INDONESIA is behaving less than responsibly over the haze. Wondering why this is so sent me back 16 years ago, when I was based in Jakarta as a correspondent for this newspaper.

The 1997 haze was one of my big stories. But covering it from Jakarta was an intensely ironical exercise: It was a non-story there. The clear blue sky made people ask what the fuss elsewhere was all about. In Jakarta, life went on as usual – biasa saja in Indonesian.

It still does today as I write this in Jakarta on a week-long visit, as the PSI crosses the 400 mark in Singapore.

Nature is one thing – Jakartans were not bothered by the haze because they were not affected – but politics is another. Then, as now, the official mindset was clothed in Javanese imperturbability. The asap – as the haze is known in the Indonesian capital – elsewhere in the country was a problem, but it was not the country’s most pressing issue.

And even though the forest fires which caused the haze affected Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, there was the unspoken assumption, based on the almost imperial expectation, that Indonesia’s neighbours would take the smog in their stride.

In the Indonesian psychological construct of their place in South-east Asia, good neighbourliness entailed others making allowances for them, not Indonesia ensuring that it did not cause environmental problems for its neighbours in the first place.

To be fair, Suharto’s Indonesia, which saw itself as the natural leader of the region, tried to fit into that role with a degree of benignity towards its neighbours.

Thus, the Indonesian Armed Forces was said to have deployed more than 50,000 troops – almost a fifth of its strength – for fire-fighting at one point during the ecological crisis.

But then, as now, the Indonesian leadership made it clear that it, and it alone, would determine the nature, direction and timing of its response to the haze although it constituted a cross-border issue.

This is how a regional power behaves. The more criticism there is of its irresponsibility, the more it is intransigent, adamant and defiant. It stands on political ceremony and insists on diplomatic protocol even as forest fires on its soil cast a pall on its relations with its neighbours.

The intemperate reaction of Indonesian minister Agung Laksono exemplifies the Indonesian temperament. “Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise,” he said.

The condescension in those scolding remarks would have been breathtaking, except for the fact that it has a precedent in former president B.J. Habibie’s magisterial dismissal of Singapore as a “little red dot”.

The haze underscores the reality that when it comes to the environment, geography is destiny.

From presidents Sukarno to Habibie, to ministers like Mr Agung today, Singapore has never been left in any doubt that its small size and demography place it at a disadvantage in its relations with the region’s largest and most populous country, next to which it is situated.

What is unbecoming in all this is that it is precisely Indonesia’s centrality in South-east Asian affairs that should make it behave very differently today.

Unlike in 1997 – the tail-end of the Suharto regime, which would soon be overthrown as a result of the Asian economic crisis – Indonesia is a rising power now.

Jakarta is a major member of Asean and of Asean-centric institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asian Summit process.

As a member of the Group of 20 emerging economies, Indonesia’s influence extends beyond South-east Asia. It has entrenched democracy after the downfall of Suharto, and held on to its secular credentials in the face of religious revivalism.

Indonesia is, indeed, a leader in South-east Asia. It should display that leadership by being solicitous of the welfare of its neighbours.

It demeans itself when it belittles them. Since leadership, like charity, begins at home, Indonesia should go after the companies responsible for starting the fires that are causing the haze.

In the light of these psychological factors, Singapore has to tread carefully in dealing with the Indonesians over the haze.

The best channel remains the bilateral one, where leaders can meet and discuss contentious issues behind closed doors. Agreements will not be possible all the time, but the threshold of understanding can go up. Naturally, both Singaporean and Indonesian leaders will be answerable to their home constituencies, but they will enjoy space for give and take at these private meetings.

The haze has created public disquiet in Singapore, but we need to understand that the country cannot push for Indonesian action beyond a certain point.

When all is said and done, it is only the Indonesian leadership that can decide what action to take against the errant companies or how to go about fighting the fires. Singapore can impress on Indonesia how badly it is being affected, but there is nothing it can do if the Indonesians are adamant.

It is the same with the other channel, which is the Asean one.

Indonesia cannot be obliged to act except where it has agreed to do so, but there is value nevertheless in “internationalising” the haze issue and making it a centrepiece of Asean’s usefulness and credibility. Jakarta will have to be nudged towards ratifying the agreement on transboundary haze pollution which Asean adopted in 2002. Indonesia must realise that, as an Asean leader, it cannot be a laggard in dealing with an issue that could affect its political ties with Singapore and Malaysia.

Frankly, talk of an Asean Community by 2015 rings hollow when the organisation’s largest member takes its time to deal with an issue that has grave consequences for the health and economy of a fellow Asean state.

Sadly, the 16 years that separate the last great haze from this one do not bear testimony to any essential change in Indonesian attitudes. But countries at the receiving end of environmental disasters must keep trying to make the other side see reason.

Even if their insistence is misconstrued as behaving like a child.

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