PSI readings, Instagram and N95s: Reflections on the Singapore haze
AS the air quality worsened to dangerous levels causing almost all outdoor activities to grind to a halt late last week, 19-year-old Tan En Ying from Singapore cuts through the smoke to offer his thoughts on the haze issue from a youth perspective.
I could not help but notice the unusually huge and lively crowd in the pharmacy when I was passing through the National University Hospital on June 21. I thought nothing of it at first and went about my business. Only when I casually scrolled through my Twitter homepage, did its presence suddenly make sense. “According to a post on Facebook today, NUH pharmacy still has some stock left. Can anyone confirm this?” a well-known local radio DJ had tweeted. She was referring to the N95 facemask, which guarantees effective filtration of 95 per cent of airborne particulates. They were being swept clean off shelves island wide even as stocks were replenished daily.
Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) had peaked at 401 the day before, the highest the country has seen in its history despite the fact that haze has always been a yearly occurrence. Adopting what is known as the slash-and-burn technique, plantation farmers in Indonesia burn vast areas of vegetation to create highly fertile and arable land at the beginning of their annual planting season, spawning forest fires. In this country where the wrath of Mother Nature is rarely felt apart from heavy rains during the Northeast Monsoon, local PSI readings are usually well below the ‘good’ threshold of 50. It is thus no surprise that encountering a meteorological phenomenon described officially as hazardous causes widespread distress and concern. Rumours the government had released redacted PSI numbers, which in reality exceeded 500, circulated on the Internet, further fuelling a mask-buying frenzy. Talk about literally ‘off the charts’ – a search on the internet reveals the PSI ranges only from 0 to 500.
As citizens of a country blessed with an absence of natural disasters, the haze can be a cheap thrill for those not suffering many adverse effects from it. Many of their daily routines now include monitoring the index with the enthusiasm of dedicated Guinness World Record officials and sharing record high numbers on social media platforms.
As a full-time national serviceman I was for the most part of this ‘worst environmental crisis in more than a decade’ staying in my army camp where accommodation and working areas are almost entirely open-air. When the haze encroached upon Singapore we mostly shrugged and went ‘oh well, nothing much we can do’. As the air quality worsened to dangerous levels we were delighted to receive news that outdoor activities were to be suspended and we were to get the day off.
It seems to me that beneath the apparent panic and distress, some Singaporeans are secretly amazed and somewhat excited that the PSI numbers are huge and rising. As citizens of a country blessed with an absence of natural disasters, the haze can be a cheap thrill for those not suffering many adverse effects from it. Many of their daily routines now include monitoring the index with the enthusiasm of dedicated Guinness World Record officials and sharing record high numbers on social media platforms. They have flooded Instagram with fuzzy shots of the outdoors, proudly marked with ‘#nofilter’ hashtags (who knew haze would make a perfect Instagram filter?) and comments about how Singapore has become the perfect setting for a horror movie.
Yet as picturesque as disappearing skylines can be, our olfactory senses and respiratory tract are unable to appreciate such beauty. The acrid smell is a mere annoyance, but the smoke does make one feel quite uncomfortable, and is undeniably a health hazard. Containing irritant gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone as well as airborne particles 30 times finer than a strand of human hair, it is no wonder respiratory symptoms and illnesses can be caused and exacerbated by the smoke. But these components of smoke can also potentially cause myriad health effects, from cancer to preterm birth to heart attack.
Notwithstanding the fact that Indonesian instant noodles are mighty delicious, I simply think there is no point in (nor is it practical to) trying to stop using Indonesian products altogether, especially when the haze is attributed to oil palm plantation farmers using ‘slash-and-burn’ techniques to create vast areas of fertile land.
I personally do not feel much anguish towards any party in the midst of this haze crisis, but I do find myself desiring positive action in response to the situation. With some Singaporeans calling for a boycott of Indonesian goods and services and the Indonesian government labeling Singaporeans as childish and blaming Singaporean firms operating in Indonesian plantations, I must say I am quite disappointed with the current outcome.
Notwithstanding the fact that Indonesian instant noodles are mighty delicious, I simply think there is no point in (nor is it practical to) trying to stop using Indonesian products altogether, especially when the haze is attributed to oil palm plantation farmers using ‘slash-and-burn’ techniques to create vast areas of fertile land. With palm oil being used in the production of many goods from foods to biodiesel and from soaps to plastics, boycotting Indonesian goods and services or simply palm oil makes even less sense if one considers how harvested palm oil would be sent to various parts of the world to be used as raw material in the manufacturing of such products. Any consumer action thus lies out of the picture in this context. Besides, the inefficacy and indifference of the Indonesian government should not be a reason to rebuke the entire people of Indonesia.
It was ungentlemanly and not-so-diplomatic of the Indonesian government to suggest that some Singapore-based palm oil firms are the root cause of the problem, but the issue of governments not regulating the overseas operations of firms based in their countries is still pertinent.
Just as one has the right to expect that their neighbors do not act in inconsiderate ways that affect quality of life, Singapore should have the right to express concern and displeasure with regard to the widespread forest fires in Indonesia. By responding with statements vowing never to apologize to Singapore and alluding that Singaporean firms are partially responsible, it seems that the Indonesian government is unwilling to take responsibility for their continual failure to educate farmers and impose that firms, both foreign and local, do not operate in an unsustainable and damaging manner. Furthermore, it seems that the government is inept in quickly deploying measures in response to the raging fires. I believe that the key to solving this problem lie in government action, be it legislation or enforcement. This involves education of farmers (which can be carried out by NGOs as well) and strictly enforced legislation regarding crop cultivation.
It was ungentlemanly and not-so-diplomatic of the Indonesian government to suggest that some Singapore-based palm oil firms are the root cause of the problem, but the issue of governments not regulating the overseas operations of firms based in their countries is still pertinent. Whilst firms from well-developed nations are largely unable to operate in unethical or hazardous ways in their home country, they can often get away with shenanigans when they set up operations in other less well-developed nations where business and industry practices are not so effectively regulated and established. As such, although the responsibility of ensuring slashing and burning is not carried out lies mainly with the Indonesian government, the Singaporean government should definitely ensure its firms do not engage in such practices in Indonesia – and I am pleased that the aforementioned claim by the Indonesian government is as of now unfounded and lacking any documentary proof.
Much to the dismay of some Singaporeans, the PSI has now fallen below the three-digit mark. Life goes on, routine and quite uneventful. The disappointment is immediately evident should one simply visit any high school confession page on Facebook. Gone with the wind are hopes of government issued stop-work and shut-school orders, and with the weekend and school breaks coming to an end, it seems that national servicemen will go on serving, and students will take their midterm examinations right on time and perhaps grossly underprepared after all.
Tan En Ying is a 19-year-old Singaporean currently serving national service and is a prospective medical school student. The article was originally published in inkq.co, a not-for-profit web publication based in Singapore.