“For what has happened, as President, I say sorry and seek the understanding of our relatives in Singapore and Malaysia.” This was Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologizing on national television Monday evening, a week after forest fires in Sumatra caused a thick blanket of smog to descend on Singapore and many parts of Malaysia.
“Indonesia had no intention to cause this. And we will continue to bear responsibility to overcome what has happened,” Yudhoyono added.
His apology may be somewhat overdue but at least he said what every suffering citizen in Singapore and Malaysia has been waiting to hear for many days already. Thankfully, Yudhoyono’s apology also superseded the initial reaction of his subordinates who called Singapore childish for complaining too much about the haze.
While it is true that forest fire is a recurring problem in the region, this year’s transboundary haze is worse than in previous years. It is bigger, blacker, thicker, and harder to clear. It caused air pollution indexes to soar to record levels in both Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, a state of emergency has already been declared in Muar and Ledang, both in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. More than one hundred schools have suspended classes.
In Singapore, the wearing of face masks as protection against the haze has become the new normal in the prosperous city state. N5 face masks have become ridiculously expensive and many people have had to wait in line for several hours just to buy them. Workers have been advised to go home, travel has been restricted, and the young and old have remained indoors. The haze is clearly more than a health hazard, which makes the rising frustration and anger of many Singaporeans understandable.
Since the haze involves several countries in Southeast Asia, it is futile to put all blame and responsibility on Indonesia alone. What is needed is a regional intervention; and the only institution capable of fulfilling this crucial task is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Resolving transboundary issues is one reason why ASEAN exists. Unfortunately, the current haze disaster reflects the utter failure of ASEAN as a regional grouping.
Indeed, ASEAN initiated various programs to prevent forest fires and transboundary haze pollution as early as the 1980s. Regional workshops have been held annually since 1992. The 1997 haze, which badly affected the region, forced ASEAN to draft the Regional Haze Action Plan. It has three components: prevention, mitigation, and monitoring. Curiously, it assigned Malaysia to take the lead in prevention, Indonesia in mitigation, and Singapore in monitoring of haze – the three countries that are currently suffering.
In 1999, ASEAN adopted a “zero burning” policy targeted at plantation companies and timber concessionaires. Further, it enjoined member countries to develop and promote controlled burning guidelines for small farmers and cultivators. In 2002, the landmark ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed by the ten member countries.
In the past decade, ASEAN has spearheaded numerous activities to fight the haze scourge, which ranged from community level fire-fighting programs to high-level task force meetings of country ministers. Last October 2012, it even recognized the “substantive efforts” of Indonesia to prevent forest fires in the districts of Riau and West Kalimantan.
Clearly, ASEAN has done many things and used a lot of money to stop the dreaded haze, yet all have been ineffective. The haze has continued to return and worsen year after year.
Today there are demands for an ASEAN intervention to address the haze pollution. Indeed, ASEAN should act quickly but it should stop repeating what it has been doing for the past two decades. Albert Einstein purportedly once quipped that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Instead of organizing another meeting, workshop, or conference, ASEAN should simply review its records, implement the action plan, enforce the anti-haze agreement, and punish companies that violate environment laws.
For Malaysian politician Charles Santiago, the option is clear for his country: “Keep a close watch on Malaysian companies in Sumatra and charge those that flout laws, for these companies have committed nothing less than a crime against humanity.”