Indonesian government confused over Singapore help's for haze situation

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Arguing that Singaporeans might learn how fighting forest fires is no easy task, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has said Singapore should step in to help Indonesia to combat the fires, the smoke from which has polluted relations between the two nations in recent months.

"We are open to receiving assistance. Don't just talk, just come [to help us]," he told reporters on the sidelines of the 70th UN General Assembly in New York on Sunday (Sep 27).

Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, however, said that Indonesia was continuing its attempts to overcome the problem without outside help.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar had previously turned down Singapore's offer of assistance.

"Once again, we are still trying to do it by our own efforts," Pramono told journalists in Jakarta on Monday (Sep 28).

Singapore had to shut its schools last Friday (Sep 25) and began distributing free antipollution masks to the elderly and other vulnerable people as a thick smoky haze shrouded the island nation, with pollution levels at their worst this year.

The haze - a pall of grayness that resembles wintry fog and virtually obliterates the skyline and seeps inside homes - is an annual problem for the region, resulting from the many forest and peatland fires, caused by slash-and-burn techniques used to clear land for farming and plantations on the island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan.

The haze has caused tensions between Singapore and Indonesia, particularly after Kalla commented recently that neighbouring countries "already enjoy 11 months of clean fresh air from Indonesia", and suggested that it was no big deal if they suffered from the haze for the one month when forests were usually burned.

Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, in a Facebook post, responded by saying his government "takes the matter seriously" and Singapore is "ready to assist Indonesia in combating the fires".

"Yet, at the same time, we are hearing some shocking statements made, at senior levels, from Indonesia, with a complete disregard for our people, and their own - PSI [pollutant standard index] levels in parts of Indonesia are at almost 2,000 PSI."

"How is it possible for senior people in government to issue such statements, without any regard for their people, or ours, and without any embarrassment, or sense of responsibility?" he wrote.

Kalla said that combating forest fires was not as easy as it looked.

"It's better for Singapore to join [fighting forest fires] to learn for sure that it's not that easy. Go ahead [and help us]. Don't assume that we don't extinguish [forest fires] while [in fact] we have deployed many battalions of the Army [to combat forest fires]. But how [to quickly put an end to forest fires] in this dry season?" he said.

Although Kalla instructed Minister Siti to accept Singapore's assistance, Siti said on Monday that she had yet to receive any new instructions regarding the matter and therefore Indonesia would continue to use its "own resources in handling forest fires".

"I have yet to receive new instructions as of Monday because one day after the Vice President told me about his instruction, the President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo returned on Sep 15 from his visit to Middle East countries and we discussed it and the conclusion remains the same, just as is still ongoing today," Siti said on Monday at the State Palace.

Under the proposed assistance, Siti said, Singapore would lend Indonesia a plane with the ability to carry 5,000 liters of water for water-bombing operations and a Chinook aircraft for carrying personnel.

Siti recently said that the assistance was not needed as the government was well-equipped to handle the current situation.

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