A personal journey through the haze

A personal journey through the haze

My son, Luke, was born in 1997. That year, the haze from fires in Indonesia persisted for months.

Last year, he turned 17. The haze was still with us and, at one point, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) spiked at the hazardous level of 401. Singapore was blacked out at noon and people scrambled for masks.

My mother, then 81, stayed indoors for fear that her lung congestion and breathing problems would recur.

All of us are affected by the haze, but the elderly and the young can be most vulnerable.

Following the fires of 1997, I have worked with many others to seek a solution.

As a professor of international law, I have focused on environmental issues. In 1998, I chaired the first regional dialogue about the haze with Indonesian and Malaysian experts and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

While serving as a Nominated Member of Parliament, I moved a vote to urge that our Government do more to tackle the haze, and also led a delegation to Jakarta for dialogue on the issue.

For more than a decade, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), the think-tank I chair, has consistently advocated for action against the haze.

Since last year, positive steps have been taken. Indonesia recognised the problem and declared a state of emergency as haze closed airports nearest to the fires.

Its Parliament has finally ratified the ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze. Singapore now has a national law to hold firms accountable, even if the fires are outside our territory.

These are steps that provide the elements of a possible solution. Yet the problem persists. While the PSI 401 record has not been breached, fires this year have, at times, been as bad or worse than before.

The haze is a complex problem for which there is no silver bullet. Cooperation between governments is required, as well as action by corporations, local communities and NGOs.

Here are some personal snapshots of my journey through the haze.

From anger and paper promises to cooperation

The fires of 1997-1998 were declared a "global disaster" by the United Nations Environment Programme, and many countries offered help with firefighting and water bombing.

Then Indonesian President Suharto apologised and accepted "moral" responsibility for the haze. But with the country in financial and then political crisis, little was done.

Post-crisis Indonesia set out to become the world's largest producer of palm oil and, as the markets for this valuable product soared, more land was opened up, often using fire. Other types of plantations - big and small - added to the problem.

Many, moreover, pointed to companies controlled from Singapore and Malaysia as culprits.

Fast-forward to the present and we can see that conditions for effective action have considerably improved.

The years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ushered in a more stable and prosperous Indonesia. There have been pledges for greater forest conservation. There were years - 2008 to 2012 - when the fires seemed more controlled.

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