Our skies were blue and the air crystal clear today.
Had a long discussion in Parliament on the cause of the haze and our plans for the future. I thanked Singaporeans for your calmness, patience, and the fact that you refused to get rattled by the situation. It is that ability to respond sensibly, rationally, cohesively and collectively as a people that makes the difference and makes me confident that we will get through this together, whatever happens.
See transcript below.
1 Madam Speaker, what a difference three weeks make. And I would like to reassure you: you won’t need your haze action plan today. Today, our 24-hour rolling average PM2.5 is as low as between 6 to 9 micrograms per cubic metre. In fact, this is the level which we hope we can achieve on a long-term basis – this is our long-term aspirational target. I say this so that you understand how much and how quickly things change in a short space of time. Let me address questions 15 to 20 collectively, with your permission.
MEWR’s Mission 2 A major component of my Ministry and that of the NEA’s mission is to protect the public health of Singaporeans – public hygiene, food safety and the quality of air and water that we all breathe and drink. This is ultimate democracy: the air that we all breathe and the water that we all drink. This commitment also extends to the haze, although quite frankly, where the haze is concerned, our hands are somewhat more tied than in other areas. With the haze, we have no direct sight of the source at all – it is hundreds of kilometres away and is spread over an area that is many times the size of Singapore. In fact, various estimates have shown that every year, the area of forest that is burnt is probably about seven times the size of Singapore. So this is on a scale that probably most of us cannot even imagine. Our objectives therefore are to detect the fires early, to warn if it is imminent, and to mitigate the effects of the haze if it does arrive.
Early Warning [SLIDE 1 – Hotspots with some covered by cloud cover]
3 Let me get the first slide up. To detect the fires, we use satellite pictures like this – this was the situation on the 14th of June. You’ll notice the white clouds and if you look carefully you’ll see a few red spots. These are hotspots. But the point I wanted to make with this slide is that even with a satellite picture, if there’s local cloud cover, you will not be able to see every hotspot that is burning beneath them. You will not be able to assess the ferocity of the fires or the density of the plumes, and there is also the subsequent question of the wind. As every sailor knows, wind can be both a blessing and a bane. Similarly, when you wake up in the morning and look out of your window, whether it is a blue or hazy sky depends very much on the location and number of the fires, the density of the smoke and the direction of the wind. And we must not forget that while the fires are beyond our immediate sight, the haze actually only takes a few hours to reach us. This makes early warning very challenging even with perfect knowledge of the ground situation and winds. Under ideal conditions, the longest warning that we can have from the time the smoke emerges from the fire to the time the haze hits us is around 6–10 hours. This helps frame how difficult early warning is.
An Assessment on the Haze 4 Ms Irene Ng asked me to share my assessment of the haze situation. Frankly, the haze is not a problem that will go away easily or quickly. This is a complex problem, and not least because it originates from the fires on land in another sovereign country.
[SLIDE 2 – Hotspots with Smoke Plumes]
5 Let me show you a second slide. This was the situation on the 19th of June. This slide shows you, quite dramatically, the extent of the burning that quite often takes place in Sumatra – you can see many more red dots now, those are the hotspots. And what is most obvious in this picture are the yellow plumes: the haze that is emanating from Sumatra and flowing across the Straits to Singapore. The problem transcends an environmental solution because the root cause of this is really commercial. Some big-time plantation companies and paper mills have a total disregard for their social and environmental responsibilities and indeed of the local Indonesian laws themselves. Their actions have severely affected millions of people in Indonesia itself, in Malaysia, and of course, the five million of us resident in Singapore. My Ministry and the other agencies have been working with Indonesia over the years to press for solutions. But let me also tell you very frankly, the improvements have been incremental at best. I will say more about this later.
The Government’s Response 6 The recent haze spell was particularly bad three weeks ago because there was a dry spell in Sumatra – indeed, Members would also recall that there was a dry spell in Singapore as well at that same point in time. There was also an unfavourable wind – basically the wind was blowing from the west and conveying all this smoke across the Straits to Singapore. We were already gearing up for the onset of the haze season – in fact, this is somewhat earlier than the usual haze season in other years – but the situation deteriorated sharply during a very short period. Nonetheless, given the circumstances, our officers acted swiftly and they worked very hard to detect, to give warning, and to put in place mitigation measures. Let me go through the chronology of events with you.
[SLIDE 3 – Hotspot Counts with Annotation of Events]
7 This slide plots the number of physical hotspots over the course of time from 12 June until 7 July. It is annotated by key events.
8 The inter-agency Haze Task Force (HTF), which comprises 23 public agencies, was set up in 1994 to co-ordinate our national action plans to ensure accurate information flow and to put in place plans to ensure service continuity. This task force met on 29 May 2013, before the haze unfolded, in order to update these plans.
9 Er Dr Lee asked when my Ministry first alerted the Indonesian Government on the haze. On 14 June 2013, the hotspot count was 46 in Sumatra, and 41 of these hotspots were in Riau. However, the full extent of hotspot activities could not be fully determined from the satellite images due to the cloudy conditions as I showed you earlier on. The PSI readings had moved from Good to Moderate at 1pm on 14 June. That same day, NEA issued a public haze advisory – I am not sure how many Members actually read the public haze advisory on the 14th of June. NEA also updated its website. NEA contacted the Head of the Forest Fires Division of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment to seek an urgent update of the ground situation and to request that urgent measures be taken to mitigate the haze.
10 Unfortunately, the situation worsened on 17 June 2013. Satellite pictures now showed 113 hotspots in Sumatra, of which 106 were in Riau. The 24-hr PSI at 3pm on 17 June 2013 had increased to 67–80 (Moderate) . At this point, NEA issued another public haze advisory.
11 The CEO (NEA) sent an official note to the Deputy Minister of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment on 17 June 2013 to warn of an alarming increase in the number of hotspots in Sumatra and sought Indonesia’s assistance to enforce the appropriate legislation on plantation companies to prohibit slash and burn. The CEO(NEA) also wrote to the Malaysian Department of Environment, because the Malaysians are currently the host of the next Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze. He requested the Malaysians to advance the meeting.
12 On 18 June 2013, the next day, the satellite pictures showed 187 hotspots in Sumatra. The PSI was now 115 – 127 (Unhealthy). That same day, I telephoned my counterpart, the Indonesian Environment Minister, Balthasar Kambuaya to express my grave concern. I requested Indonesia take action to put out the fires and offered our assistance. I also requested him to publish the concession maps – this has been something I have been urging for a very long time – so that we could identify the companies and the persons who were responsible for these fires. Our Foreign Minister Shanmugam separately called the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa the same day. I followed up with a letter to Minister Kambuaya on 19 June 2013 to reiterate our grave concerns and to re-offer assistance.
13 In response to our calls, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called for an emergency meeting with Singapore on 20 June 2013 in Jakarta. Despite the short notice, our delegation led by CEO(NEA) and comprising staff of MEWR, NEA and MFA, attended the meeting where we reiterated our concerns, offered assistance and called on Indonesia to take further actions to address the haze. The Indonesian officials conveyed that they were taking action at the provincial level in tackling the on-going fires.
14 To further underscore the seriousness of the situation, Prime Minister Lee sent me to Jakarta as his Special Envoy on 21 June 2013 to convey his personal letter to the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The letter stressed the following: (i) this is a recurring problem with regional implications; (ii) strong and effective action is needed to be taken against the companies involved in illegal land clearing practices; (iii) if any Singapore-linked companies were involved, Indonesia should share with us the evidence so that we could pursue the matter; (iv) the countries in the region have to work together to overcome the problem; and (v) Singapore stood ready to cooperate fully with Indonesia. This included renewing the environmental collaboration between Singapore and Jambi province or indeed, expanding that cooperation to other provinces as well. As with previous years, we offered a haze assistance package that included aircraft for cloud seeding, satellite imagery and hotspot coordinates. The Environment Minister of Indonesia received the letter on President Yudhoyono’s behalf.
15 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono replied formally to PM Lee on 3 July 2013. He acknowledged the seriousness of the situation this year, and he informed PM Lee that the Indonesian authorities would undertake comprehensive investigations so that “those responsible are firmly held to account”. He highlighted Indonesia’s fire-fighting efforts to reduce the number of hot spots. The President also stated that the Government of Indonesia has been in the final stages of resubmitting the ASEAN Agreement on Trans-Boundary Haze Pollution to Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) for ratification by the House. The President also very graciously reiterated his apologies and reassured us that they would spare no effort to address this problem.
16 On the domestic front, my colleague, the Minister for Defence has explained the convening and the actions of the Crisis Management Group. And as you are also aware, PM Lee appointed the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee led by Minister Ng Eng Hen on 20 June 2013 to coordinate a Whole-of-Government response.
17 From this chronology of events, you will see that the Government has been monitoring the haze situation closely over many years and more closely over the last one month and we did our best to get the Indonesian authorities to deal with the source of the problem, even as we geared up to take protective action locally.
18 I said earlier that we have been working with the Indonesian Government to try to improve the situation on the ground. Let me give you some idea of the current state of play at the ground.
Regional Cooperation 19 First, at the Government-to-Government level, we need Indonesia and other like-minded countries to commit more seriously to work together to tackle transboundary haze. Mr Muhamad Faisal and Mr Yee asked about the progress of the regional agreements and platforms established to address transboundary haze. The ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) was endorsed by the ASEAN Environment Ministers in December 1997 – a long time ago – arising from the period of intense fire and transboundary haze pollution that year. This has since been superseded by the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution formulated in 2002. The latter built on the ideas from the RHAP such as monitoring, assessment and prevention, technical cooperation and scientific research, and mechanisms for coordination.
20 Under this framework, Singapore hosts the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) that monitors the regional hotspot situation and provides early warning to all affected countries – meaning not just Singapore, this is a regional centre – when the ASMC observes a significant rise in hotspot counts. Meanwhile, an ASEAN Coordinating Centre (ACC) facilitates the channeling of regional resources to countries requesting for assistance to combat fires. However, the 2002 ASEAN Agreement has yet to be ratified by Indonesia. I hope this agreement will be ratified by the time the ASEAN Environment Ministers meet in October this year. The credibility of ASEAN depends very much on the willingness of its individual members to live up to our international obligations. However, while Indonesia’s ratification of the treaty will send a strong signal of high-level political commitment, this in itself may not be sufficient to prevent the haze if the measures taken on the ground – investigations and enforcement – remain weak.
21 Mr Zaqy Mohamad asked whether there had been any progress in tackling the haze issue since October 2012. In 2006, Singapore initiated a sub-regional grouping – the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution – this comprises Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The MSC has met 14 times since then, focusing on assisting Indonesia in implementing its Plan of Action to combat haze. At the last (14th) meeting of the MSC in Oct 2012, the MSC Ministers agreed to explore sharing concession maps and using satellite and mapping technologies to monitor hotspots in order to hold plantation companies and land owners accountable for their land-clearing practices. A technical task force currently led by Singapore and comprising experts from other MSC countries is now studying the implementation details. The technology platform will be ready soon. What we need now is for all the countries to provide official, accurate concession maps and we will push urgently for this at the upcoming MSC meeting next week (15 to 17 Jul 2013).
22 To make a stronger push for concrete actions, I will be seeking clear deliverables from next week’s MSC meeting. To Singapore, the key outcomes that we want from next week are the following:
(i) MSC countries submit their concession maps and agree to a date for the public launch of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System platform that will enable the identification of errant companies;
(ii) MSC countries involve high-level officials from all relevant ministries and agencies from each country. The reason for this is because this is not a pure environmental problem. We need, in the case of Indonesia, to have the cooperation and full support of other ministries like the Ministry of Forestry, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and this requires a Whole-of-Government approach and commitment – not just confined to the Ministries of Environment;
(iii) We hope that Indonesia will agree to renew the collaboration that we have successfully had in Jambi and in other provinces, if possible; and
(iv) Indonesia commits to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement as soon as possible.
Bilateral Collaboration [SLIDE 4 – Picture of Air Monitoring Station at Jambi]
23 Let me now move on to bilateral collaborations, which Mr Ang has asked about. I have mentioned briefly our collaboration with the province of Jambi. I would characterise this as one of our more successful efforts and indeed we did observe a greater reduction in the number of hotspots in Jambi Province during our years of collaboration compared to other fire-prone provinces in Sumatra. The action programmes benefited the local authorities and communities by enhancing their capabilities and knowledge in the areas of fire prevention, fire suppression and alternative livelihoods. A major success factor was the strong support given by the then Governor of Jambi, Pak Zulkifli Nurdin. This illustrates the necessity for political buy-in and commitment at the provincial level and on the ground. Unfortunately, this collaboration was not renewed after 2011.
24 The picture shows – if you look very carefully, you will see a tall pole, that is a meteorological pole which helps gather meteorological data: wind direction, moisture, rain, etc. If you look even more closely you will see a little small box in which are analysers for air quality. These were provided to our colleagues in Jambi by the Singapore government but all technology requires maintenance and repair. Unfortunately this is now not working and we have not been able to gain access to fix it but we hope that the Indonesian government will renew these agreements and allow us to do more work at the local level on a mutually beneficial basis.
25 We have conveyed to Indonesia that we want to renew this collaboration and we also want to undertake projects which promote sustainable agricultural practices. In fact, President Yudhoyono had already agreed to support this when he met PM Lee in April 2013 and we have been awaiting confirmation from our Indonesian counterparts. We stand ready to replicate this project with Jambi in other fire-prone provinces such as Riau – which was the source of most of the haze that hit us this time round.
Engaging All Stakeholders
26 Secondly, beyond Government-to-Government engagement, my Ministry has also been engaging stakeholders and interest groups ranging from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and think-tanks to companies. We believe this is a useful and essential complement to the inter-Governmental processes. For this reason, at the sub-regional level, we have initiated a forum that will enable the MSC countries to reach out to existing and potential stakeholders, to exchange best practices, and to form new partnerships. My Ministry organised and hosted the first MSC forum in 2009. In 2012, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) supported Brunei in hosting the second MSC forum. This forum involves NGOs, academics, companies, and other relevant stakeholders. It is a process that exists in parallel to inter-Government processes.
27 My Ministry has also been identifying and will be approaching companies to encourage them to establish a positive model in the operation and management of plantations. We want to show that such responsible practices are workable, practical, sustainable, and viable; and we hope that this will become the accepted way of doing business and will be replicated across the industry.
28 Third, I would like to respond to Mr Nicholas Fang and Ms Irene Ng who asked about the steps other stakeholders, including Singaporeans, can take to ensure a long-term solution. Every one of us as a consumer has the power to influence the behaviour of a company. A key cause of the haze is the clearance of plantation land by burning because this is the cheapest way to do so. Let me give an idea of the scale. To pay someone and give that person a jerry-can of kerosene to burn one hectare of forest costs about SGD6. If you pay a team of contractors to use chainsaws to cut forest, tractors and bulldozers to clear the logs, and then plough the ground, it will cost you thousands of dollars more. Between SGD6 and thousands of dollars, that is the profit motive; that is where the source of the haze lies. And that is why we need not only legislation but also consumer pressure to be applied – otherwise the temptation to go for the cheapest way or the most unsustainable, irresponsible way; that temptation would be too great. Through our purchasing decisions, we can punish businesses that undertake illegal burning and reward those which adopt sustainable practices. The supply chain also has a role here. I was very encouraged to learn that the Singapore Manufacturers’ Federation (SMa) urged its members not to have any business dealings with errant organisations and their subsidiaries involved in these illegal fires. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has also called on five of its member companies alleged to be involved in illegal land clearing in Indonesia to submit digital maps of their plantations and aid its investigations. I encourage more of such ground-up, non-governmental approaches to hold people accountable and to ensure that transparency and data is available.
Conclusion [SLIDE 5 – Graphics on MSS Capabilities]
29 Let me conclude by saying that my Ministry’s core mission in the haze episode has been to detect, to warn and to mitigate. In the areas of detection and warning, the Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS) of the NEA is looking to enhance its capabilities for the early warning of haze. This includes making use of more meteorological data, finer resolution satellite imagery, enhanced dispersion modeling capabilities and installation of more sensors. Let me try to explain what all that means. For instance, by next year, and certainly by 2015, we will be gaining feeds from new satellites which have greater resolution – we need resolution down to about a 1–2 kilometre range to be able to identify a hotspot. The new satellites will also have greater spectral sensitivity which means you can also see fires in an early stage, maybe even at the underground level. Third, we need more wind sensors – not only in Singapore, but indeed in the Straits and in the shores beyond as well. These wind sensors will input into the more complicated computer models which predict weather patterns, whether there will be rain or drought; winds, speed of the wind, which determines how fast the haze reaches us; direction of the wind, which is the difference between why we had a clear Saturday on the 22nd and Muar in Johor was completely overcome by haze. These sophisticated computer models are still in the state of development but as Dr Ng said just now, what we need is to be able to predict the haze, the density, not one hour from now or not 24 hours ago, but for the next 24 hours. So in the same way people have gotten used to weather forecasts, we will have to upgrade out capability to be able to give you haze forecasts because these forecasts are how you will plan your day: what activities businesses need to take, schools, hospitals. Everything depends on a forward-looking prediction. I cannot give you the assurance that we can be a hundred percent accurate – it’s not possible; everyone who engages in weather forecasting knows that – but we can improve the precision of our forecasts. That is something which we are going to have to work very hard on over the next 1–2 years.
30 I also cannot emphasise enough that, for a lasting and permanent solution, we need the firm commitment and resolute action by the Indonesian Government at all levels. We appreciate that the President of Indonesia has acknowledged the severity of the situation and has given his commitment to tackle the issue. Quite frankly, I think that it was his apology and his commitment that made a difference on the ground and helped to reduce or at least prevented people from starting more fires without having to worry about consequences. Of course, we were helped by the rains which have now fallen over Sumatra over the last one week. We will stand ready to work and to do our best with Indonesia as a close neighbour and as a partner in ASEAN.
31 The haze situation today has improved a lot compared to what we faced three weeks ago. But I also want to be honest with Singaporeans, to tell you that this beautiful day which we have now could be only a temporary respite. The dry season is not over yet. We need continued vigilance and we need decisive action by Indonesian authorities to prevent another recurrence of the haze over the next 2–3 months. MEWR and NEA will do our part to detect and give warning of the haze and to mitigate its impact but we need the support and cooperation of all stakeholders.
32 I also want to end by thanking Singaporeans for their calmness, their patience, and the fact that they refused to get rattled by the situation. It is that ability to respond sensibly, rationally, cohesively and collectively as a people that makes the difference and makes me confident that we will get through this together, whatever happens. Thank you, Madam Speaker.