Malaysia’s proposed haze law may let Indonesia to shirk own duty, lawyers say

Motorists pass on a highway shrouded by haze in Malaysia. — Reuters pic
Motorists pass on a highway shrouded by haze in Malaysia. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 23 ― Imposing a specific law here to punish companies responsible for haze-causing fires in Indonesia could backfire as it might detract from efforts to hold Jakarta accountable for the annual issue, lawyers have said.

While legal practitioners have no issue with introducing such a law, they warned that it would likely do little to push Indonesia to enforce its own laws and policies to manage the long-standing problem.

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said any law created to deal with the haze would only work if Indonesian authorities cooperate and get to the bottom of what causes the haze.

“Laws are not magic wands that can make haze disappear. It takes political will and political cooperation for the Indonesian authorities to stop the haze,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

Bar Council Environment and Climate Change committee chairman Roger Chan said reactive statements by Putrajaya do little to solve the annual problem, especially with the lack of details as to what the law would do and a timeframe for it to be passed and enacted.

He said issues such as poverty, land ownership and sustainable development should be looked into, in addition to educating Indonesians to not resort to burning to clear pieces of land.

“Each time when there is an environmental problem is faced in this country, people make grand announcements.

“The haze has affected millions of people... what is needed is a plan of action, we need to set a timeline,” he said.

Should Malaysia insist on adopting Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014, then it should impose harsher penalties with higher fines and possibly even jail time for company executives, Chan said.

Singapore’s law allows its government to fine local or foreign companies US$100,000 (RM308,000) a day, up to a maximum of US$2 million (RM6.16  million) for haze pollution in the country.

“If there are companies that are adamant, we can increase the threshold to up to US$5million to drive home the message,” Chan said, adding that Malaysia can also consider taking Indonesia to an international tribunal seeking compensation or even a directive for the latter country to end the pollution.

Universiti Malaya law professor Dr Azmi Sharom noted that by prosecuting Malaysian companies found to have contributed to the haze, Putrajaya would build political clout to pressure Jakarta to take more substantial measures to deal with the issue.

This would at the same time put to good use the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze - which Azmi said has not been very effective to date.

“Actually as a treaty, it is very weak but it does impose an obligation to assist one another with regards to exchange of information. So Indonesia, under the treaty would be obliged to help us prosecute our own people.

“We can also use this as pressure to ratify the treaty so they will be able to help us fight this thing together,” he said.

On Wednesday, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told the Dewan Rakyat that the federal government is studying the possibility of a new law on transboundary haze passed by neighbouring Singapore to deal with the annual haze problem that has affected the region over the past two decades.

Schools in eights states were forced to close due to the haze for most of this week.

The haze blanketing Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia is an annual affair that affects schools as well as airport operations, causing massive flight disruptions.

Indonesia’s recent admission that it cannot contain the fires within its borders led to projections that the haze could last for months.

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