S'pore looking into laws to deal with firms behind haze

Singapore is looking at introducing extra-territorial laws to deal with companies found responsible for slash-and-burn practices that caused the haze, Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed in Parliament on Monday.

The Attorney-General has been asked to study the possibility of extending the arm of the law beyond Singapore's borders, as well as to "consider what legal options are available, if credible and usable evidence is received that Singapore-linked companies are involved", he said.

The announcement was made in his response to MPs' questions at the first parliamentary session since the haze crisis began last month.

Many MPs had asked if tougher action could be taken against errant companies and Indonesia.

Several MPs were uncompromising in urging stiff measures against the companies, with Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) calling for a boycott of companies found to be at fault.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Foreign Minister, said the primary responsibility for taking the companies to task lay in the hands of Indonesia.

Singapore, however, has formally sought from Indonesia, via a diplomatic note, clarification on whether Singapore-linked companies were involved and, if so, evidence of wrong-doing.

"We are awaiting Indonesia's response," he said.

Mr Shanmugam, who praised Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for showing "statesmanship" by apologising, stressed that Singapore had hitherto adopted a cooperative stance in its dealings with Indonesia and other ASEAN states.

The approach has yielded encouraging outcomes, he added.

A three-way cooperative process involving Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia has been set up to tackle the haze problem.

It was significant, he added, that all ASEAN countries now had to report at ASEAN summits "what they have done and what they have not done" on the haze issue.

Singapore has also offered to renew environmental collaboration with Indonesia's Jambi province, and to repair the air quality and weather monitoring stations it set up in 2009.

Later, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan explained that collaboration with Jambi lapsed in 2011 owing to local reasons, like the change in the province's leadership. Urging MPs to be sensitive about cross-border relations, he added: "If you want to go to your neighbour's house even if it's for collaboration, you need permission."

Mr Shanmugam had made the same point, saying he did not consider it wise for Singapore to be too abrasive.

Several MPs suggested more forceful action, with Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) asking why Singapore had chosen not to raise the issue at the United Nations, as it did during the 2006 haze crisis.

Exerting pressure could result in relationships being downgraded from "friendly" to "cool and correct", said Mr Shanmugam.

"We must maintain a clear, long-term perspective of the bilateral relationship and do our utmost to avoid hurting this relationship as much as possible."

While not ruling out UN action, he added that assertiveness could be counterproductive as it could cause groups in Indonesia to align against a solution.

"What we want to avoid is creating a situation where for political reasons, parties or people within Indonesia then take a position to say, 'Singapore is threatening us. And therefore we must react, and therefore we must not do what they ask'.

"I think we can very quickly get into those sorts of dynamics. International relations have to be handled delicately," he said.


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