Singapore Voices Concern to Indonesia Over Worst Smog Since 1997

Singapore expressed “concerns” to Indonesia after forest fires in the Indonesian island of Sumatra enshrouded parts of Malaysia and the city-state, causing its worst smog in 16 years.

Singapore’s Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam emphasized the urgency of the situation and the country’s commitment to help fight the fires in Sumatra during a telephone call with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa yesterday, according to a statement by the city-state government.

“Minister Shanmugam and Minister Marty agreed that bilateral and regional cooperation could be further strengthened to tackle the haze problem and that Indonesian Environment and Forestry officials could discuss with their Singapore counterparts ways to better cooperate and deal with the haze issue,” the government said in the statement late yesterday.

Singapore’s pollution index reached 155 on June 17, the worst level since 1997 when it reached 226, according to the Straits Times. The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east.

Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan also spoke with his counterpart Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to share relevant information to improve monitoring of hotspots and land clearing activities, the city-state’s government said.

‘Illegal Burning’

The two ministers asked the Indonesian government to share the names of the errant companies involved in “illegal burning, though primary responsibility to take legal and enforcement actions against these companies lies with Indonesia as they have clearly violated Indonesian laws within Indonesian jurisdiction,” the Singapore government said.

“Both Minister Shanmugam and Minister Balakrishnan referred to the claim by an Indonesian forestry ministry official in the media that Malaysian and Singapore palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia may be responsible for starting the fires in Riau,” according to the statement.

Marty and Balthasar offered their reassurances that Indonesia would address the haze problem, the Singapore government said.

As many as 187 hotspots were detected over Sumatra the last two days and the hazy conditions are expected to persist for the next few days, according to the National Environment Agency. The pollution index reading fell to a “moderate” 78 as of 7 a.m., after reaching “unhealthy” 134 at 12 a.m., the agency said on its website.

Cost of Haze

The fires hit a peak in 1997, when haze cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated $3.5 billion, based on figures published in a report by the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia showed. The current smog could hurt the city-state’s services industry, according to Wai Ho Leong, an economist at Barclays Plc in Singapore.

Large tracts of peat lands around the coastal city of Dumai facing Singapore have caught fire, leading to the smog, according to The Straits Times, which cited Indonesian officials. Farmers are also burning plantations to clear land for the next sowing season, the report said. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil.

Pasir Gudang in Malaysia’s Johor recorded a reading of 148, according to the environment department’s 5 p.m. report yesterday. Three of the four areas in Johor indicated levels above 100.

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