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Singaporeans in a haze over what to do about smog

A man wearing a mask walks past the skyline of Singapore’s business district, which has been blanketed in haze from fires buring in neighbouring Indonesia.   REUTERS
A man wearing a mask walks past the skyline of Singapore’s business district, which has been blanketed in haze from fires buring in neighbouring Indonesia. REUTERS

Singaporeans in a haze over what to do about smog

Already susceptible to shopaholic mania, compulsive eating disorder and lumbered with the semi-official tag of the world’s saddest people, Singaporeans are now forced to exist in an acrid pea-souper smog. The poor things. It ought to be enough to elicit profound sympathy, but it most assuredly does not.

In fact, the dominant sentiment that irrepressibly arises within us is one that says: Great, serves the smug beggars right.

There is no need for any guilt about such feelings, just as there is no need for any surprise at the way Indonesia’s universally admired foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, refused to say sorry to Singapore.

Why the heck should Jakarta apologise for the blanket of smokey fog that lies over its tiny neighbour? Quite the contrary.

As Indonesia’s minister coordinating its response to the calamity, Agung Laksono, said: “Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise.”

He is right. It is mind boggling to witness the condescension and gall of the Singaporeans as they issue missives instructing Indonesia to take “definitive action” to deal with the smog.

Let us remember that many of the vast and highly lucrative palm oil plantations in Sumatra using the slash and burn tactics that have caused the problem are owned by Singapore companies.

Already identified as likely culprits are Singapore-headquartered Asia Pacific Resources and PT Sinar Mas, whose parent company is the Singapore-listed Golden Agri Resources.

Asia Pacific has now put out a rebuttal asserting that it mandates a “strict no-burn policy” for all its plantations in Indonesia.

Two other Singapore-based conglomerates, Wilmar International and CTP Holdings, the latter a joint venture between Cargill and Temasek Holdings, are trying to preemptively defend themselves.

Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign fund administrator, said it has sent a team to Sumatra to confirm that there are no fires raging at its plantations.

Methinks, they doth protest their innocence too much.

It is something they have been doing for decades. Every time the smog reaches catastrophic levels, they plead innocence and claim it is the work of recalcritrant local farmers.

Utter nonsense. As is the claim that it only happens very rarely. In fact, it happens annually; it is just that some years, like this one and 1994, 1997 and 2005, are particularly horrendous.

Each time, the excuses and the blame game grow as offensive as the statements made by plantation owners and ministers of health and the environment.

Twenty years ago, when interviewing Malaysia’s deputy health minister Farid Ariffin, I asked about the annual choking haze in Kuala Lumpur.

“Oh, it’s temporary,” he said, blithely. “There’s no need to press the panic button yet. Life goes on, but I’ve stopped jogging and I exercise inside now.”

Singapore’s equivalent Vicar of Bray, Kishore Mahbubani, said on the BBC last week that he’d also stopped jogging, and, at a loss to offer any real answers, assured us that the haze will pass when the wind changes.

So it will. And ministers will turn to other matters and the fat cat plantation owners will resume normal service while counting their dosh.

What is most galling is the way Singapore whinges about such things, yet condones its own environmental pillaging, like the removal of vast amounts of sand from its neighbours’ shores.

Indonesia, Vietnam and now Cambodia have banned the practice, but in reality it continues.

Asked about it, Singapore officials say: Oh, but it’s a private business and the landowners and authorities allow it, so why not, lah?

Well, because it’s immoral and environmentally disastrous, that’s why.

Just as burning plantation lands is.

Really, the best solution would be for Singapore to dredge up that stolen sand and ship it over to Sumatra to douse the fires and kill the haze.

If they did that, we might have some sympathy for them. But until then, they can rub their eyes and cry a river for all the rest of us care.


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