A NEW law to punish polluters who cause the haze was passed by Parliament yesterday, with Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan promising to stiffen the penalties further if necessary.
Dr Balakrishnan gave the assurance after listening to MPs insisting that the fines were too low compared with the size of the errant companies' profits and the harm caused by the haze. The fines are up to $100,000 a day, capped at a total of $2 million, for causing unhealthy haze, defined as a Pollutant Standards Index value of 101 or greater for 24 hours or more.
The culprits who often cause, contribute to and condone activities that raise the haze level are mainly large palm-oil companies based in Indonesia.
As a result, several MPs said the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act could be hard to implement as it would be difficult to nab firms based outside Singapore, without infringing on the sovereignty of another country.
Singapore is regularly plagued by haze, the result of deforestation by burning in Indonesia. The worst haze occurred last year when the three-hour PSI hit a record 401, in the "hazardous" range. This year, the dry season threatens to bring on the haze any time until next month.
All nine MPs who spoke on the Bill, including opposition Non- Constituency MPs, gave their support to Singapore's first legal move against polluters.
But most felt the penalties were not stiff enough.
Said Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a law don: "There must be sufficient deterrence in this Bill.
How was $2 million arrived at when one considers the profits to be made and the market value of the oil-palm business?"
Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said: "This is a new legislation... We want to be very careful that we don't overreach or have unrealistic penalties. So we'll start now at this level."
The penalties had, in fact, been raised after public consultation over the draft law earlier this year. The cap on fines was initially set at $300,000.
Beyond fines, Dr Balakrishnan said the new law lets people or companies sue the haze culprits, with no limit set on the amount of damages they can ask for.
On enforcing the law, the minister said legal notice can be served on the companies' representatives when they are in Singapore. The National Environment Agency will work with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority on it.
"Where necessary, the public prosecutor could apply for a court order to require the person to remain in Singapore to assist in investigations," he said.
He also urged consumer interest groups and non-governmental organisations to help the cause, by tracking agricultural supply chains and monitoring the fire situation on the ground.
One such group is the homegrown People's Movement to Stop Haze, a youth group founded by 29-year-old Tan Yi Han, who felt the new law is a good step. "It will put companies under the spotlight to encourage them to continue zero-burning practices."
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