Simon Tay is a professor of international law at the National University of Singapore, the founder of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), and a former three-term Nominated Member of the Singapore Parliament. In addition, he serves as a powerful voice on topics affecting the quality of life for all Singapore’s people. In November 2014, Tay authored a piece for The Straits Times, one of Singapore’s leading newspapers, on his “personal journey” through the environmental issues surrounding the haze problem plaguing his country and the greater region.
In the article, Tay discussed the complex nature of the problem. Recurrent clouds of smoky haze originating largely from forest fires in Indonesia have crossed the Strait of Malacca for decades, blanketing Singapore and Malaysia. The elderly and young children are particularly vulnerable to the respiratory conditions and other health problems associated with this type of pollution.
The rapid boom in natural resources-based manufacturing taking place within Indonesia’s developing economy is the ultimate cause of the haze, which sometimes comes from fires that ignite on plantation lands owned by large corporations. In other instances, small farmers, without a direct affiliation with a corporate partner, may set fires on their own or company-owned lands through lack of education about the environmental impact, or deliberately as the cheapest means of clearing lands for cultivation.
Attributing the fires to specific sources has proven difficult, even for experts, because of unclear demarcation of land boundaries on current maps, as well as the limited technological means for verifying details about the causes of the fires.
Tay has long maintained a deep concern about the transnational haze problem. When it came most prominently to his attention, in the late 1990s, the Indonesian government was in a deep political and economic crisis, with little ability to fight the raging fires that the United Nations had declared a global disaster situation. In the years since then, new national and international laws have attempted to bring order to the problem, with varying degrees of success.
On a recent trip to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Tay spent time with Anderson Tanoto, who represented the RGE Group of manufacturing companies founded by his father, Sukanto Tanoto. Tay wrote of his tour of lands under cultivation by APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Limited), the RGE company dedicated to producing wood pulp products, and by Asian Agri, another RGE firm devoted to palm oil production for a global market. Tay was impressed with APRIL’s and Asian Agri’s focus on containing and fighting fires in a systematic manner, and with the companies’ commitment to sustainable practices. As Anderson Tanoto pointed out, it makes good business sense for a natural resources-based company to keep environmental stewardship foremost in its planning. Without careful oversight of wildfires and other hazardous conditions, APRIL and companies like it would lose the very raw materials they depend on for their livelihoods.