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Public Lives

Haze over Singapore

/ 11:21 PM June 22, 2013

Singapore prides itself in having the greenest and cleanest city in all of Asia. Its environmental laws are exacting. A government agency religiously monitors the quality of the country’s air. Smokers are treated like an outcast race exiled to a few corners where they can poison their own lungs without harming the health of others. The cost of owning a car is made prohibitive not just to limit road traffic but also to keep motor-vehicle emissions under control.

But, as if to mock the ecological capsule Singapore has built around itself, smoke from the burning forests of nearby Sumatra in Indonesia has crossed over and now shrouds this wealthy city-state. Haze hangs over the city’s skyline like a malignant cloud. Last Friday, Singapore’s air pollution index shot up to 401, indicating a situation deemed so hazardous that the government has asked its citizens to stay indoors and to wear protective masks if they must go outside.
Facing his countrymen, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there is no way of knowing when the deadly haze will dissipate because of the complex confluence of factors that have brought it about. The forest fires in Sumatra continue to rage, engulfing more forest lands and igniting large swaths of combustible peat land. The weather has been very dry over these parts, and clouds have to be seeded to induce rain. But, there are limits to what human effort can do within the short term. The direction and velocity of the wind have to change. In the long term, the human activities that trigger these wild fires must be stopped.

There must be a lesson to be learned from all this.

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The most obvious, of course, is that Nature does not respect national boundaries. Planet Earth is an indivisible whole. What happens outside a country’s sovereign jurisdiction can affect its people in no small measure. While it is not the business of any nation to intervene in the business of its neighbors, it is certainly every people’s duty to understand international problems and their causes and repercussions, and to know how nations may come together to solve them.

Right now, all eyes are on Indonesia. It is natural for the Singaporeans to feel aggrieved over a disaster they think they had no role in bringing about, and to blame the haze on the dysfunctional practices of their less developed neighbor. To their credit, some of Singapore’s leaders have been careful not to encourage this kind of talk. Beyond offering help to put out the fires, they see no point in blaming the Indonesian government for its failure to stop the fires from spreading.

Still, Singaporeans wonder why these fires occur almost regularly at this time of the year, and why the Indonesian government seems impotent to prevent them. A close look at the origins of these fires will suggest that most of them are not accidental. They are deliberately started both by small slash-and-burn farmers and large plantation owners to clear away forest growth and claim forest land for commercial crops. It seems that where there’s smoke, there is profit.

The other day, a Singaporean member of parliament from the ruling PAP, Irene Ng, took the courageous step of enlarging the scope of the discussion by focusing on the forces that drive the unbridled commodification of forest resources. She casts a critical eye on her own nation’s possible complicity in the destructive practices that produce this ecological nightmare. It is refreshing to hear voices like hers in a society that has long been known to be allergic to dissent. For, in truth, she speaks not just to Singaporeans but to all of us, and for everyone who cares for the environment.

In a commentary posted in the online community paper “The Real Singapore” (6/19/13), MP Ng writes: “I think it is disingenuous for the Singapore government and its people to cry foul over this issue and play a tit-for-tat game. This problem is basically symptomatic of the consequences of unbridled economic growth that we have unproblematically acquiesced to as a society. Would we even care that one of the world’s most concentrated areas of carbon (i.e., peat lands) and pristine forests are being destroyed if the prevailing winds were in the opposite direction?”

She calls into question the hypocrisy and short-sightedness that underlie the thinking of those who see only the effects of the haze on their personal health and daily routines. “It certainly says something of our education system and values that we only concentrate on the proximate ‘clean and green’ message about the cleanliness of our environment in Singapore without considering the massive ecological consequences of our unsustainable consumption patterns.”

More significantly, MP Ng takes to task her own government, zeroing in on Singapore’s strategic position as a financial hub and host to major Indonesian palm oil and pulp companies, including those suspected of starting these fires. She wonders if her own government’s investment firms like GIC and Temasek Holdings are not stock holders in these very same companies. She asks if the Singaporean banks that take care of the money of countless Indonesian tycoons have bothered to check whether some of the accounts they keep do not belong to companies that are involved in the burning of forests.

“We in Singapore profit from the paper/pulp and palm oil industry, and to say that all the responsibility [for the haze] lies with the Indonesian government does not recognize its trans-boundary nature, and the different pressure points at different steps of the commodity supply chains that can be utilized, and which would require different types of intervention.” Amen!

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TAGS: environment, Haze, opinion, Public Lives, Randy David, Singapore, Singapore haze
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