Indonesia says Singapore acting 'like a child' over haze



Jakarta: Indonesia on Thursday accused Singapore of acting "like a child" over choking smog from forest fires in Sumatra that has triggered the city-state's worst environmental crisis in more than a decade, as the two nations held talks.

The escalation in tensions between tiny Singapore and its vast neighbour came as the levels of haze enveloping the island hit a new record high, shrouding the whole city, from residential blocks to tree-lined parks.

As the acrid smell of burnt wood and grass crept into people's flats and medical masks sold out at drug stores, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the crisis could last weeks and urged people to pull together.

The city-state ratcheted up pressure on Jakarta to take "definitive action" to extinguish the fires -- but Indonesia, which insists Singapore companies that own plantations on Sumatra also share the blame, hit back.

"Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise," Agung Laksono, the minister coordinating Indonesia's response, told reporters. "This is not what the Indonesian nation wants, it is because of nature."

His comments came as Indonesia's foreign ministry hosted an emergency meeting in Jakarta attended

by the chief executive of Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA), Andrew Tan.

Singapore's air pollution index hit a new all-time high Thursday, soaring to 371 at 1:00 pm (0500 GMT), well past the previous record of 321 set the night before, before falling later in the afternoon. Any reading above 300 is "hazardous" while a reading above 400 is deemed "life-threatening to ill and elderly people," according to government guidelines.

Singapore's prime minister declined to respond to Laksono's provocative comments, saying he did not want to engage in "megaphone diplomacy".

Lee urged people to stay indoors and protect themselves from the haze which has hung over the island since Monday, asking citizens to "look out for one another".

"We cannot tell how the haze problem will develop," Lee told a press conference. "It can easily last for several weeks and quite possibly longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra."

Drug stores in the central business district were sold out of disposable masks and refused to take advance orders, as the strong odour seeped into homes across the island as well as inside the air-conditioned trains of the metro system.

Parks were empty of the usual morning joggers, but thousands of employees still trooped to offices and labourers continued their work on high-rise buildings under construction.

"This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced," said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for the environment and water resources.

"We need urgent and definitive action by Indonesia to tackle the problem at source," he said on Facebook.

"Singaporeans have lost patience, and are understandably angry, distressed and concerned."

The previous Singapore air pollutant index high of 226 was recorded in September 1997 at the height of a Southeast Asian calamity also resulting from vast amounts of haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates heavy smoke during the dry season that begins in June.

Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by the smog.

Laksono said that plans to use cloud-seeding to unleash rain over Sumatra and put out the fires were also under way, and it was hoped helicopters could be dispatched on Friday.

The minister said Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago nation, did not want any financial assistance to fight the fires from its rich neighbour unless it was a large amount.

"If it is only half a million, or one million dollars, we don't need that. We would rather use our own national budget," he said.

Smallholders and plantations in Sumatra -- some of them with Singaporean investors -- have been accused of using fire to clear land for cultivation, but big palm oil companies deny involvement in such activities.

AFP