JAKARTA - A bill that penalises those responsible for causing transboundary haze will be tabled in Parliament by the second half of this year, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.
A draft of the proposed Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill was published in February for public consultation, and Dr Balakrishnan told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday that he wanted another round of consultations with those who had made suggestions.
"There's been some very good feedback. There are some changes I want to consider and another round of discussion with the people who have proposed changes."
Dr Balakrishnan made the comments after he spoke at the two- day Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, where he told some 2,000 participants, including several environment ministers, the root of problems like the haze was "misaligned commercial interests".
The summit, organised by the Bogor-based Centre for International Forestry Research and Indonesia's Forestry Ministry, comes as countries try to reach a binding global pact on mitigating the impact of climate change next year.
Dr Balakrishnan is also concerned about haze returning in the coming months, especially after scientists warned that this could be an El Nino year, with extremely high temperatures and drought in this part of the world.
At fault, he said, were companies that burned forests for short-term profits in a process he called "industrial-scale deforestation at an unprecedented level".
"The majority of the victims are Indonesians themselves, millions living in Riau, Sumatra, who are far more adversely affected than us," he said.
"We are in this together and need to work together, collaborate, and in the interests of transparency, share results of investigations and where relevant pursue prosecutorial actions," he added.
Dr Balakrishnan said he made these points in his speech and in talks with Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan because he did not want the impending extraterritorial legislation to be misunderstood.
"We are under no illusions - we can pass all the laws we like, but to get evidence, to secure conviction, requires investigation, requires a sharing of information at source," he said.
According to the draft legislation, firms that have fires on land they own or manage that cause haze over Singapore can be deemed to have committed an offence, and fined up to $300,000.
Those affected by the haze can also take up civil suits against these companies, whose representatives could be served notice when they enter Singapore.
The proposed law comes after Singapore - and South-east Asia - experienced record levels of pollution caused by forest fires in Riau last June. These were put out only after Indonesia launched a concerted firefighting effort.
In the wake of that episode, ASEAN leaders approved a joint haze monitoring system, a database that makes use of land concession maps, hot spot data and satellite images to identify land owners responsible for burning.
Dr Balakrishnan said he hoped Indonesia would help to populate the database with maps, to send a clear signal to errant companies.
He also said he was convinced that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was "trying to do the right thing", citing his decisive action in Riau to oversee efforts to fight the haze in March.
This article was published on May 6 in The Straits Times.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.