A hazy future
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - September 27, 2015 - 10:00am

SINGAPORE – Arrived here just before the weekend to a hazy city state but I came prepared. Aside from a suitable face mask, I brought my anti-asthma and allergy medicines and enough Salinase to clear my nose as needed.

I had to be here for my son’s wedding to his Singaporean girl friend. They planned an outdoor wedding by the poolside of a hotel off Orchard Road, but had the sense to have a Plan B in case the haze becomes intolerable.

What is haze? Well, it is something like the air in EDSA during rush hour traffic. But in the case of Singapore, all the smoke comes from “kaingin” – as farmers in neighboring Indonesia burn the forests mostly to plant palm for palm oil. It affects Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Why doesn’t the Indonesian government do something about it? That’s a good question. The Indonesian government since the time of President Suharto had been promising Malaysia and Singapore they would act on the problem, but nothing ever happens by way of good news.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam told asiaone.com they are frustrated because it is a problem that could be prevented. “The majority of the fires are manmade, by companies seeking to profit while people pay the costs.”

What infuriates Singaporeans is the insistence of Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla that Indonesia need not apologize to its neighbors for the haze. Schools called off classes last Friday here in Singapore. Haze pollution level rose to a health threatening level last Thursday evening.

An article in The Diplomat observed that “even if Indonesia agrees to further anti-burning measures or name-and-shame efforts against blameworthy firms, such policies stand little chance of being effectively implemented.”

The Diplomat pointed out that “As history indicates, many Indonesian legislative actions – addressing everything from corruption to pollution – have failed to generate substantive change. The same would likely happen to haze management legislation.”

Ah, that sounds familiar. Indonesia is like the Philippines in governance… very third world. No wonder first world Singapore feels helpless. Singaporeans face a hazy future and must suffer the consequences of Indonesia’s bad governance.

The Diplomat suggests that to solve this complex and recurring challenge, the Indonesian public must be convinced that haze is bad for them. Indonesians must be shown haze is costing them big in terms of health, productivity and FDI.

Indonesia needs to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year, requiring sustained FDI. They will risk shooing investors away if this haze problem persists.

The haze challenge is an economic development and poverty issue, the Diplomat says. “Lacking attractive alternatives to land clearance, farmers opt for the most expedient solution available… In burning vegetation, farmers pursue what they believe is the best available alternative, regardless of the longer-term costs to a distant and wealthy island.”

The haze didn’t stop the ruling People’s Action Party from winning a massive victory in parliamentary election the other week. It was the toughest election for the ruling party, the first held after the death of Lee Kuan Yew. All seats were contested by opposition parties unlike in the past, in a campaign period of just a little over a week.

The ruling PAP won 83 of the 89 seats. The PAP also recovered ground lost in the previous election when its overall share of the vote slipped from 67 percent in the 2006 election to 60 percent in the 2011 election. It bounced back this time to about 70 percent.

Singaporeans decided to vote for continuity of the world class performance of the ruling party. It also helped PAP that Singapore just celebrated its 50th anniversary as a nation with a large outpouring of nationalist sentiment.

There had been dissatisfaction recently expressed over immigration policies, housing and some recent problems with its normally efficient MRT service. But by and large, Singaporeans seem content with the good life and probably feared putting that at risk by voting opposition.

Oscar Franklin Tan, a Filipino lawyer who had the opportunity to witness the Singaporean election, was all praises for the city state in an opinion piece he wrote for Singapore’s Straits Times.

“As a Southeast Asian foreign guest, I find myself envious of the election which ended last week. Candidates talked about track record, accountability for financial management, and healthcare and pension policy…  

“Political parties presented manifestos and action plans. Voters demanded to see credentials. Entertainers are banned from performing at rallies.”

Mr. Tan gushed about how the Singaporean voters valued intelligence and track record in selecting their officials. He lamented our voters seem to be wary of candidates who are too smart, so we previously elected a president who did not even finish secondary school.

Mr. Tan also observed “Singaporeans of all political inclinations vocally hold their government accountable even for everyday things such as a three-hour MRT disruption.

“In the Philippines, derailed trains and being stuck in Manila traffic for hours the moment it rains is a common occurrence. It will never be an election issue, even if armed highway police and commandos from the unit we sent into the jungles to hunt down terrorists were deployed to direct traffic in the streets.”

He recalled Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew lamented how Filipinos are so blessed with natural and human resources, but overly emotional and forgiving with Ferdinand Marcos...

“He criticized how our free press has not checked corruption, our democracy has not developed a truly independent judiciary, and our best young men and women are constrained to seek opportunities abroad.”

Mr. Tan wrote about how Lee Kuan Yew’s recent passing made many go back to review his life and works. Indeed, I too, just bought a book, entitled Big Ideas, written by LKY’s colleagues on their impressions about the leadership style of Singapore’s founding father.

According to Heng Swee Keat, formerly managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, LKY believed in the rule of law and institution building. “But institutions are only as good as the people who run them. Good governance needs leaders with the right values, a sense of service and ability.

“It is important to have leaders who can forge with the people the vision for the future and the way forward. Above all, leaders are stewards. They should develop future leaders and when the time comes, they should relinquish their positions so that the next generation of leaders can take us to greater heights.”

Kishore Mahbubani, one of Singapore’s leading intellectuals wrote of LKY: “Unlike many thoughtful men, who sometimes suffer from paralysis through analysis, Mr. Lee was a man of action. Though a great public intellectual in his own right, he displayed contempt towards individuals who were not prepared to combine good theory with good practice.

“One thing I learnt from working personally with Mr. Lee was that he was an extremely results-oriented person. When he failed to get the results he wanted from his instructions, he was known to have told a public official who failed him, ‘I don’t accept excuses, I only recognize failures…’

“He was a tough taskmaster. Yet there was no way Singaporean society could have shed some of its negative traits of sloth and inertia without the kind of toughness that the first generation of Singapore’s leaders displayed...

“Unlike their counterparts in many other countries who had security of tenure, Singaporean civil servants could be sacked, even senior civil servants who were found lacking.”

I can appreciate the frustration of Mr. Tan, who as a Filipino like me, had to concede Singapore may have a more meaningful democracy than ours.

Indeed, as Mr. Tan pointed out, Filipinos openly sigh about how we have never had our own LKY. Proof is a recent book of my friend Joey Leviste entitled “If the Philippines had a Lee Kuan Yew”.

I think this recent fascination with General Antonio Luna and the potential presidential candidacy of Davao City’s feisty Mayor Rody Duterte is an expression of our people’s thirst for a results oriented kind of leadership exemplified by LKY. This is also why netizens are starting to get excited over Dick Gordon.

As Mr. Tan puts it, what we are looking for is simple accountability and in our country it is a joke. “Manila traffic costs billions daily and affects people from all walks of life, yet it will never be an election issue…”

Sigh! The only thing we have Singapore has today is the smog… the haze… and that is not even their fault. Back home we are facing a hazy future of a different sort and our politicians are still monkey business as usual. 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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