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Singapore vows to crack down on firms responsible for haze

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by April 22, 2016 General

A woman takes a pedestrian bridge in the backdrop of the city skyline shrouded by haze in Singapore March 31, 2016. — Reuters picA woman takes a pedestrian bridge in the backdrop of the city skyline shrouded by haze in Singapore March 31, 2016. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, April 22 — Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli  has vowed to crack down on companies responsible for transboundary haze using the “full extent” of Singapore’s laws, in his first response to recent comments by an Indonesian minister that Singapore should focus on its own role and not “make so many comments” on the yearly phenomenon that has blighted the region.

“We must not let companies and corporations get away with their most egregious acts… The message to everybody, whether you are Singaporean or foreigner, if you violate our laws and if our laws allow us to act within the ambit of those laws, we will take the law to its full extent,” said Masagos, who was speaking to Singapore reporters covering Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s week-long visit to the Middle East.

He made this point in response to a question from TODAY on his reaction to Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya’s recent comments and whether there is perception that Singapore is doing enough to tackle the problem as well as what other additional measures should be taken. 

Masagos pointed out that Singapore has used the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) passed in 2014 to go after companies that started fires or let their concessions burn, and contributed to last year’s haze that blanketed Singapore and part of the region.

The Republic has issued notices to six of these Indonesia-based companies, which have to explain what steps they are taking to put out and prevent fires on their land. 

He said that two companies have responded to the notice so far.

On the four companies which have not responded to the preventive measure notices, Masagos said that one of the directors of these companies trying to enter Singapore has been served with a notice under Sections 10 and 11 of the THPA to furnish information on how the company is mitigating fires on its land and allow investigators to examine how the company is implementing these measures.

“He (the director) has left but he is required to return. Should he not return, he will have violated our law and therefore, among others, we can arrest him upon entry later than the notice on which he is supposed to return,” said Masagos.

He declined to reveal the name of the director or his company, but added that the director can also be detained in Singapore if he does not provide the information.

In an interview with an environment news portal over the weekend, Ms Nurbaya had said the Indonesian government has taken “substantial steps” to prevent land and forest fires, and the ensuing haze that envelopes the region every year.

“There is really no need to comment too much on the part Indonesia is currently playing. However, with all due respect to my Singaporean counterpart, what are they doing? And where has it got them?” she asked.

Her remarks followed a speech by Masagos at a sustainability forum in Singapore last Friday where he said agro-forestry companies should take full responsibility for fire prevention and mitigation in their concessions, and that there must not be a repeat of last year’s forest fires which caused the haze.

Thousands of people were afflicted by respiratory illnesses, while tourism, schools and flights were disrupted, as a result of the haze.

In his interview with the media, Masagos noted that Singapore and Indonesia enjoy a good relationship and have worked closely in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). 

“But in the matter of haze, this is a very complex issue that need to be addressed at different levels. I’ve mentioned before that we need to address it both at the bilateral levels together as well as at the regional level,” he said, citing how in Asean for example, Singapore has led a peatland management programme to raise awareness of what can be done to manage and restore peatland.

Of 2.6 million hectares of land that was burnt last year in Indonesia, nearly one million was peatland, carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained.

“Indeed, we are very happy that the Indonesians have put up an agency (on peatland restoration) to address these issues particularly,” said Masagos.

At the same time, companies cannot be allowed to get away with irresponsible and illegal behaviour, he said, especially after Singapore’s enactment of the THPA, which allows the government to prosecute companies and individuals that cause severe air pollution in Singapore by burning forests and peatlands in neighbouring countries.

The government also served a notice to Asian Pulp and Paper Company (APP) last year to seek information regarding measures taken by its suppliers to put out fires in their concessions.

“We are now looking at them (APP) to see how we are going to move forward,” said Masagos, adding it is premature to release more information on the case as investigations are ongoing. — TODAY

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