’ – find out the root cause to this haze problem. The common knowledge is the widespread use of slash and burn methods of deforestation Indonesian farmers use. Some assert that farmers have imperfect knowledge on the deadly consequences of the haze, such as causing lung cancer and other respiratory problems, or even death. In this 2015 episode of the haze, 10 people have been reported dead, and Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) in Indonesia goes to as high as 1950, which is more than thrice the ‘dangerous’ threshold of 300 to 500. Do the farmers really not know how much of a risk they put themselves in when they burn the forests? With little doubt, they do. But do they really have a choice? No, they do not, especially not when they put their family’s survival on the line. In order to bring home as much as they can earn, they would not hesitate to put their own lives at risk, and as selfish human beings, the lives of others too. However, let us ponder if the farmers themselves, who are literally living in the thick of things, are truly ignorant of the health detriments accompanying their deforestation ventures. That year after year they resort to such methods speaks volumes of the situation they are trapped in. If given enough monetary support, I am sure nobody would put their own lives at risk. Therefore, we need to reflect on why this has been a persistent problem. Why is the Indonesian Government not doing anything to prevent this from happening year after year? I certainly do not believe any Government will put their people at risk and not do anything about it at all. This is proven by Indonesia deploying their army to give out free masks and relocate these victims. Therefore, I believe there are funds given by the Indonesian Government to these farmers. Perhaps these funds are insufficient to subsidise their expenses. Or perhaps, really, the funds given by the Government is indeed too little to cover their cost to deforest legally, hence they take to burning. I do not rule out the possibility that the money is lost somewhere, perhaps in the pockets of greedy and irresponsible officials, but we have no proof to declare them guilty. Since Indonesia is a developing country, developed neighbouring countries such as Singapore can render their technologies and resources to come up with cheaper and greener alternatives which the farmers can tap on. One would first ensure a solid and stable foundation before constructing and building anything else atop that structure. In the same vein, Indonesia cannot expect to eradicate the haze before addressing the root cause of it – improper deforestation methods.


I feel that the farmers might not entirely be liable for the haze they have caused. Perhaps it was with the influx of expensive technologies that farmers were expected to use machinery they could not afford, and that they required palm oil as fuel only compounded this problem. In an interview, Jusuf Kalla defected the blame that it was ‘foreign demand and foreign technology’ that caused their forests to be damaged. Hence, some people suggested that we, as consumers, who buy palm oil from these farmers, should exercise our power, perhaps through reducing our consumption of palm oil, or to completely turn to other alternatives. Though on the short run it may seem to solve the problem, as they now have to burn less of their forest to make way for new palm seedlings, hence reducing smoke and ash particle sources, it is not a sustainable solution to the problem. If we were to reduce our purchase of palm oil, then the farmers who rely on our consumption as a source of income for survival will now lose their source of income. This could jeopardise their survival. If they are inhumane to put the health of their own people and neighbours at risk, then how much more humane are we to destroy their means of survival? In addition, this shows that we are partly responsible for the haze by putting too much pressure on the farmers to cater to our huge demand for palm oil. We should instead make use of greener alternatives or natural resources such as wind and water which are abundant in nature, and that they are already made available to us. For example, palm oil is used to fuel machines. Instead of palm oil, perhaps we can use biofuel, instead. Biofuel, such as those made of animal faeces are not only cheaper than most modern fuels, they are also readily available. Most importantly, they are less environmental harmful. Hence, I feel that it is unfair to hold the farmers completely liable for causing the disaster.


This is not just an intra-country problem, but inter-region one, and therefore the amount of assistance the Singapore government can render is limited, not to even mention solving the problem. The Singapore Government can only utilise the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 which imposes a fine not exceeding $100,000 for every day or part thereof that there is a haze pollution in Singapore occurring at or about the time of the entity’s conduct. The Singapore Government asks for the list of companies involved in contributing to the haze from the Indonesian Government. Though the Singapore Government can fine each and every single responsible company, without the reinforcement by their Indonesian counterpart, it will still be an unsolved problem. Moreover, it impacts negatively on Indonesia. Companies set up branches in Indonesia because Indonesia has comparatively cheaper yet knowledgeable labour, in addition to cheaper land. Hence, they have to follow the Indonesian law. However, they are now being charged under Singapore law. From the Indonesian stand, companies might lose confidence in Indonesia, and might choose to locate their companies in India or China who are not bound by the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Moreover, having Singapore to step into another country to convict the guilty reflects badly on that country, by insinuating perhaps that the Indonesian Government is incapable in enforcing their law. What does this show of the Indonesian Government? This could potentially harm the already strained ties between Singapore and Indonesia. One of such infamous incidents was the MacDonald House Bombing in 1965, which resulted in death sentences for both Indonesian saboteurs. The subsequent ransacking of the Singaporean embassy and then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s scattering of flowers were two incidents where diplomatic relations nearly fell through.


Therefore, we need a neutral international body, the United Nations (UN) for example, to step in to relieve the tension. The ASEAN is not effective in resolving the problem since even now, one month after the start of the haze, there remains no sign of ASEAN stepping up to reinforce the ASEAN Agreement. Perhaps this is the legendary ‘ASEAN Way’ where reaching compromises based on musyawarah (consultation) and mufakat (consensus). As it is inappropriate for Singapore to intervene, it is best that a neutral and effective organisation step forward to offer advice to the Indonesian officials. It is particularly effective for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to offer assistance and intervention to this haze situation as their neutral and non-affiliation with any government places them in good stead to offer help. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for instance, is a good demonstration of how NGOs can offer a solution to this diplomatic quandary as it offers assistance to identify perpetrators behind this haze. Therefore, with the dual assistance of NGOs, fellow ASEAN member states and the international community, the annual haze problem should be resolved in the near future.


Perhaps at the root of this pressing issue lies a diplomatic quandary for our relations with Indonesia as this annual problem threatens transnational and intra-nation ties. The seeming inability of the Indonesian government to properly control forest fires, whether they be a product of improper slash and burn tactics or the unforgiving heat, is a focal point for diplomatic relations to slide to an all-time low. However, due to the ASEAN policy of non-confrontation between its member states, the haze has ceased to pose a substantial threat to our international relationship with Indonesia. Being inherently transnational and detrimental in nature, the haze has the potential to sow discord among citizens of the affected countries, particularly in Singapore where netizens are extremely vocal at expressing their displeasure towards Indonesia and Kalla in general. SGag, a popular Singaporean version of 9Gag, has garnered much support in the form of ‘likes’ for memes which satirize the Indonesian government’s efforts in explaining and resolving the annual haze. The haze, in my view, presents a very real diplomatic dilemma for both countries, a problem which is compounded by Indonesian pride at being the ‘big brother’ of ASEAN and hence refusing to eat humble pie. It is a delicate issue and ought to be treated with fairness and empathy towards the farmers and people of Indonesia, the majority of whom, like us, are suffering through no fault of their own.


As the saying goes, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’, I certainly hope that we, as a region, can overcome this obstacle soon. With the international relief rendered to Indonesia, such as the initial US$2.75 million contributed by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and countries like Singapore, Russia, Malaysia and Australia sending out their military to help put out the fire, and more to come, Indonesia has no more excuses to make about not enough funding to completely eradicate, this persistent problem. Sanguinely, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s attempt to solve the problem in three years can be realised sooner. However, if President Widodo does not dismiss all corrupt officials, if Indonesia still does not insist on legal deforestation, and if we do not come up with better alternatives, I remain pessimistic about Indonesia’s resolution.