My hazy reaction to the haze

My hazy reaction to the haze
Generic picture of haze at Marina Bay Sands Waterfront Promenade.

Why am I not fuming at the fumes like I want to?

Bursting into flames at the thought of the haze like I have done so at second-hand cigarette smoke?

After all, it comes, it goes, it comes back again.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, the haze promises to creep once more over the horizon.

To smear our fluffy white clouds and sweet blue skies, and turn them into one big filthy smudge.

To sweep the sick, the very young and the very old indoors. To seep into your lungs and your blood-stream.

Last Monday, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was at an unhealthy 153 here as air quality deteriorated to its worst levels this year.

Last year, Singapore and the region were blanketed with the worst episode of the haze in 16 years, with our country's three- hourly PSI at a record 401 on June 21.

As my mind reaches further back in time, I remember why I have a hazy reaction to the haze instead of a fiery one: On a trip to Riau on the Indonesian island of Sumatra to cover the haze for The New Paper in 2000, I started feeling what I did not particularly want to feel - empathy.

In Riau's capital Pekanbaru, where the PSI hit 300 earlier, a resident told me what he felt about the smoke in the air: "I am angry inside... Who should I complain to anyway? You're Singaporean.

We're not like Singaporeans who can complain to the government and the government will look into it."

His family, along with a then one-year-old granddaughter, faced the dirty air without masks.

When I spoke to government officials and executives from a plantation company identified as a "haze culprit", the accusations and blame-shifting swirled like clouds of ash and smoke from a fire.

I wrote then: "The local government doesn't have the political guts to get the haze budget the central government doesn't want to give.

The Forestry Department and police shift responsibility for fire investigation to each other. Only plantation owners have the right equipment to investigate fires.

But they are accused of starting them.

They point their fingers at the small farmers, who blame tradition and poverty... The trip left me with a confusing number of people to direct my anger at. But I also understand how slowly things change.

I realise we're up against the way things are done in a country. The haze will be with us for as long as it takes for traditions to change."

It would have been so much easier to not empathise with anyone, to just get angry at an undifferentiated mass, at an entire country.

But I am held hostage by what I understand of it.

What I did do, instead, was to get angry at a more convenient target; I wanted to tar some smokers and haze culprits with the same brush.

During the trip, I was bothered by the second-hand cigarette smoke - that stale smell of used and abused air exhaled from tired, tarred lungs - drifting across hotel lobbies and dinner tables, filling up the rooms and vehicles I was stuck in.

That was bad enough but, still, it was a temporary situation.

Taking the tarring exercise a little further and back home to Singapore, consider how miserable it is to have neighbours puffing cigarettes near your home window regularly.

They are smoking in their homes - it is their right to do whatever they want in their own hot spot, is it not? The second-hand smoke snakes its way through your window - blame the prevailing wind direction - and the PSI in your home goes up along with your blood pressure.

Should the neighbours think you should be thankful for the rest of the time when their potted plants provide oxygen for you?

Is this how some people win?

Blow smoke at those who try to be more understanding and patient?

But I cannot fume fecklessly like this about the haze. Not when there seems to be a more coordinated effort to deal with it.

For example, a haze situation room has been set up in Jakarta.

Run by the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Management Agency (BP REDD+), it is a nerve centre where updated information on hot spots across Indonesia's fire-prone provinces is tracked by 12 officials.

The data is shared every morning with others, including provincial police chiefs and local governments.

And on Sept 16, Indonesia's law- makers finally decided to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution - 12 years after the country signed it alongside the other nine ASEAN members.

It binds a group of contiguous states to tackle transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires.

So it is no longer as it was in the year 2000, but I still do not have the heart to expect that the haze will be erased any time soon.

The forecast: My hopefulness for a clearer tomorrow is expected to be in the moderate range.

This article was first published on Oct 12, 2014.
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