Strong, not burdensome laws needed to tackle haze: Singapore minister

Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan says the country takes a balanced approach when imposing laws on companies even as it moves to table a Bill that will criminalize errants firms that cause transboundary haze.

Singapore’s move to enact a transboundary haze law is not “something we enter into lightly”, said its Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday. But even as this allows for companies that cause the haze to be taken to task, Singapore is mindful about imposing laws that become too burdensome.

Speaking at the inaugural Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on Tuesday, Balakrishnan said that Singapore “felt that there was no alternative but to ensure that the long arm of the law is long enough to deal with a regional problem”.

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill, which will criminalise companies that cause transboundary haze and provide for civil action to be taken against them, will be tabled in Parliament by the second half of the year. Under the draft bill, errant companies can be fined up to S$300,000 if their activities outside Singapore result in the island being affected by unhealthy levels of haze.

Transboundary haze, primarily caused by plantation owners starting fires as a way of clearing their land, has been a recurring problem in the region for many years. Singapore announced its intention to introduce this law earlier this year, following a severe haze crisis last June which blanketed the country for weeks. 

Government officials have predicted that this year’s haze season is likely to be even worse than last year’s due to the continued burning of forests in Sumatra coinciding with an expected El Nino weather pattern.

But when asked if further steps could be taken to make financial institutions and companies more responsible, Balakrishnan said it would be “counter productive for Singapore to have an overly legalistic burdensome regime that makes it more difficult for responsible companies… to do business here.”

“So we have to get the balance right,” he said, adding that there is more to be done through working with civic society and pushing for transparency “without being too heavy-handed about it”.

When the severe haze broke out last year, some citizens took to the internet to question if Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings had investments into companies linked to the burning. “Temasek sent people down to their (Cargill’s) plantations… and they snapped pictures of clear skies there to show it wasn’t happening in their plantations”, he said.

This is an example of how “there’s already a salutary effect” when citizens or consumers expect companies and organizations to do the right thing as “eyebrows get raised and questions asked”, he added.

When asked if the Bill encroached on Asean’s principle of non-interference with other countries, Balakrishnan emphasized that it was not an attempt to interfere. Singapore has been transparent and answered questions about the Bill, and there are no surprises, he said.

It would be counter productive for Singapore to have an overly legalistic burdensome regime that makes it more difficult for responsible companies to do business here.”

Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources

“We’ve done it in an open manner because I know that, ultimately, we need to work together if it is going to have any effect.”

Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia Forest Campaign, who also spoke at the event, said however that laws were not enough to prevent forest fires.

Noting that Tuesday was also the third anniversary since Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono first introduced the moratorium on forest and peat clearance, Maitar said the moratorium was a step in the right direction “but little has been done since”.

Greenpeace is urging the President to enforce the moratorium or risk his legacy “going up in smoke”. It says that according to its analysis of five moratorium maps that the Ministry of Forestry publishes at 6-month intervals, 6.4 million hectares have been lost under the moratorium between May 2011 and November 2013.

In a separate statement, Greenpeace forest campaigner Teguh Surya noted that big players such as Asia Pulp and Paper, Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources have put the bar much higher than the government with their commitment to stop all clearance of high carbon stock areas.

“The government should at least match these ambitions and remove barriers to the implementation of corporate No Deforestation policies through the High Carbon Stock approach, for example by enabling land swaps and reviewing permits, especially to those that operate on peatlands,” said Teguh.

Tuesday’s dialogue, held at the Grand Hyatt Singapore Hotel, was organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. It convened more than 100 policymakers, business leaders and non-government organisations to address the issues of climate change, financing the Asean resource sector, and corporate social responsibility.

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