A Tricky Process To Implement Singapore’s Trans-Boundary Haze Bill

Shaun Yeo is currently an active grassroots volunteer in the Kembangan-Chai Chee constituency who spearheads youth-centric projects in the area. He has a personal interest in local current affairs, having launched a Facebook note series called Our Singapore Happenings (blog) chronicling and analysing pertinent issues in the little red dot.

His views do not represent the organisations he is affiliated with.

The trans-boundary pollution bill has been put up by the government for public consultation for a month. The bill targets firms with haze-producing fires on their land that affect Singapore.

Many environmentalists and conservation lobby groups applaud the move as a right one. However, it is clear it will be a daunting task when it comes to implementing this law.

This bill is unique for two reasons: firstly, it deals with offences committed in a foreign land that affects Singapore and secondly, it applies to non-Singaporeans. Given the bill’s unique coverage, it comes with unprecedented challenges during implementation.

First and foremost, the bill relies on satellite imagery to pinpoint the culprit for the haze-causing fires in Indonesia. There is no way that concrete evidence can be found against these firms. This gives such firms plenty of reasons and opportunities to avoid being fined by claiming that the land does not belong to them.

Singapore has always been struggling to secure a map with a breakdown of the firms behind each plot of land. To be able to successfully implement this law, this has to be rectified. Singapore can request firms to present the plots of land under their charge to prove their innocence in the case; the presented area can then be cross-checked with the Indonesian government, eyewitnesses or Singapore officials on investigative missions. Once verified, Singapore can build up its database with time; eventually having the ability to pinpoint the owner of each plot of land.

Secondly, firms can look for legal loopholes in the bill and find its way around the law. One potential loophole is under the bill’s defence clause where it is a valid defence if sub-contractors conduct slash-and-burn without the firm’s authorisation or against the company’s will.

This creates an easy way for firms to claim that they were ignorant of their sub-contractors’ slash-and-burn practices.

The bill could introduce an assumption that firms should know the whereabouts and actions of their sub-contractors to ensure no such practices are done. Thus, the onus is now on the firms to check on their sub-contractors to ensure compliance; otherwise they will be punished by the law.

Thirdly, the legal reach of the law is of concern. Technically, if the firm is not based in Singapore and does not receive any financial funding from any Singapore entity, it can refuse to comply with the fine opposed upon it and the Singapore government’s reach is limited without the Indonesian government’s help. The penalty can be only be served and action taken if one member of the firm’s management enters Singapore.

However, given Singapore’s position as a hub for business transactions, it is likely that these companies will inevitably have to work via Singapore. If some of these companies are partially owned by local companies, the government can pressure these Singapore companies to force their counterparts to pay up the fine incurred. Banks in Singapore can also assist by refusing loans to these companies if they have outstanding fines to be paid.

At the end of the day, the Indonesian government’s support of the bill is crucial.

They can play a big role in adding pressure to these firms if they do not pay. The Indonesian government can also grant Singapore government officials access to tools to effectively bring the culprit to task without compromising national security. To have concrete evidence against firms, Singapore would have to send officials down to investigate. The Indonesian government can play a role in facilitating this process.

The implementation of this bill requires a constant and measurable amount of resources on the part of the Singapore government. The question is how much our government is willing to invest to track down those responsible for the hazy skies in Singapore? To what extend will investigative and prosecution efforts eventually outweigh the benefits of clearer skies in Singapore?

But one thing is certain: the Indonesian government can no longer accuse Singapore of turning a blind eye to companies based in Singapore that are practicing slash-and-burn in Indonesia. This bill will work very effectively against them and if anything they will be the first to be prosecuted under the new law.

A carrot approach could concurrently complement the current stick method. More can be done to encourage firms to move away from slash-and-burn practices.

Under the Singapore government’s jurisdiction, tax breaks/cuts can be given to firms doing business in Singapore that have a no-burning policy and effectively ensure their sub-contractors do not employ such practices. In addition, a preferential buying policy could be implemented for the government sector to frequent these firms for purchases.

Banks could also play a important part by having loans with lower interest and higher caps for these companies. Minister for Environment and Water Resource, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said that the root cause for the problem is commercial.

Since business is the main driving factor for these decisions, it will be a win for the cause if incentives can be attractive enough and fines large enough for firms to realise that it makes more economical sense to stop such practices entirely.

How the law is going to be implemented leaves many questions; the government has a heavy, uphill task with the reasons mentioned above. Legislation can only do so much in solving the issue. Educating firms and sub-contractors on right practices coupled with incentives to stop burning practices are equally important.

The message to all is clear: such burning practices cannot be tolerated further. If the Indonesian government is not going to actively enforce the reduction of slash-and-burn practices, Singapore is going to — in whatever capacity we can.

Photo: Instagram/@blackcookie


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