Fighting haze: Keep up the pressure, Singaporeans

SINGAPORE - It looks like the worst of the haze is behind us. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised, taken the political heat and mobilised firefighting efforts. We can breathe a little easier.

But as private individuals and consumers, we should not back off on the pressure on the companies responsible. Instead, we should move to punish through consumer and business boycotts those offending companies that will be officially identified.

We should put all the necessary mechanisms for boycotts in place for when the haze recurs.

There are three questions many people pose when a boycott is proposed.

First, why can't we leave it to the government to act against the companies? Second, will it work? And third, how can we be sure the companies are the ones responsible?

Observing the blogosphere indicates to me that many young Singaporeans have no idea of the geopolitical reality of where Indonesia stands.

It is a large country, so large that there are political factions that see Singapore as a mere dot. If it does not want to be moved, a dot cannot budge a rock.

Until recently, that political will appeared to be absent for all intents and purposes. Laws and treaties had been established and ratified by those affected but not the source, Indonesia.

 

If the government is unwilling or unable to act, who can? It is not business because who is a business or a business group to tell another business or business group what to do?

By default, through the lack of options, it is up to the private citizen as consumer to act. Consumers as the ultimate buyers have the collective clout to demand certain ethical behaviour from the seller.

This raises the second question: What is the efficacy of a boycott? Can it work?

The simple answer is "yes".

There are many examples of consumer boycotts and even threats of consumer boycotts that have been successful in changing the malpractices of business.

The clothing manufacturing sweatshops in Bangladesh will undoubtedly improve the working conditions of their workers because the clothing brands fear the taint of the hellish conditions on their names.

Similarly, the paper and palm oil companies identified by the Indonesian government as contributing to the haze do sell their products either under their own brands or to international brands.

Paper products are easier to track and therefore, boycott.

With current technology in DNA tracing, it is even possible to link the paper in one's hand to the tree it came from. And there are alternatives.

In Singapore, the Double A brand of copy paper claims its trees are grown on the berms between padi fields.

Further afield, there are Scandinavian and Canadian companies that produce copy paper from pine trees.

Yes, they will likely cost more, especially relative to copy paper from the offending companies, but not that much more. In any case, buying the cheaper paper could mean paying through the nose literally as opposed to figuratively.

A palm oil consumer boycott is a little harder. A friend from the United States offered to join the boycott and asked how he might help.

When I said to boycott Oreos cookies, he groaned.

But if the palm oil companies think that being difficult to trace makes it impossible for consumers to boycott them, they are gravely mistaken.

In 2001, Professor George Akerlof won the Nobel Prize for his economic theory modelling how the uncertainty of information in a market can lead to the destruction of the market.

Here is how it works: Consider the case of milk in China. In the face of uncertainty of information over which brand is unreliable, the Chinese consumer is boycotting all Chinese milk brands.

Similarly, if it is uncertain which brands of palm oil were contributing to the haze, it would not be unreasonable for consumers to boycott all palm oil. This is a logical response particularly if they go by reports that the area to be cultivated for oil palm is to be increased by 60 per cent.

This potential for the destruction of the palm oil market is why the industry association Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has jumped to life from its previously dormant state to demand digital maps from its members. It has to identify those members and non-members who are contributing to the haze to save the market.

This leads to the third question of how to identify the offenders. The stock response is that it is a complex matter.

The truth is it may be complicated but it is certainly not complex. The modern car has many moving parts and a lot of electronics; it is complicated but not complex.

Press a button, flick a switch and you get the same response every time.

The human body is complex; two persons of the same age and gender from the same ethnic group may react differently to the same medication.

When something is complex, doing the same thing does not always get the same result.

In contrast, the response from the companies whose fires are burning in the concessions has followed a script.

A choking haze sweeps over Singapore and Malaysia. Non-governmental organisations and various parties pin the blame on paper and palm oil companies.

The companies deny they are responsible for the fires; it will be said that farmers are responsible as they have been doing so for decades and centuries, overlooking the fact that the haze at health-threatening levels started only from the early 1990s when plantations began sprouting.

And as if to prove the point that it is individual farmers, some poor souls are arrested. Meanwhile, paper companies will say it makes no sense to burn trees when they are paper companies.

It is a script. When something can be scripted, it is not complex.

All the evidence points to slash-and-burn by the large plantation companies or their third-party suppliers.

Any effort at a boycott therefore has to be multi-pronged.

Here is where every Singaporean can play a part in stopping the haze.

Join the Stop The Haze petition on Avaaz.org

Join the Facebook group Haze Elimination Action Team (Disclosure: I am one of the founders of this group). It is intended as an information hub for a boycott, when needed. Should the companies be identified, the team will also be talking to bankers and financiers of the offenders to tell them to boycott those companies.

We hope the situation will not require us to activate a boycott.

Even so, if the haze dies down, just being ready to act the next time the haze comes around will be a step forward.

Sign up, act and prepare to make a difference.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, where he is the director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre.

He is one of the administrators of the Facebook group, Haze Elimination Action Team, a group of volunteers formed to fight the haze.


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