Haze problem: Bilateral pressure on Indonesia works best

Asean’s anti-haze agreements may look good on paper, but they have so far failed solve the current problem

The recent positive response by the top Indonesian leadership to Singapore’s call for them to prevent the land-clearing fires causing the regional haze is an indication that firm, bilateral pressure is the probably only way to get the Indonesians to act against recalcitrant slash-and-burn farmers.

The haze problem caused by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan has been affecting the region for decades. It hit its peak in 1997, when the haze cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated $7.2 billion. Although less serious than 9 years ago, this year’s haze still threatens to inflict its toll on the economies of the region and the health of its citizens.

Almost 10 years and billions of dollars of damage after the 1997 haze, which caused a regional outcry, what has the Indonesian government done to tackle it? Recent remarks by the Indonesian forestry minister probably sum up his country’s resolve (or lack thereof) to get cracking on illegal slash-and-burn farming techniques. The minister, Mr M.S. Kaban, said: “Our forests produce oxygen which makes the air cool for them (regional neighbours), but they have never been grateful.”

Commenting on pressure on Indonesia to ratify a regional anti-haze agreement, Mr Nazarudin Kiemas, a member of the Indonesian parliamentary commission on the environment, said that not only the region, but the world, owed Indonesia for the oxygen the country produces. He went on to imply that Singapore and Malaysia were not being “good neighbours” and were “calculative”.

Asean’s efforts not working

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has made a laudable effort to stop the haze problem. Unfortunately, these efforts have so far failed to get the Indonesians to respond positively. The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed by all 10 Asean members in June 2002 and it entered into force in November 2003 when most of the member countries ratified it. However, to date, Indonesia still has not deposited its instrument of ratification, and is therefore not legally bound to adhere to the agreement, which requires signatories to develop and implement “measures to prevent and monitor transboundary haze pollution, and control sources of fires by developing early warning systems”, among other things.

Although Asean should be commended for its effort, the recurring haze has once again shown Asean to be a regional organisation with no teeth. This is mainly because of Asean’s strict rules preventing member nations from interfering in the affairs of their fellow members. It is also run by a very small Secretariat which has neither the resources nor the authority to take any enforcement action on member states, even if they flout agreements.

Domestic outcry leads to bilateral pressure

After years of failed regional efforts, Indonesia’s suffering neighbours have thankfully decided to put their foot down and say “enough is enough”. This is no doubt partly due to stronger domestic pressure by Singaporeans and particularly Malaysians on their respective governments to act against Indonesia.

The Malaysian Bar Council on 12 October called on the Malaysian Government to take Indonesia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to demand compensation for the damage caused by the haze. Although the Government’s response was unenthusiastic, the Transport Minister conceded that demanding compensation through the ICJ was “not completely unreasonable”. Both the opposition Democratic Action Party and UMNO Youth have staged protests outside the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the last two days, demanding that Jakarta prosecute those causing the fires and pay compensation to its neighbours.

In Singapore, although the public reaction has been less aggressive, there have been numerous letters written in to the newspapers calling on the Government to put more pressure on Indonesia. The Straits Times published a terse letter on their online forum on 11 October, suggesting that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Cabinet operate out of Kalimantan, the worse hit area, so they can experience the discomforts of the haze first hand. The writer also accused the Singaporean and Malaysian government of being “impotent” in this regard.

Bilateral pressure the way forward, for now

Reacting to the public outcry, Singapore’s Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim invited his counterparts from Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Indonesia to attend a “Sub-Regional Environment Ministerial Meeting on Transboundary Haze Pollution” on 13 October to “discuss urgent and long-term measures that the countries could undertake to tackle the problem caused by raging Indonesian forest fires”.

At the same time, over the past weekend, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote to President Yudhoyono to express his disappointment over the recurring haze problem. In his letter, PM Lee urged the President to deal with the problem in a timely and effective manner, so that investor confidence in Indonesia, Indonesia’s international standing and Asean’s credibility would not be affected. He also reminded President Yudhoyono about the meeting of environment ministers on 13 October. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sent Jakarta a Third Party Note (TPN) on 9 October conveying Singapore’s concerns about the haze issue. A TPN is the highest-level official note, which requires a timely response from the receiving government.

The reaction from the top Indonesian leadership to this latest round of bilateral pressure was swift. President Yudhoyono convened a meeting with his officials, after which he issued an apology to Singapore and Malaysia for the fires. He also instructed his foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, to convene a sub-regional meeting of environment ministers in Pekanbaru, Indonesia. This move was clearly an effort by the Indonesians to seize the initiative from Singapore to apply pressure on them through the meeting. In order to avoid offending the regional “big brother”, Singapore quickly agreed to shift the meeting to Pekanbaru.

On the afternoon of 12 October, President Yudhoyono telephoned PM Lee, assuring him that Indonesia was determined to take effective measures to prevent the forest fires in future. He also promised that Indonesia would ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

After almost 10 years of failed Asean initiatives, bilateral pressure may prove to be the most effective method to get the Indonesians to act. It is an unfortunate reality in the international arena that regional or international agreements often have a louder bark than bite. Political leaders, who are the prime movers of national initiatives, usually respond better to direct pressure from their foreign counterparts.

Singapore and Malaysia need to stop wasting time crafting legal agreements within the Asean framework to prevent the haze. Even if Indonesia were to follow through with its promise to ratify the anti-haze agreement, Asean countries should be under no illusions that this would significantly improve Indonesia’s behaviour. Instead, Asean leaders and diplomats should regularly raise this issue during their bilateral meetings with Indonesian leaders, warning them of the negative impact their inaction has on bilateral relations.


As the monsoon winds change direction and the rains come, it is likely that politicians, both in Indonesia and neighbouring countries, may think that the problem has blown away. But it will only come back with a vengeance next year and the following years, if pressure on the Indonesians is not maintained,
particularly in the months leading up to next year’s haze season.

The governments of Singapore and Malaysia owe it to their citizens to put aside idealistic regional efforts, and instead do what works to get the Indonesians to crack down on illegal land-clearing. Singaporean and Malaysian citizens should continue to call on their governments to not let issue rest until the problem is solved completely.

This article was originally published on SingaporeAngle on 13 October 2006.

Technorati: Singapore, haze, Indonesia, forest fires, Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.