Jakarta ‘must follow through on haze action’

President’s apology raised stature, but must deal with problem or its credibility at risk: MM

PRESIDENT Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono raised his country’s stature with his recent apology to neighbours for the haze.

But Indonesia risks its credibility and standing in the world if it does little to fight the problem, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said here on Saturday. “At the end of the day, do you want to be sub-standard and, therefore, be treated in a different category? Or do you want to be taken as a serious and responsible player in South-east Asia, as the largest country in the region?

“That’s the challenge for Indonesia, and a challenge that the President of Indonesia has decided to pick up. We respect him for that.”

Mr Lee was speaking to the Singapore media at the end of a two-week working visit to the United States. He was responding to a question on how to resolve the choking haze that has enveloped much of the region.

Forest fires from the slash-and-burn practices of farmers and plantation owners engaged in land clearing have raged for weeks in Kalimantan and Sumatra, causing thick smoke to spread to countries like Singapore and Malaysia. It has triggered fears of a repeat of the environmental disaster a decade ago when a serious episode of haze cost the region billions of dollars in economic losses.

Mr Lee made clear that it was in the interest of South-east Asian countries, especially Indonesia, to ensure the haze does not become a “perennial problem”.

The region as a whole stands to lose because it could drive away investment and tourism, he said.

He cited the example of Hong Kong, where pollution from the Pearl River Delta drove businesses away to Shanghai, Singapore and other parts of South-east Asia.

The haze could have a similar impact on countries in the region.

Said Mr Lee: “So, if every year you’re going to have two to three months of this, executives who have to look after financial institutions or manufacturing plants will say ‘Look, I’d rather go somewhere else’. And then you may end up with second best expats. Do we want that?

“I mean, the whole region is involved, not just Malaysia and Singapore. Thailand is affected and I think, most of all, and they may not realise it, Indonesia, because its standing in the world goes down.”

Dr Yudhoyono’s apology was a move in the right direction, said Mr Lee. “The fact that the President has broken with the past and apologised has raised Indonesia’s stature.

“People are saying that this is an Indonesia with some self-respect and self-regard, and a sense of responsibility to the world around it, its neighbours and everybody else.”

He noted that there would still be obstacles in the form of legislators and others not supportive of the President’s efforts.

News reports at the weekend said Jakarta was unlikely to ratify an Asean anti-haze agreement any time soon. Indonesian MPs had decided to postpone the process even before Dr Yudhoyono called Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Oct 12 to assure him that action would be taken to ratify the agreement.

Referring to those who baulk at Dr Yudhoyono’s call for action, MM Lee said it was the President — not those opposed to his efforts — who represented Indonesia.

If those against him came into power and did not follow the standards he had set on this issue, “the standing of Indonesia goes down again”.

Mr Lee, who also visited New York, Washington and Dallas, said bankers and officials he met spoke highly of the Indonesian government. It was the same in Japan too.

“That means a lot, because they are the two biggest investors in the region,” he said. “If you lose their regard, you’ve lost something very valuable.”

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