Indonesia’s testy reaction after Singapore raised the haze issue at the United Nations (UN) highlights the difficulties that the “little red dot” faces in getting its giant neighbour to clamp down on culprits starting the forest fires which cause the choking haze in the region every year. In order to buffer Indonesia’s negative reaction, Singapore will need to cooperate more with its other suffering neighbours, particularly Malaysia, to apply the necessary diplomatic pressure on Indonesia to do something about the problem.
Speaking at the UN in New York on 25 October, Singapore’s deputy permanent representative Kevin Cheok said that the haze problem “can be permanently resolved only if there is effective and sustained action on Indonesia’s part. Indonesia will need help. Singapore, like other affected countries, is prepared to assist…”
The senior diplomat added that that “the scale and severity of the problem means that Asean will require international assistance, including from the UN”. He pointed out that the annual forest fires have global consequences and require global action, but the “Indonesians themselves must muster the political will to take the crucial first steps to address this problem”.
Mr Cheok’s Indonesian counterpart, Adiyatwidi Adiwoso Asmady, reacted angrily, saying that “no substantive cooperation” in dealing with the problem has been achieved so far (as if Singapore was somehow at fault). She then proceeded to call Singapore’s statement “disparaging” and suggested some “malice” behind Singapore’s motives.
Indonesia continued to show its displeasure by démarching Singapore’s ambassador in Jakarta to demand an explanation for the remarks. Industry Minister Fahmi Idris also skipped last week’s bilateral meeting on the Indonesian special economic zones (SEZs) in protest. (Singapore has made – and continues to make – huge investments into the SEZs to help Indonesia develop them, a fact obviously ignored by the Minister.)
This hyper-sensitive reaction is nothing new. Years ago, then-Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, derided Singapore as being just “a little red dot” in response to a slight from Singapore.
As I wrote in an earlier article, I believe that bilateral pressure is the most effective way of getting the Indonesians to act against the fire starters.
Singapore is justified in raising the issue at the UN, as the air pollution caused by the Indonesian fires affects not only Southeast Asia, but the entire world, as it contributes to global warming. However, by sticking out its head and telling it plainly as it is, Singapore is now suffering from the wrath of a neighbour thousands of times its size.
Singapore’s other neighbours, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, have also been suffering from the haze. Malaysia hasn’t exactly been suffering in silence. The Malaysians have, in many ways, been more vocal in their frustration with Indonesia’s lackadaisical approach to this problem. Malaysian politicians from both the ruling party as well as the Opposition recently staged protests outside the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Singapore does not have the strength to pressure Indonesia alone. If Singapore and Malaysia – and perhaps Thailand and Brunei – could coordinate more effectively with each other, Indonesia will find it harder to distract from the issue with rhetoric. It will also not be so easy for them to sneer at Singapore being an impertinent little “adik” (little brother) telling their “abang” (big brother) what to do. With a warming of bilateral relations since Abdullah Badawi took over as Prime Minister of Malaysia, there is no reason why the two countries cannot work together more effectively to tackle this problem. For a start, Singapore and Malaysia could issue joint statements and defend each other on this issue, rather than just act individually.
There is more than just national and regional pride at stake here. Meteorologists are predicting a “super El Nino” next year, which could lengthen the dry season and result in the haze continuing until February the following year. This would surely result in far greater economic and health damage than the $7.2 billion that the 1997-98 haze costed the region. Stakeholder countries will need to mobilize all the technical, economic and diplomatic resources they can to tackle this problem before next year. It will be no easy task, and time is fast running out.