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Singapore Urges Indonesia to Tackle Haze From Fires

Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore's minister of Environment
Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore's minister of Environment. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Singapore is seeking talks with Indonesia to discuss the recurring problem of forest fires on the island of Sumatra that has covered Singapore and western Malaysia with smoke haze.

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo is asking to speak to the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tomorrow, the government said in a statement today. Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister, has also contacted his Indonesian counterpart to “register our concerns,” according to the e-mailed statement.

“This is not the first time that we have informed the Indonesians that they should pay attention to the hotspots both in Sumatra and Borneo,” Ibrahim said yesterday. “We are a bit disappointed that this is happening.”

Smoke from forest fires mainly in Indonesia clouds parts of Southeast Asia every year as farmers on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra clear land by burning trees and bushes. Pollution levels reached hazardous levels in Malaysia yesterday. In 1997 and 1998, smoke haze caused economic losses of almost $9 billion as tourism fell and health-care costs rose.

Singapore’s environment minister said yesterday should the situation worsen, officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations may hold a meeting to discuss what steps to take. “We cannot take this matter lightly,” Ibrahim told reporters, according to a transcript of his remarks released by his ministry.

Health Warning

An Asean website that monitors the fires shows that southwesterly to westerly winds are carrying the smoke haze to West Malaysia and Singapore.

“Persons with existing heart or respiratory ailments should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity,” the National Environment Agency of Singapore said on its website.

The so-called 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index reading reached 80 yesterday, compared with as low as 23 at the beginning of the month. The three-hour reading as of 8 a.m. today was 72. A PSI reading of less than 50 is considered “good,” 51 to 100 is “moderate” and higher than 101 is “unhealthy,” according to the agency. A reading of more than 300 is “hazardous.”

‘Hazardous’ Level

Schools in the Muar area of Malaysia’s southern Johor state were advised to temporarily close because the haze reached a “hazardous” level, Bernama reported today, citing Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

The Air Pollutant Index reached 400 yesterday which is considered “dangerous,” the report said, citing Muhyiddin, who is also education minister.

Muhyiddin yesterday chaired a meeting of the National Security Council on the haze situation in Muar, it said. A haze-monitoring operations room was opened in the district, according to the national news service.

“On many occasions we have told the Indonesians to take extra measures to ensure that this does not recur,” Yaacob said. “If things worsen, we will probably register our concern again, perhaps on even stronger terms to our Indonesian colleagues.”

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