WITH the threat of haze looming over Singapore until next month, MPs debating a new law yesterday to nab and punish the polluters were especially concerned with the practicality of implementing it.
Uppermost on their minds was the difficulty of pinpointing the culprits responsible for setting fires to clear agricultural land, amid Indonesia's complex, often overlapping land ownership and usage rights.
Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) asked how Singapore would obtain objective data on land ownership, as "the owners of the land may subcontract it out to others to manage and run".
The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act targets those responsible for causing or condoning such fires if burning results in unhealthy levels of haze, defined as a PSI level of 101 or more for at least a day.
Replying, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged that the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which Parliament passed yesterday, had several presumptions.
"We had to have presumptions on the validity of maps, we have to have presumptions on control, we have to have presumptions on indirect control... Because this depends on circumstantial evidence at best, we needed to get the balance right between presumptions and at the same time providing adequate defences and providing opportunities for the companies to rebut it," he said.
Circumstantial evidence that can be used includes satellite data and weather information about where winds are blowing from and how strong they are.
As well, databases of land concessions cobbled together by non-government groups like environmental research organisation World Resources Institute.
Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong wanted to know how the Government came up with the initial total fine of up to $300,000 for a polluter, an amount that was raised to $2 million after public consultation.
Dr Balakrishnan, however, did not address the question.
The law also lets companies and individuals sue and claim damages from the polluters.
But Nominated MPs Eugene Tan and Faizah Jamal, both trained in law, said an average person may find it too onerous to file a civil suit against the errant companies which have deep pockets.
They asked if there could be government support for class-action suits to allow groups to sue.
Dr Balakrishnan was non-committal, saying Singapore's court rules allow a form of group litigation called representative action, in which one person may represent all in a group.
MPs also made several suggestions, including offering incentives for companies to behave well, helping consumers choose sustainable palm oil and other products, using the fines collected to control fires, and expanding the scope of the new law to include haze from other sources such as oil rigs at sea or factories.
Dr Balakrishnan said the law was deliberately kept narrow as it already breaks new ground.
He also feels consumer groups, not the Government, should push companies to be more transparent about their supply chains. "Not everything is best done through legislation or through government action alone."
But going palm-oil-free is a wild goose chase, he added. "I asked my colleague in my ministry, please go to the supermarket and identify all the products with palm oil. He came back and said: 'I can't give you that list because more than half the products on the shelves have palm oil, including - you'd be surprised - Swiss chocolates of the highest quality."
As for the fines collected by government agencies, they all go into the Government's consolidated fund as a matter of public policy and are not earmarked for specific purposes.
Still, "if we need money to safeguard our population's interest, money to embark on cooperative action, money to work with civil society and other consumer groups in pursuit of these objectives, we will do so", said Dr Balakrishnan.
Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), however, feels "the greater long-term concern is not the haze but the large amount of carbon released into the earth's atmosphere".
He said: "The fires are the single largest contributor to Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions."
When contacted, Dr Nigel Sizer of World Resources Institute said: "The law sends a very strong signal to companies that Singapore is going to do its best to hold them accountable."
The maximum $2 million fine is "not a significant deterrent" to large firms, he added. "The deterrent to them is damage to their reputation" if they are found guilty under the Act.
This article was first published on August 06, 2014.
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