Smog at Hazardous as Singapore, Jakarta Spar Over Fires

Singapore remained blanketed in thick, smoky haze as Indonesia’s Air Force prepared to water-bomb forest fires raging on the island of Sumatra.

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index stood at 135 as of 7 p.m., a level deemed unhealthy, the National Environment Agency, or NEA, said on its website. Earlier in the day it reached a hazardous reading of 401, a record. The NEA said it expected the 24-hour PSI to remain in the unhealthy 200-300 range.

Haze is common in many parts of Asia, with air quality in China averaging unhealthy levels above 150 for 23 of 31 days in May, according to a U.S. Embassy monitor. There were 175 days of very high pollution in Hong Kong in 2011, more than twice the figure in 2007, according to a government audit last November.

Even so, very poor air quality is more unusual in Singapore. “There’s clearly a lot of frustration, a lot of anger here,” Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and former chairman of the NEA, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today. “Not just from the Singaporeans, from the various foreigners who have planted offices here in Singapore, who have made a home here.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday he expressed “serious concern” in a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and requested evidence that Singaporean or Malaysian companies were responsible for the “illegal burning,” as suggested by some Indonesian officials.

Disputes between the two neighbors flare up regularly over haze. The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east.

Water Bombing

Indonesia deployed two planes to create artificial rains today, according to Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Agency for Disaster Management. It was preparing seven Air Force planes and three helicopters for water bombing, Nugroho told reporters in Jakarta.

Officials had detected 60 hot spots in the Riau region of Sumatra, Nugroho said, down from 148 two days ago, with 80 percent of those in plantations and 20 percent in forests. Singapore has provided satellite data to help identify the companies responsible for the fires.

Malaysia, where haze levels remained hazardous in some southern areas, will send Natural Resources and Environment Minister G. Palanivel to Indonesia on June 26 to meet officials, the Malaysian government said in an e-mailed statement.

“It is important that Asean nations work together in a spirit of cooperation to tackle this problem,” the government said in the statement. Malaysia has offered to send firefighters to Indonesia if requested.

Jakarta Elite

Malaysia and Singapore should pressure both the Indonesian government and palm-oil companies that are burning forests to clear the way for plantations to halt the practice, Barry Desker, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said in an e-mail.

“There is no significant impact in Jakarta and it is not a major priority for the Jakarta-based political elite, which is preoccupied with the hike in petrol prices,” Desker said. “Pressure must be put on Indonesia to stop the problem at its source.”

While diplomatic ties wobble at times over haze and other issues, Indonesia and Singapore have strong economic links. Singapore’s total trade with Indonesia was S$79.4 billion ($62.3 billion) in 2012, according to government trade promotion agency IE Singapore. Indonesia is Singapore’s fourth-largest trading partner.

Positive Relationship

The relationship between Singapore and Indonesia is a “very broad and largely positive one,” Tay from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs separately told Bloomberg. “As a whole, Indonesia needs Singapore and Singapore can play a useful role in Indonesia. It’s still very symbiotic in many ways.”

Singapore’s prime minister said the fires were caused by errant companies and were not likely to just be smallholders slashing and burning. He said it was not fruitful to respond to Indonesian minister Laksono’s comments.

“We need to work on the problem rather than exchanging harsh words,” Lee said, repeating an offer to help Indonesia.

The pollution will hit tourism-related industries in Singapore, which make up about 5-6 percent of the economy, as well as construction, Joey Chew, an economist at Barclays Plc, said in a research note on the haze yesterday. A disruption for one week could cost the economy about $1 billion, Barclays economist Wai Ho Leong said in an e-mail on June 19.

Stay Indoors

Lee said Singaporeans could expect a higher incidence of respiratory diseases, offered medical financial assistance to the young and elderly and urged people to stay indoors where possible. Singapore’s armed forces have stopped field training, the Straits Times reported yesterday.

Lower visibility from the smog has prompted Singapore’s Changi Airport to increase the time between aircraft takeoffs and landings, the aviation authority said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg. The island’s secondary airport at Seletar in the northeast resumed flights at 2 p.m. after services were suspended at 11 a.m. yesterday, Changi Airport said.

Ships were advised to navigate with caution, the port authority said in an e-mail. The Singapore Shipping Association said in an emailed statement it was gravely concerned about the impact of the haze on the safe navigation of ships through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Singapore Flyer, which operates the city-state’s ferris wheel, suspended operations yesterday.

In southern Malaysia, children at kindergartens were sent home, according to the The Star. Singapore’s Ministry of Education told schools to cancel all activities for the rest of the June school vacation, it said on its website.

Plantation Companies

Major companies with palm oil plantations in Indonesia, such as Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd., Malaysia’s Sime Darby Bhd., the world’s biggest listed palm oil producer, and Cargill Inc., told Bloomberg they had a zero-burning policy.

Half of the fires detected between June 11-18 were in areas that should have been protected by an Indonesian moratorium on clearing forest, said environmental campaign group Greenpeace by e-mail.

“The fact that these fires continue to affect the region shows just how poorly forest protection measures are enforced in Indonesia,” said Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, in the statement.

If there were a “silver bullet” Indonesia would have shot it by now, said former NEA chairman Tay. “There are serious issues here about industry, about the climate, and about climate change gases, which is a complex issue across a very large country called Indonesia.”

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