Kuala Lumpur/Jakarta – Malaysia is reviewing how it can take stronger action on the ground to stem the return of the haze due largely to fires raging in Indonesia, Environment Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad told The Straits Times on Saturday.
This comes as political pressure to take Jakarta to task ramps up locally, with calls to swiftly enact a transboundary haze law similar to Singapore's – which imposes criminal and civil liability on entities contributing to haze pollution in Singapore, no matter where the offences are committed – or to exercise other legal options such as suing Indonesia.
Meanwhile, Indonesian officials said Jakarta has taken steps in the past few days to Saturday to seal off 35 large plantation locations in Sumatra and Kalimantan – which have been the primary source of hot spots – to facilitate investigations into the causes of fires spewing unhealthy smog into the air.
Environmental and Forestry Law Enforcement director-general Rasio Ridho Sani told ST on Saturday that it is prepared to slap corporations with sanctions ranging from monetary fines and business licence revocations to jail terms for errant managers and executives.
Among the companies that operate on the sealed-off plantations is Singapore-based Sampoerna Agro, which was founded by an Indonesian billionaire.
Dr Ridho said the 35 large plantations that have been sealed off are located in West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra provinces and in a few other places. "We are calculating the total areas (of plantations being sealed off)". This means that they are temporarily stopped from operating.
It is not clear how big an area this is, compared with the total size of hot spots.
The Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre based in Singapore shows that there were 16 hot spots in Sumatra, 193 in Kalimantan and just nine in Sarawak on the Malaysian side of Borneo Island, said Malaysia's Mr Nik Nazmi on Thursday.
He told ST that Malaysia is "looking at all options from all angles" to stem the return of the haze. But he also acknowledged the many challenges in imposing punitive action both locally and across borders.
This comes after Kuala Lumpur wrote officially to Jakarta on Friday, urging the authorities to act promptly to manage hot spots across Sumatra and Kalimantan, following Indonesia's insistence that it was not the cause of the haze engulfing the region.
Officials from both countries have acknowledged that the letter was to share information and offer cooperation in dousing the fires.
"We need to relook what can be done better. The bottom line is about taking action on the ground," said Mr Nik Nazmi, the Minister for Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change (NRECC), when asked if the Asean agreement on transboundary haze should be strengthened to ensure stricter compliance in terms of "putting out the fires and penalising the culprits".
The regional deal outlines only preventive action but no curative or punitive measures, should any member state fall foul of the covenant.
Kuala Lumpur has refrained from directly blaming Jakarta, with officials in the know citing the need to tread carefully due to diplomatic implications.
Non-government actors, however, have pushed hard for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's administration to take sterner action, with former minister Khairy Jamaluddin suggesting on Wednesday that Malaysia sue Indonesia based on international law.
Mr Nik Nazmi said his ministry was also "seriously looking" into introducing a transboundary haze Act similar to that enacted by Singapore in 2014 but "the data we have on the success of such a law is not that straightforward".
"There are concerns from the Attorney-General's Chambers on how to make it work from a legal standpoint to be able to prosecute companies and actors in this matter on something happening abroad," he said.
This comes after his predecessor as environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said she had tried to push for the law in 2019, before the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed in February the following year.
Nonetheless, the NRECC ministry has written to Malaysian companies with plantations in Indonesia, telling them to cooperate with the authorities to prevent fires. Kuala Lumpur has also stated its firmness in not protecting any Malaysian actors that have caused fires in Indonesia.
"We can't go back to an annual haze as something normal. Slash and burn, open burning and peat fires cannot be accepted as normal," Mr Nik Nazmi added.
Air in Malaysia remained polluted on Saturday evening, with five out of 68 monitoring stations nationwide reporting unhealthy air, the same as on Thursday.
Indonesia says it is taking action.
On steps against errant plantations, Indonesia's Dr Ridho said: "Among the possible penalties are an indemnification order – which would involve independent experts assessing economic losses based on the size of affected areas – a jail term that could be as heavy as 10 years and sequestration of corporate profits."
Plantation fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have relatively subsided from the recent peak in the first few days of October after firefighting efforts were being stepped up, according to Indonesia's disaster management agency BNPB.
Dr Abdul Muhari, BNPB's head of data, information and communications, told ST on Saturday: "We added six cloud seeding planes, so since Oct 3, we have had 10 total. We have deployed 22 water bombing helicopters and 13 helicopters for patrol."
Cloud seeding has yielded results, with regions including Lahat, Muara Enim and Prabumulih in South Sumatra seeing rainfall on Oct 1, according to Mr Abdul.
But Indonesian capital Jakarta continues to choke from weeks-long air pollution, with the Air Quality Index registering an unhealthy 160 on Saturday.
President Joko Widodo in mid-August blamed the pollution largely on "excessive road traffic, long dry season, and manufacturing industry mainly those using coal", but environmental groups say coal-fired power plants are the main cause.