Media Interview: The Straits Times, Singapore

1. Will the Singapore Transboundary Pollution Bill make a difference to current practices? 

If this law is passed, and is proved to be enforceable, there should be a significant change in current fire and burning practices on the ground. Before this, Singapore has been quite powerless to bring any party to task over responsibility for fires that bring smoke and haze over Singapore. At the moment, only Indonesia has jurisdiction over the actions of firms in their territory, even though those firms may have foreign roots. And Indonesia suffers from continuing weakness in enforcing their own anti-burning laws. Very few firms who have been accused of being responsible for fire have ever been successfully prosecuted in Indonesia. Bringing in an external party to the equation, in this case Singapore, will definitely put firms on their toes. Firms will no longer be able to hide behind the inefficiencies of the Indonesian legal system. Hopefully this law will motivate firms, especially those with links to Singapore, to take issues of fire management more seriously. There may also be a positive side effect on the Indonesian administrative side, where Indonesia will hopefully be more motivated to improve their own enforcement, to keep up with Singapore’s more hands-on involvement in firms operating on their land.

2. What will be some forseeable challenges?

I am not a legal expert, but I would foresee that Singapore will have major difficulty in getting Indonesia to accept extraterritorial jurisdiction over parts of their land. Especially so in the ASEAN environment, where ASEAN countries are generally known to jealously guard their sovereign rights, and any attempt to intervene is viewed as a serious diplomatic issue. I would be very interested to know Indonesia’s response (if any so far) to this proposal. Indonesia may view this move as a snub to their abilities in managing their own internal issues. Actually, this discussion of extraterritorial laws pertaining to fire and haze management is not new, and has been in discussion among Singaporean lawmakers for many years now. However, we have not seen it coming into reality after all these years. This may be an indicator itself over how feasible this law is, especially in this part of the world.
3. Does Malaysia have such laws and if not, would this be something that Malaysia could push for as well? 

As far as I know, Malaysia does not have any such laws. Singapore is a pioneer on this idea for haze management. Of course, it would be something good for Malaysia to push for, especially since Malaysia faces exactly the same problems as Singapore in bringing responsible parties to task. Perhaps if Singapore manages to put this law into place, Malaysia may be encouraged to follow suit, especially if there is high public and international pressure. However, looking at track record, while Singapore has generally been the one to propose quite radical approaches to managing haze such as this, Malaysia has often been quite conservative, and tends to side with Indonesia, especially if the proposal touches sensitive issues of sovereignty and non-interference. For example, the latest proposals to make concession maps publicly available as part of ASEAN’s Joint Haze Monitoring System was rejected by both Indonesia and Malaysia, citing privacy and legal concerns.

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