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    Aug 06, 2014

    'Ground-breaking' law passed to fight haze

    A NEW law which targets firms responsible for haze pollution in Singapore will be ground-breaking, but must not overreach, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, in response to calls for heavier penalties and for the Bill to have a wider scope.

    Addressing concerns raised in Parliament yesterday that the maximum fine of $2 million may not be harsh enough, Dr Balakrishnan said it would be a start, and that the law would be reviewed to assess whether the amount would be "sufficient deterrence".

    "This is new legislation. We don't know yet how this will work in practice. We want to be very careful that we don't overreach or have unrealistic penalties," he added.

    Under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill, which was passed in Parliament yesterday, firms here or abroad can be fined up to $100,000 for each day of haze, up to a cap of $2 million. It may take effect in October or November, reports said.

    The penalties have been upped from a previous cap of $300,000, spelt out in a draft Bill earlier this year.

    Members of Parliament (MPs) said during yesterday's debate on the Bill that $2 million may be a slap on the wrist for large corporations responsible for the slash-and-burn practices.

    Dr Balakrishnan noted that, besides criminal liabilities, civil suits may be brought against the errant entities. "And there is no limit to the civil liability except what the court decides to award," he said.

    During the debate, MPs raised a number of concerns, including whether consumers can play a part and if the Bill should cast a wider net.

    Nominated MP Faizah Jamal called on the Government to take the lead in identifying the source of palm-oil products and to deny support to companies with poor harvesting practices.

    Dr Balakrishnan replied that the challenge in doing this lies in the sheer number of products which have palm oil as an ingredient, which make up more than half of supermarket products.

    "So the point is we shouldn't go on this wild goose chase of saying, 'I'm going to exclude and eliminate all palm oil from our consumer consumption'," he said.

    While he noted the merits of pressuring companies to ensure that their supply chains are legitimate and derived from sustainable sources, Dr Balakrishnan said it should be done by consumer groups or non-governmental groups, rather than from a top-down approach.

    Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked if the Bill was too narrow in scope, as it covered only transboundary haze involving smoke from forest or land fires.

    Dr Balakrishnan, in reply, said the Bill was targeted and hence it did not go so far as to look at "factories and burning oil platforms".

    Noting that the Bill would be breaking new ground, he said: "I think I'm a surgeon, I don't like making large incisions, so let's be targeted first.

    "Let's get this surgical operation done, let's see how this works before you start taking adventures and liberties."