Wednesday 26 June 2013

PM Lee accepts haze apology from Indonesian President Yudhoyono, urges swift, sustained action

He welcomes Yudhoyono's pledge to tackle fires, and offers help
By Rachel Chang And Zakir Hussain, The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's apology for the haze yesterday as Jakarta stepped up efforts to stop the burning in Riau.

In a statement responding to Dr Yudhoyono's apology on Monday for the worst haze in the region's history, Mr Lee said that Singapore "wholeheartedly" accepted the "gracious" gesture.

He also welcomed the Indonesian leader's pledge to spare no efforts in tackling the forest fires, and said he hoped for "swift and sustained action" against illegal land-clearing practices.

To that end, PM Lee reiterated Singapore's offer of assistance to the Indonesian authorities to put out the fires, and said the country stands ready to work with neighbours to end haze-related issues.

He called for a "permanent solution to prevent this problem from recurring annually".

Across the Causeway and in Jakarta, the apology also drew plaudits, with Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman saying he "saluted" Dr Yudhoyono.

"I think the most important thing is for us to work together with Indonesia. We cannot just expect Indonesia to solve the problem," he said.

The conciliatory gesture from Indonesia had come in a televised press conference on Monday, where Dr Yudhoyono also chastised officials for statements implying that Singapore and Malaysia had overreacted. He pledged to do more to put out the haze- causing fires.

Yesterday, he sought to back up that promise by sending off 1,400 more disaster officials, soldiers, police and civil servants to the affected areas, telling them to "overcome the burning and smoke" and to "do it well, complete". They join 2,300 already on the ground, while another 1,600 are slated to head there today.

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) chief Syamsul Maarif told reporters the men would be deployed for aerial operations - cloud-seeding and water-bombing - as well as firefighting operations on the ground.

Meanwhile, Riau officials arrested eight farmers on Monday and yesterday after catching them red-handed in the land-burning act. Local police did not say if they were hired by large firms or had acted of their own accord.

In Singapore, the PSI stayed in the moderate range as the much awaited rain, and some unexpected hail, fell yesterday afternoon.

But with the prospect of the dry season lasting until October, the Government added two new schemes to its slew of haze-related initiatives.

Childcare centres and kindergartens will get financial subsidies to install portable air-conditioning units on their premises, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Separately, the Ministry of Health said that it is providing standing fans and portable air coolers to 15 nursing homes, community hospitals and day- care centres for the elderly.

As the changing winds sent the haze to its southern part, Thailand expressed support for Malaysia's suggestion to bring forward a regional ministerial meeting on transboundary haze pollution. Singapore also backs the move.

Indonesian leader says sorry for haze
Yudhoyono resolves to tackle fires that have strained relations with neighbours
By Zakir Hussain, The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2013

PRESIDENT Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised for the haze blanketing Singapore and Malaysia, and stressed that Indonesia will bear responsibility for resolving a problem that has frayed relations with its two neighbours.

In a televised press conference at his office yesterday evening, Dr Yudhoyono said: "For what has happened, as President, I say sorry, and seek the understanding of our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia.

"Indonesia had no intention to cause this. And we will continue to bear responsibility to overcome what has happened."

His comments come a week after land-clearing fires in forests and plantations in Riau, exacerbated by strong winds, saw the haze over Singapore and peninsular Malaysia reach record highs.

But calls for Indonesia to act also drew strong comments from several Indonesian ministers in recent days. Yesterday, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik told an Asean meeting in Bali that Singapore and Malaysia should "know themselves" and be good neighbours.

Other officials had also said companies linked to Malaysia and Singapore could have been behind the illegal burning.

Dr Yudhoyono said: "There are statements from several office holders that I feel need not be put across that way. Sometimes, the facts have not been checked, and that becomes an issue. This has become a concern from Singapore and also Malaysia."

He said he had instructed officials that there was no need for such statements, or to single out countries for blame.

"To say the negligent company is Indonesian, or owned by foreigners from Malaysia or Singapore, that is not needed. What is needed is to focus all efforts on overcoming the haze and burning," he said.

He pledged to step up efforts to deal with forest fires. Indonesia has launched several cloud-seeding and water-bombing missions in the past few days, though their effectiveness had been checked by the drier weather this year.

He also urged other provinces on Sumatra and Kalimantan that are prone to forest fires in recent years to take measures to prevent a repeat of the current disaster.

Enforcement action will continue, he said, adding: "Whether it is an Indonesian company or foreign company, the law will be applied firmly and fairly."

Indonesian police yesterday made their first detentions related to the forest fires causing the haze, arresting two farmers who were clearing their land by burning. But the police said the duo were not linked to the 14 companies that officials had said were being investigated for the fires, eight of which have been named.

In Malaysia, where the haze has reached Kuala Lumpur, all schools in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Selangor will reopen today after they were ordered closed yesterday.

In Singapore, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who heads an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the haze, promised that all ministries would share action plans this week in case the haze returns.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs handed a diplomatic note to Indonesia's ambassador in Singapore that raises questions and concerns about the alleged involvement of Singapore-linked companies in the Sumatra fires.

The air quality today is expected to remain "moderate". But a slight haze is expected in the next few days due to the wind conditions, the National Environment Agency said.


For what has happened, as President, I say sorry, and seek the understanding of our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesia had no intention to cause this. And we will continue to bear responsibility to overcome what has happened.
- President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in a televised press conference at his office yesterday

Indonesia president defends his haze apology
By Zakir Hussain, The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

INDONESIA President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has rebutted critics at home who said his apology to Singapore and Malaysia over the haze on Monday night was excessive.

“The fact is the haze was from Indonesia, so we take responsibility and saying sorry in that context, to me, is not excessive,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“At the same time, I said that what was happening was not intentional, and Indonesia had no intention to trouble its neighbours.”

His unexpected apology had, in the past 48 hours, been met with criticism from various quarters, with Republika daily saying he had “hurt the people” on its cover on Wednesday, and Media Indonesia daily saying he had “dragged down national pride”.

A good number of politicians and the public had also been critical of the move, with some saying he had caved in to external pressure and that the apology had shown Indonesia up as weak.

On Wednesday, Dr Yudhoyono said he had been following conversations on social media and was concerned that SMSes and press questions to ministers had misinterpreted his remarks.

A minister had also received “weird” questions from the press wondering whether the stepped-up response to the haze – over 3,000 personnel were sent to Riau over the past two days – was in response to pressure from another country or Singapore, he noted.

“No one instructed me as President of a sovereign country,” he said at a press conference at Jakarta’s Halim airbase on his return from a working trip to Bali.

“What I have done in the past two to three days [including] deploying more officers, is fully my decision.”

“The thickness of the haze has also inconvenienced our brothers in Riau,” he added.

Dr Yudhoyono stressed that the haze would not impact Indonesia's bargaining position on other issues, whether territorial disputes with Malaysia or the return of ill-gotten assets of corrupt Indonesians in Singapore. “A sovereign country need not be afraid of any other country, not of Malaysia, not of Singapore,” he said.

“On sovereignty and other matters, there can be no compromise.”

Oil palm a lucrative crop for Indonesia, Malaysia
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

PALM oil is the liquid gold of South-east Asia, accounting for billions of dollars in the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia - as well as the livelihoods of millions of people there.

The two countries together account for some 85per cent of global production, and this contributed about $42.3billion to their economies last year, going by the average price of US$750 (S$960) a tonne. This was estimated by Dr Dodo Thampapillai, an economist at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Some 4.5 million people in the two nations earn a living from the crop, said World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore (WWF).

The labels of many products show how ubiquitous palm oil is - it can be found in everything from ice-cream and chocolate to soap and shampoo.

"It is almost impossible to avoid palm oil," said Ms Khor Yu Leng, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who specialises in agribusiness research. "It is everywhere."

Palm oil has come under scrutiny after an Indonesian Forestry Ministry official accused Malaysian and Singapore palm oil companies there of being responsible for the fires in Sumatra.

But substituting it with another oil crop may not be a solution.

Compared to other vegetable oil crops such as sunflower, soyabean and rapeseed, palm oil requires less than half the land to produce the same amount of oil, say experts.

This means production costs and the eventual price will be lower than alternatives, Ms Khor noted. Palm oil also has health benefits, as it does not need to be chemically processed and has no transfat, she said.

Substituting palm oil with other oils may thus create "similar, if not even larger, environmental and social problems", WWF said.

"The issue here is not around the usage of palm oil, but around the way it is produced today," it stressed.

Unsustainable production could involve the indiscriminate clearing of rainforests, said Dr Thampapillai.

Ms Khor said sustainable practices should be encouraged, although they carry a "slight premium" as they need to comply with global protocols. The WWF said this premium could be as little as 1 per cent.

Forests and oil palm plantations with less-usable crop may be cleared using heavy machinery such as bulldozers. But errant companies and farmers tend to use the slash-and-burn method, which some believe improves soil fertility.

This involves chopping down trees, piling up dead wood and leaves, and razing the heap.

When this is done on highly flammable peat land, the fires can spread great distances underground and make fires difficult to extinguish, said the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a non-profit body promoting sustainable oil palm farming.

The WWF said: "To find a long-term solution, a multi-stakeholder method must be employed, beyond governmental rule and regulation."

Don't expect problem to go away in next few months: Experts
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2013

THE regional outcry over the haze may make companies in Indonesia wary of starting more fires, but Singaporeans cannot expect the problem to go away in the next few months, say experts.

The reason is twofold: The dry season there is expected to last until September, and the raging fires so far have been on peatland which can defy firefighting efforts.

"During the dry season, even a cigarette can start a fire on peatland," said Mr Bustar Maitar, head of environmental group Greenpeace's forest campaign in Indonesia.

"Peatland is organic material that is supposed to be always wet. To develop their plantations, companies have been draining the land to bring the water level down."

Peatland fires also tend to smoulder underground even after they have been put out, and can start burning again.

"Every time we think that we have put out the fire, it resurfaces," said Mr Jaafar Arit, head of a disaster management agency in Riau, which is ground zero for the fires causing the haze.

Firefighters had extinguished several fires there five times, only to see them rise from the ground again, he said.

Even Indonesia's attempts to artificially create rain and douse the fires depend on favourable weather, said Dr Benjamin Grandey of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

"Any attempt at cloud-seeding requires the presence of a cloud," he said.

He added that the science behind cloud-seeding to create rain is inconclusive.

"I am sceptical that anyone can really say how exactly cloud-seeding will impact any given cloud's development," said Dr Grandey.

Still, the historically bad haze this year, which saw the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index hit a record level of 401 at noon last Friday, could lead to change in the long run, said academics.

Said Ms Khor Yu Leng, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) who does research on palm oil agri-business: "The mood seems different nowadays. Plantations have quickly reiterated zero-burn policies and corporate owners started to be named within two days of the record (PSI) readings.

"The word 'negligence' has been mentioned by Mr Hadi Daryanto, general secretary of Indonesia's Forestry Ministry.

"This should scare the corporate sector."

She also said more advanced technology can now finger errant companies quickly.

"Technology such as satellite imagery has matured and its usage expanded," she said.

"Proof can be a lot more easily established as satellite images of fires can be overlaid on concession maps."

Daily or more frequent images can even show where fires start and how they spread.

"Bad news can no longer be so easily contained and inconvenient truths obscured," she said.

Iseas senior fellow Lee Poh Onn, who specialises in environmental management issues, believes that the record pollution may exert pressure on Indonesia to ratify the Asean agreement on transboundary haze pollution.

"Indonesia will also need to restructure its current forest management practices so that there will be a centralised body given more power and resources to manage oil palm plantations and the issue of open burning," he said.

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