Singapore's horrid haze continues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 6:03pm

At noon the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 401. The much-dreaded high point went viral as Singaporeans texted and posted online and held discussions about it in offices and corridors. For a society so used to a clean and green environment, the figure literally made us gasp.

Anything above 300 is classified as “hazardous”. Such levels seem completely out of place in Singapore, where everything from industrial emissions to car ownership is highly regulated to keep pollution down.

And yet there is no telling how long this extremely unpleasant situation, where ash is being blown in to us from Indonesia, is going to last.

We are told it depends on how many burning hot spots remain in neighbouring Sumatra, Indonesia, and that the wind direction could easily last for several weeks or even longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra.

Among other offers of help to Indonesia, Singapore has said it is prepared to provide aircraft for cloud-seeding operations to douse the fires raging in Sumatra with rainwater.

Singapore’s Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan posted on his Facebook on Thursday: “This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced.

This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced
Singapore’s Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan

”And no country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans’ health and wellbeing.”

In a live TV talk show on Thursday night he said that Singaporeans’ feelings of anger and distress were understandable.

One audibly emotional woman called in and bitterly complained to him about comments made by Agung Laksono, the Indonesian minister coordinating that country’s response to the haze.

To the incredulity of Singaporeans, he was reported to have said: “Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise.”

The caller voiced the outrage of many when she said: “his comments are extremely offensive”.

She went on to share that her friend’s father had died of respiratory illness during a bad haze season some years ago.

The caller said that haze conditions could be a matter of life and death and needed to be taken seriously by the Indonesians.

While Balakrishnan agreed that the haze was a real problem, he reiterated that Singapore was more interested in sitting down with the Indonesians as partners to try and work out solutions, instead of exchanging barbs and megaphone diplomacy.

Netizens, however, have not been holding back.

“Isn’t Indonesia motivated enough, even after all the pressure placed on them in 1997 when the haze had been exceptionally bad, they still can’t get their act together?” posted one frustrated Malaysian. “Why don’t we take it to an international tribunal?

“Every year the same problem around this time. And what Indonesia is doing about this?

“NATO! No Action Talk Only! Next year there will haze again around this time!”

More than 200 schools in Malaysia have been forced to close as the haze spreads northwards.

“Ask the Indonesian Embassy to have an open door policy,” an irate Singaporean blogged. “Share their aircon free of charge with everyone in Singapore who’s bothered by the haze.”

As air quality continues to vacillate between very unhealthy and “hazardous” levels for Singapore and our neighbours in the Malaysian southern state of Johor, clinics are referring more serious cases of respiratory illnesses to hospitals, which are in turn reporting higher patient numbers.

Cancer survivor Jac is praying the haze clears before next week when she has no choice but to step out of her home to get to the hospital for her follow up medical appointment.

“My eyes are already itching and red,” she said. “Our apartment windows are kept shut all the time.

"What with my elderly mum and dad, we have no choice. Our domestic helper also has a runny nose.”

And in typical Singaporean fashion the complaints are coming thick and fast online. One commentator said: “The government said we have a stockpile of nine million masks, but when I went to the pharmacy I couldn’t get any!”

Another wrote: “My child’s childcare centre has no air-conditioning and they are kept indoors with windows closed. It’s terribly stuffy.”

“Why can’t the government do something about workers near my home who work outdoors?” asked another. “I can’t bear it when even my hamsters live in air conditioned comfort!”

In their heart of hearts, Singaporeans, who have endured many hazy seasons (albeit none anywhere near as bad as the current one) understand that there is no silver bullet that can put an end to this maddening, recurrent problem of ash and smog from the seasonal hotspots in Indonesia.

So the next best thing is to laugh.

Jokes and satirical pictures have emerged online showing the Singapore Flyer, a giant Ferris wheel, being converted into a giant fan blowing the polluted wind back to source.

Even the iconic Singaporean mascot, the merlion, has not been spared. The mythical creature has been depicted online wearing the kind of face mask used during chemical warfare.