Don't get mad, get organised

Resident Lee Ah Tee, 69, trying out the N95 mask distributed by PM Lee at the void deck, 23 June 2013.

SINGAPORE - The haze this week has dominated conversations, hogged attention and generally caused us all in Singapore much grief.

The three-hour Pollutant Standards Index has crept to historic highs, reaching 401 at one point on Friday.

We've all smarted from it and choked on it. And I'm not just talking about the smog caused by fires burning in the Riau province forests in Indonesia.

I'm talking about Singaporeans smarting from and choking on the callous indifference of Indonesian ministers and officials to Singaporeans on this issue and their shameless attempts to shift the blame.

On Monday, Forestry Ministry official Hadi Daryanto was quoted as saying that the slash-and-burn method of clearing land for cultivation was used not only by local farmers "but also employees of oil palm investors, including Singaporean and Malaysian companies".

"We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together."

This is a valid point.

But as Singapore made clear, it can do so only if Indonesia named the companies responsible, so the government here can take action. Consumers too are up in arms: Name the companies and we know what to do, said numerous Facebook posts.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he thought Singapore's requests for Indonesia to identify the culprits were "redundant" as "we are fully aware of the impact and consequences and the need for action".

The Indonesians have named some companies this weekend. That's welcome, even if it comes about a decade late, considering that the haze is an annual affair and enforcement action should have been taken promptly after each episode.

But still, late is better than never.

What's needed next is for green groups and consumer groups to look into the details and organise campaigns to mobilise consumers to put pressure on the commercial players to stop open-burning methods all down their supply chain.

But the remark that takes the cake came from Mr Agung Laksono, the minister coordinating the haze response in Indonesia. He told reporters in Jakarta: "Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise. This is not what the Indonesian nation wants, it is because of nature."

At this point, the PSI shot up to stratospheric levels. That's the Pour Salt (into wounds) Index.

Forest burning is not an act of nature. It is a wilful act of greedy company executives and irresponsible farm owners, condoned by officials who close an eye to such practices.

I considered writing an open letter to Mr Agung, inviting him and his pals to come to Singapore to enjoy the Sumatra forest-laced air. They could stay in naturally ventilated Sentosa chalets, or al fresco accommodation on the beach under the stars. Drive around in open-top trucks. But maybe it's better to ask them to hotfoot it down to Riau instead.

At this stage, I told myself, don't get mad. Get even. In particular, get organised.

Unlike some folk online who think the Singapore Government has waffled/ not done enough/ massaged PSI numbers, I think Singapore ministers are doing their best with a bad situation in such a cross-border issue. When Indonesian ministers complain that Singapore is making too much noise, you know the diplomatic and government channels are feeling our officials' sustained verbal pressure.

Leaders are constrained by diplomatic conventions. Private citizens are free to say what we think. But we should direct our ire at the right channels.

Get organised. Lawfully, of course, and civilly. The people of Singapore have not made it clear enough to the Indonesian authorities that we are fed up of smarting from and choking on the haze year in and year out, and just as fed up with their inaction and insensitivity.

The haze is an annual affair. Indonesia hasn't ratified the 2002 ASEAN transboundary haze pollution treaty signed by other members. Singapore has offered technical and financial assistance to Indonesia to fight the fires.

Each year, the heat and rhetoric level goes up with the PSI. And then the rains come, or the winds blow elsewhere, and the issue fades - until the next year.

More coordinated and sustained action is needed this time. A big protest at Hong Lim Park would be ideal, but is hard to pull off given the hazardous air outdoors - although that hadn't stopped intrepid campaigners from getting one going yesterday.

But a social media campaign is useful.

Start a SMASH movement: Singaporeans Mobilise Action to Stop the Haze.

Use social media to organise to help ourselves. Some have already done this to good effect: getting Singaporeans to donate masks to distribute to low-income families, and persuading companies to stop outdoor work to protect workers from the hazardous air. These are all laudable.

Some energy can also be spent harnessing Singaporeans to speak out on the haze to persuade the Indonesian authorities to take this more seriously. With companies being identified, it's also time for consumer protests and boycotts.

Sign a petition like this one: www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Stop_and_Prevent_the_Yearly_Haze/?email

Join the Haze Elimination Action Team (H.E.A.T) group on Facebook, led by university professor Ang Peng Hwa. The page says H.E.A.T "is a group of volunteers who want to breathe fresh air outdoors".

The group started in 2007 raising funds for an educational effort in Jambi, which has not seen major fires. It's being revived "to mobilise anyone in the region interested to join; to mount an education campaign for farmers; to boycott companies identified as offenders; to raise funds for the above effort".

We can all get creative. Netizens can haze out blogs and websites with protest photos. Send e-mails to protest the haze to the Indonesian embassy. E-mail relevant government departments in Jakarta. Share information on the commercial activities of the companies on whose land and concessions the burning is taking place.

Staying indoors this weekend because of the haze? Be a keyboard warrior. We can do our part to SMASH the haze.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

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