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Being clear-eyed about haze laws

Publication Date : 03-03-2014

 

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill breaks new ground in focusing on wrongs originating abroad that impact Singaporeans, taking commercial entities to task and extending its reach to non-Singaporeans as well. Public views, sought by the government, on the extraterritorial law have been generally supportive although it undoubtedly has its limitations.

The bill creates criminal and civil liability for engaging in, authorising or condoning conduct that causes or contributes to haze pollution here. Evidential presumptions relating to causation (linking open burning elsewhere and wind direction with the presence of haze here) and culpability (based on ownership and occupation of land) help to give teeth to the law.

Some feel, however, that a penalty of up to S$300,000 (US$236,537) is too low to deter multi-million-dollar operators. Against this, one must consider the extent of blame that can be reasonably heaped on those who submit to local jurisdiction when there are hundreds of hotspots contributing to the haze. What might be useful to explore is the nature of the liability arising from acts of independent contractors used by firms to clear land. Strict liability specified as the harm caused - the impact on public health and economic activities - justifies a non-delegable duty of care.

On a broader plane, there is no question clear-eyed international rules on transboundary pollution are needed given its long reach. Indeed, smog from China travels as far as the United States, according to a recent study. States should, therefore, work together on pollution standards and enforcement. What is stalling the process in the region is the failure of Indonesia to ratify a 2002 Asean agreement to fight haze.

But leaving it to states alone to tackle transboundary pollution would be akin to pulling one's face mask over the eyes as well. There's also a need for greater public activism and more scientific understanding of the ill-effects of periodic haze. Green practices can be adopted by the private sector in, say, supply chain management - like Nestle's zero-deforestation policy and Unilever's pledge to buy palm oil from traceable sources only. Given the gravity of global pollution concerns, the finance and investment sectors, too, should not be blind to the need for adhering to sustainability guidelines, rather than focusing narrowly on short-term commercial gains.

Against the larger agenda, Singapore's transboundary haze provisions might appear limited in scope. But it is a necessary step to take to signal clearly that Singapore is not light on errant firms based here and operating in Indonesia, while the nation pushes for firmer action at the regional level.

 

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