Politically hazy bullying


by Donavan Cheah

We’re being held at ransom once more. Once again, it is because of burning forests. This time however, perhaps a little more than burning forests is at stake here, depending on the side that you are on.

The Pollution Standards Index (PSI) has been steadily sitting in the unhealthy to hazardous range for the past day or so. Worst haze — even worse than that of 1997.

Has this been the only time when all we can do was to just complain to no effect? Unfortunately, not quite. 

Our unhappiness with Indonesia wasn’t something that manifested only because of smoke.

Seven years ago, in 2006, Singapore hauled Indonesia to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the haze issue as well. Granted, it was a slap to Indonesia’s face over the haze issue. Up till today however, Indonesia has yet to ratify the agreement, proving the United Nations’ intervention futile.

The next year, Indonesia wanted to renegotiate an extradition treaty that the two states had already signed before. We needed the space for training, and in exchange Indonesia got to learn from our weapons systems. However, they claimed that the terms that were too pro-Singapore and wanted the treaty to be independent from a mutual defence agreement. Singapore refused to budge, because renegotiating such an extradition treaty meant that extradition treaties with other countries would have had to be renegotiated as well. After repeated stalling on the part of the Indonesian government, the treaty ultimately failed to be ratified by the House – even though it had been already signed.

Subsequently, in 2008, Indonesia banned the sale of sand to us for reasons they claimed as “environmental” in nature.
Could Singapore do anything? Not at all.
We hopped from country to country, but one by one, country after country started to ban the export of sand. Of course, it had everything to do with our future economic progress and land reclamation projects to increase our land area, but they were conveniently brushed off as “environmental reasons” and hazards.We had to live with it but we survived, and today many of us do not even remember this incident which nearly crippled our construction industry as sand prices shot through the roof. This clearly would have affected many of us — every building project would have had its cost jacked up as a result of the sudden sand cut.

Surprisingly, through all these trials and tribulations we managed to get here today, partially because we stood together as one nation. We may be small, as a “little red dot”, but in no way will our sovereignty be challenged by other powers, not even the fourth largest nation by population.

Foreign policy isn’t just about striking up good relationships. When relations turn sour, it is just as important to not provoke another party while trying to get things done at the same time, much like trying to negotiate around a big bully. Years went on without the bully being awakened too much. Until recently. When prodded over the haze and burning issue, we firmly spoke up against the bully about an injustice we never deserved. Together with Malaysia, we were struck with a smog so unbearable; local residents went scampering all over the island for masks and air-conditioned rooms. Sure, we could have tried to tie the ends at home a bit better. But it has been near impossible to negotiate with this big bully without being boxed in the face with sheer impunity.

We said, we offer to help put out your fires. They refused. They said it would be an infringement into their domestic affairs. I was truly baffled by how insistent their refusal was towards accepting our offer of assistance – it was as if they wanted their forests to burn and smoke us!

Up in flames and smoke the forests went, and so did the Indonesian Foreign Minister. Indonesia notched up its familiar rhetoric and blasted us for being at fault for poisoning ourselves. They further claimed that they were already trying to catch the culprits responsible for the issue. The fact however remains that they are the only ones in the position to fight the fires. Unfortunately, given the party’s priorities may lie in safeguarding its interests in light of the next elections, they might simply prefer not to offend the palm oil companies.

Yes, we’ve been bullied. And bullied unfairly. But we can still stand together as one united people, marching on. This red dot will not be squeezed by Indonesia.


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