News: Singapore passes new law to combat haze

The Star, 5 Aug 2014

SINGAPORE: Parliament here passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act Tuesday, which targets companies and other entities that either cause or condone fires that lead to unhealthy levels of haze.

The penalties in the new law to combat haze could rise if future reviews find them insufficient, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Tuesday.

Penalties and the practicality of enforcing a Singapore law on firms overseas, among other things, were debated in Parliament before the Act was passed.

It garnered unanimous support from Members of Parliament across party lines.

In all, nine MPs, Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated Members of Parliament spoke on the Bill over two days. They broadly agreed that penalties, which are up to S$100,000 (RM256,000) per day of unhealthy haze and go up to S$2mil (RM5.12mil), were too low compared to the size of firms’ profits and the harm caused by haze.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said: “This is new legislation. We don’t know yet how this will work in practice. We want to be very careful that we don’t over-reach or have unrealistic penalties. So we’ll start now at this level.”

He said the state will review the Act and assess whether it has sufficient deterrence after it comes into effect.

A round of public consultation on the draft law earlier this year had resulted in the penalties being raised to a S$2mil cap from the maximum of $300,000 (RM768,000) originally proposed.

Dr Balakrishnan said the law also allows people or companies to sue haze culprits with no set limit on amount of damages. Rather, the court can decide in each case.

MPs also asked how the law would be enforced, especially if companies are based overseas.

Firms’ representatives can be served notice when they are in Singapore, Dr Balakrishnan said, and the National Environment Agency will work closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to do so.

“Where necessary, the Public Prosecutor could apply for a court order to require the person to remain in Singapore to assist in investigations,” he added.

But the new law is not a “silver bullet”, he said. Consumer interest groups and non-government organisations can help too by tracking agricultural supply chains and monitoring the fire situation on the ground.

Singapore and Malaysia have been blanketed from time to time by smoke haze, caused by fires set to clear land for agriculture in Indonesia. Last year, fires in Indonesia resulted in Singapore’s worst-ever spell of haze. – ANN/Straits Times