Blame game can't solve Southeast Asia's haze crisis

Sun Xi says Singapore may have to help pay for a plan to stop illegal forest burning in Sumatra

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 5:22am

The more than 20-year-old cross-boundary haze malady has hit Singapore again, but this time the situation is much worse, with pollution levels breaking several records.

With the crisis, the blame game is under way again. While Singapore has urged Indonesia to take tougher action against illegal forest burning, Indonesia has said Singaporean and Malaysian palm oil companies bear ultimate responsibility.

However, playing the blame game never works; all stakeholders must co-operate to solve the crisis.

In the short term, the most pressing matter is to extinguish the expanding hot spots as soon as possible. Indonesia has begun cloud-seeding in an effort to create rain and put out the fires, while Singapore has offered an assistance package.

In the long run, government intervention should be considered to force polluters to pay for the cost of the solution.

First, it is clear that Indonesia should bear top responsibility, given that the pollution happens within its territory. In fact, Indonesia has laws and regulations in place to ban illegal forest burning. However, clearing land this way is common due to weak law enforcement.

The "slash and burn" technique is favoured because it remains the cheapest land clearing method. Therefore, the government should consider introducing subsidies or reward schemes to encourage more environmentally friendly land-clearing practices, along with stricter punishment.

Furthermore, Indonesia should welcome neighbours' aid to tackle environmental challenges. To become a responsible emerging regional power, Indonesia should consider ratifying the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Second, there is no doubt Singapore is a victim and theoretically should be compensated. However, to be realistic, it may have to choose to either suffer the costs of haze pollution or bear the costs of pollution abatement with Indonesia and Malaysia.

Singapore should also keep pushing for greater co-operation with Indonesia, despite the political sensitivities involved.

Third, global customers should ultimately share the cost of a haze-free Singapore and Southeast Asia. Consumers of palm oil products from the region should pay for the extra costs of greener land practices while global investors should contribute through responsible investment in environmentally conscious palm oil companies.

Moreover, regional and international organisations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should also contribute to solve the long-standing problem. After all, pollution knows no boundaries.

Sun Xi, a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an investment analyst based in Singapore