Out of the haze

You may have seen images in the news of Indonesia with blood red skies and mired in choking smoke, looking more like Mars than on earth.

Runaway forest fires in Indonesia has been a recurring problem, and the cause of the “haze” in Singapore and Malaysia, depending on which way the wind blows. The fires can rage on for days and weeks in the carbon-rich peat forests, and has so far affected an estimated 69 million people in the region. We can’t even begin to count the cost to the wildlife.

Each day in Singapore we look at the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to see if it has exceeded safe levels, which is over the 100 mark. If so, to avoid too much outdoor activity.

The Indonesian government has acknowledged that the measures adopted in the wake of the 2015 fires have fallen short. Fines for illegal slash and burn techniques of clearing land have not served as sufficient deterrent for large companies granted commercial concessions over the land. In Singapore it was reported that three of these companies even have offices in Singapore. As far as I am aware, no action has been taken against them to date.

This has led me to think that what we need is more of a concerted effort to work together regionally. There currently exists protocols agreed by the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations of ten nations) for dealing with exactly such an emergency. Just as environmental standards are set at EU level, problems such as air pollution can be better tackled across borders. Likewise the pursuit of criminals.

Furthermore, given that this has been a recurring problem, energies and assistance need to be directed towards preventative measures, such as in education of local farmers, in building the local infrastructure and effective deterrent through action taken against the culprits. ASEAN needs to lead on championing the rule of law, on good governance, all in the spirit of ASEAN inter-dependency and co-operation.

I was delighted to read about President Widodo’s ambitious project to move the capital, Jakarta (which is sinking by 6-7 inches a year), to a new capital to be built on the island of Borneo near the regional cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.

Having spent two inspiring weeks earlier this month at the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg, I couldn’t help thinking that this could be an opportunity to construct something significant to house the ASEAN Secretariat currently based in Jakarta.

Imagine bringing together talent from around the region, especially the young, to explore and find joint solutions for the region’s challenges for greater economic growth, to deal with threats to security, and on protection of the environment too.

* Merlene was co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats and on the executive of the LibDems Overseas. She co-edited “Rise of China – Fresh Insights and Observations” published by the Paddy Ashdown Forum (2021)

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  • I couldn’t quite follow the train of thought of this article. But it included some interesting snippets of information

  • nigel hunter 27th Sep '19 - 4:08pm

    I think it comes from her visit to the Eu Parliament where she cpuld see how it worked and what it discussed.
    The area seems to be following the slash and burn of Bolsanaro with the ‘culprits’ running offices in Singapore. The same problems as Brazil ,wanting to earn a living but also destroying the environment.
    Is it moving the capital ‘out of the way ‘ the idea of solving the problem whilst not realising the extent of the problem.ie not realising the effect on the planet as the peat releases the carbon.
    She could be asking for solutions,or ways to get the young involved in organising a campaign to bring attention to the problem.
    Can she come back to explain.

  • Merlene Emerson 27th Sep '19 - 4:54pm

    The 2 main points I was making were:
    1. regional efforts (eg via the ASEAN) are the best way of tackling regional problems such as air pollution or in the pursuit of criminals across borders; and
    2. the proposed relocation of the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta (which is home to the Secretariat of the ASEAN) may be an opportunity to construct something amazing as the HQ. Nigel is right in that I was very much impressed by what I saw in Brussels and Strasbourg recently.

  • nigel hunter 27th Sep '19 - 5:13pm

    So you are wanting a sort of Asian EU. with one seat of govnt discussing the problems. Is that not going to need the approval of all participating countries of the area.?They could all participate in its building. That could make it a unifying ‘Parliament’ for the whole region .Nothing like a unifying project to get people to work together.

  • What is happening is dreadful. That is why (I think) Merlene is suggesting a treaty-based international legal regime for ASEAN, as the EU has achieved. It’s an important suggestion. The actions of individuals in individual countries are polluting the air across that part of Asia, and only international action backed with real teeth can fix it. It reminds me of when burning coal caused acid rain in Europe. We’re phasing coal out now. I have a bad memory of going walking in the Czech Republic through mile after mile of dead forests. Like a dystopian movie set, but real.

  • The European Union is indeed a model for what we should be trying to spread around the world. It is a international, democratic organisation – the only one.
    We must also look at our own contribution to the increasing environmental problems in our planet. When we import goods from other countries, we are part of the problem in those countries. We must look at the effects on our planet of the production of raw materials which we import, the effects on our planet of the food we import and so on.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Sep '19 - 6:28pm

    The Formula 1 race in was expected to be affected and is, of course, televised all over the world. A circle of fire around the world as countries at the same latitude set fire to their forests. Although the trees grow very fast the fires will destroy some species we probably do not know about, despite the Kew seed bank.
    The President of Brazil argued for national sovereignty at the United Nations General Assembly.

  • Merlene Emerson 29th Sep '19 - 10:37am

    Nigel, Jo… you may be aware that the 1st treaty, the ASEAN Declaration was signed as far back as 1967 by the 5 founding nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). Since then the association has increased to 10 with the latest entrant, Cambodia in 1999. The ASEAN Charter signed in 2007 in Singapore provides the legal basis for the association. Though the vision and aims are ambitious and remit fairly wide, covering areas ranging from trade to defence, there is an understanding that there will be “non-interference in the affairs of one another”.

    There is currently no ASEAN Parliament, only a rotating Council and bi-annual ASEAN Summits which some see as talking shops. (And guess what is the official language as set out in the Charter? Yes, English!) There is however a permanent Secretariat with a committee of permanent reps of Ambassadorial level supporting his work in Jakarta.

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