Tea break - just the time to seal a haze deal

Singapore's Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan (L) speaks with his Indonesian counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya during the 15th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC).

KUALA LUMPUR - Locked in an impasse over the sharing of concession maps on Wednesday, Asean environment ministers decided to adjourn for a tea break.

Over snacks, "intense bilateral and multilateral consultations" took place at the Royale Chulan hotel in the city centre, and the ministers hammered out the main points of an acceptable solution.

At issue was a haze monitoring system that Singapore had spent $100,000 developing. It was all systems go for the computer software except for one missing jigsaw puzzle piece: land concession maps from each country, to be matched with hot-spot data and high-resolution satellite images.

These are crucial to pinpointing companies responsible for burning land illegally. Singapore went to the meeting pushing hard on the issue, which it saw as vital for deterrence.

Making the maps public would pressure errant firms, as consumers would be better informed to take action against them, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at a post-meeting press conference.

The worst haze crisis last month in the history of the region provided further impetus. "We were quite determined that it cannot be business as usual - just talk shop and no commitments," he said.

"I told them I cannot go home empty handed... You've got to show that... something additional has been committed, and that the companies know what was coming their way."

But the minister said he also knew pushing too hard might trigger a backlash, and may jeopardise any hopes of Indonesia's future ratification of the Asean Transboundary Haze Agreement.

Haze in Singapore & Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, The Star, AFP, Reuters)

The signs were not good. In two days of preparatory meetings between civil servants, Indonesia and Malaysia raised for the first time the concern that their domestic laws may not allow the maps to be shared.

Indonesia at one point proposed the removal of any mention of maps in the press release, sources said.

Sources added that on Tuesday night, meetings scheduled to end before dinner ended at 11.30pm.

"Usually in an Asean meeting, the senior officials would have had most of the items finalised and agreed upon. This one - several of these (points) were left to the minister to discuss," said Second Foreign Minister Grace Fu, who accompanied Dr Balakrishnan.

In the end, that sharing would be government-to-government, not with the public, and was subject to approval at the Asean Summit in October, appeased all sides.

Malaysia, sources added, asked to include a phrase that required only maps of fire-prone areas "that cause transboundary haze" - effectively excluding itself, since its fires usually only have local effects.

But for some, it was the folksy setting of the break that sealed it.

"In a formal setting, it's very large, a lot of people around, so we couldn't really come face to face and listen to one another. During the break time, it's just (the) ministers... and all of us just gathered around and came to a conclusion," said Ms Fu.

Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong, who is also a former Asean secretary-general, added, half in jest: "Asean decisions all (reached) at tea break."

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