Even though the meeting had nothing to do with the haze, ASEAN ministers concurred it is a regional problem that could sour relations among member countries.
By Melissa Goh, Malaysia Bureau Chief, Channel NewsAsia
POSTED: 29 Sep 2015 21:48 UPDATED: 29 Sep 2015 23:05
KUALA LUMPUR: For weeks, choking haze from neighbouring Indonesia has shrouded many parts of Southeast Asia, polluting air to unhealthy levels, forcing schools to close, and disrupting flights.
It was no surprise then that the matter surfaced on Tuesday (Sep 29) at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum on transnational crime – a meeting that had nothing to do with the haze.
“We are enjoying the haze imported from our neighbour, but I do understand that Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia are very tolerant neighbours. This is part of an ASEAN problem,” said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi.
The issue is threatening to sour relations with Jakarta as affected countries begin to count the cost of the perennial haze, generated by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. These fires are a result of companies and individuals using slash-and-burn methods to clear land.
“If you let it drag, simple things like fighting haze can become something that will affect bilateral ties,” said Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. “It must be resolved on a regional issue if not bilaterally, trilaterally between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.”
Singapore on its own has served legal notice on five Indonesian companies it believes are among those responsible for the fires. Under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, companies can be fined up to US$70,000 a day for the unhealthy air.
“It’s the first step for us to see what we can do from Singapore to make sure companies registered in Singapore can be put to task for supporting, promoting or even perpetrating those acts from across our waters,” said Singapore Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.
But its effective enforcement, Masagos said, will require cooperation from other countries.
Indonesia’s police chief General Badrodin Haiti, who was present at the ASEAN forum, said more than 40 individuals have been arrested in connection with starting fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Jakarta he said is also freezing assets and suspending concession rights of errant companies regardless if they are locally or foreign owned. “From the information gathered, three already have their licenses suspended while one was revoked, we hope this will help with the situation,” he said.
But although enforcement is key and heavier penalties may act as a deterrent, at the end of the day, companies that flout the laws repeatedly will eventually have a bad reputation and lose out in the long run.
“The world today is more sensitised to environmental issue,” said Masagos. “We hope that it will set a good signal to these companies to take it seriously because it will affect their bottom line sooner or later.”