Singaporean legislators on Tuesday passed a law that allows regulators to prosecute local and foreign companies involved in illegal forest burning that causes severe air pollution in the city state.
The legislation, proposed after Singapore endured an air-quality crisis last year stemming from forest fires in Indonesia, subjects companies to fines of up to 2 million Singapore dollars (US$1.6 million) if they engage in activity that causes or contributes to smog on the island.
Officials say the law equips Singapore with “groundbreaking” legal tools to curb cross-border haze, an annual occurrence in parts of Southeast Asia—primarily in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore—that is caused mainly by the illegal burning of forests in Indonesia to clear land for agribusiness.
“We are targeting the commercial operators who directly or indirectly are causing, or contributing to, or condoning activities which lead to transboundary haze,” Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament during Tuesday’s debate on the proposed law.
Lawmakers and legal analysts, however, have played down the law’s potential impact on deterring the use of so-called “slash-and-burn” methods to clear land, citing likely difficulties in enforcement and gathering evidence of illegal activity conducted in foreign jurisdictions.
“For this law to work, the cooperation of our neighbors is necessary, since the evidence…that is needed to mount successful prosecutions will not be in Singapore,” Eugene Tan, a law professor and nominated independent legislator, said during Tuesday’s debate.
“I am skeptical of whether there will ever be a successful prosecution when this law comes into force,” Mr. Tan said. “This [proposed law] is bold in its approach but it does show the limitations of the law.”
Mr. Balakrishnan acknowledged these concerns, saying the law isn’t intended as a definitive solution to a problem that can only be tackled through multinational cooperation between governments, businesses and civil society.
Cross-border haze has been a recurring problem for Singapore and Malaysia since the 1980s, as prevailing winds blow over smoke from the burning of forest and peat in Sumatra, the largest island wholly governed by Indonesia.
While subsistence farmers and accidental causes have also been blamed, academics say most fires have been detected in plantation areas owned or to be used by palm-oil companies—including some based in Singapore and Malaysia.
Under Singapore’s new law, companies would be deemed legally responsible as long as they are involved in managing the parties that set the haze-causing fires. Direct involvement in the burning isn’t a prerequisite for legal action. Offenders can be fined up to S$100,000 for each day of pollution.
Companies that don’t have any presence in Singapore can be served legal notice if and when their executives enter Singapore. People who suffered ill health or economic loss due to haze pollution can also sue the offending companies to pursue claims in civil court.
Singapore authorities would review the law’s effectiveness and may stiffen its prescribed penalties in future, if needed, Mr. Balakrishnan told lawmakers during Tuesday’s debate. The proposed legislation will enter into force once approved by Singapore’s president—typically a formality.
The law was proposed in response to one of Southeast Asia’s worst haze-pollution episodes, which occurred in June and July last year. In that period, acrid smoke from Indonesian forest fires shrouded Singapore and Malaysia, causing an air-pollution crisis that forced the Malaysian government to close some schools, and triggered a diplomatic spat between Singapore and Jakarta.
Singapore recorded its worst-ever air quality during that time, prompting many citizens to demand their government to take firmer action against illegal forest burning in Indonesia.
Government officials and environmental activists in Singapore and Malaysia have long criticized what they perceive as Jakarta’s inaction on the problem, noting that the Indonesian legislature has yet to ratify a 2002 agreement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to tackle cross-border haze.
Indonesian officials have welcomed Singapore’s new law, even as they expressed doubt over its effectiveness.
“I thank Singapore for their efforts to help reduce forest burning,” said Agus Purnomo, the Indonesian government’s top official on climate change. However, the law may have “limited impact” because offending companies could use complex ownership structures and other technical means to distance themselves from entities that set fires, he added.