A combination photo shows the residential high rise apartments near the shopping district of Orchard Road in Singapore shrouded by haze on September 24, 2015 (top) and on a clear day April 15, 2014 (bottom). (Reuters/Edgar Su)

As Air Pollution Soars in Singapore, So Do Tempers


SEPTEMBER 27, 2015

Singapore. As the city-state continues to suffer under a thick blanket of haze, Singapore's Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam took to social media this week to condemn statements made by senior Indonesian officials about the crisis, which affects the region every year.

Foreign relations between the nations have been repeatedly tested in recent years over the haze crisis, caused by forest fires in Sumatra. The haze has now blanketed Singapore for three weeks, the worst episode the city-state has seen since mid-2013, as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI)  climbed to "hazardous" levels of 341, forcing the closure of schools on Friday.

The crisis has become an annual occurrence due to slash-and-burn agricultural techniques used to clear land for plantations, engulfing large parts of Indonesia and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

As the PSI soared in Singapore, so did tempers as Shanmugam took to social media on Thursday saying that while the Indonesian government is taking steps to deal with the problem, “[at the same time] we are hearing some shocking statements made, at senior levels, from Indonesia, with a complete disregard for our people, and their own.”

“How is it possible for senior people in government to issue such statements, without any regard for their people, or ours, and without any embarrassment, or sense of responsibility?” Shanmugam added.

While the foreign affairs minister did not identify the officials responsible for the purported statements, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla was quoted by local media as saying on Thursday: "Look at how long they have enjoyed fresh air from our green environment and forests when there were no fires [it could be months] are they grateful? But when forest fires occur, a month at the most, haze pollutes their regions. So why should there be an apology?"

It was not the first time the vice president denounced neighboring nations over their haze complaints. He said in March: "For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset."

At the same time, the vice president alleged that foreign companies were behind the forest fires and foreign countries must therefore share the burden of responsibility in dealing with them. These allegations were not unfounded when it was revealed by an official at Indonesia's Forestry and Environment Ministry that a Singapore-listed firm was among those under investigation for potential involvement in causing the fires and consequential deteriorating air quality.

Nevertheless, the Indonesian government turned down a Singaporean offer of military assistance to extinguish the wildfire, maintaining that the Indonesian government itself would quell the flames within 30 days.

Under pressure from its neighbors to put an end to the annual haze, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pledged to crack down on companies and individuals responsible for the forest fires.

Meanwhile, the Singapore government has stood firm on its position that all Asean states should follow through and fulfill their obligations under the region's Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was established in 2002 and ratified by Indonesia last September.