Finding heart in the haze

Mr Cai Yinzhou
PHOTO: Cai Yinzhou

When the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached a new high of 401 two years ago, it became clear to Mr Wally Tham that N95 masks would not be the only solution to the haze.

The 38-year-old's heart went out to the elderly in nursing homes who were defenceless against the haze.

The homes were well-ventilated for practical reasons, which meant residents there were exposed to the unhealthy particles in the air.

"At that time, my friend (who had been distributing N95 masks) got a call from an old folks' home, saying they needed help.

"I found out that the old folks started developing respiratory problems," the owner of video production company Big Red Button shared with The New Paper.

So he embarked on an initiative last year, where he raised $7,000 and bought air purifiers and filters to be installed at the intensive care units of nursing homes.

The money was raised through crowdfunding site Indiegogo.

Mr Tham, who said each purifier cost him about $400, said: "It killed me that I couldn't buy enough for every room."

When the haze returned this year, he decided to focus his attention on the one-room rental flats in North Bridge Road.

"The nursing homes are either linked to some form of government funding or have private donors, but the residents at the rental flats don't," said Mr Tham, who also runs a social initiative StandUpFor.SG.

A recce trip to the rental flats on Sept 15 strengthened his resolve to help.

He realised that some residents had stacks of N95 masks, untouched despite the haze.

The residents felt the masks were stuffy, uncomfortable and restricted breathing.

In a week, he managed to raise about $6,000 through crowdfunding and donations for more air filters and purifiers.

The air filters are designed to fit on regular fans, which helps to clean the air in the flat.

On Sept 19, he rounded up a team of 20 - some of them friends, others strangers - and helped 40 units in the block.

With $6,000, however, Mr Tham was able to cover only half a block of flats.

To cover the rest of the block, he intends to start another crowdfunding campaign.

Mr Tham had initially hoped to raise $7,000, the same amount he managed to raise last year.

Calling the haze an "expensive problem that falls out of favour quickly", Mr Tham said: "If I run another campaign, who will give?

"But I'm just going to do it and see. No harm trying."


Many Singaporeans moaned when the PSI crossed the 300 mark last week.

But for a handful, their thoughts were with the people in Kalimantan, Indonesia, suffering in the smoke from forest fires.

The PSI at Kalimantan pushes the 2,000 mark daily - about six times worse than Singapore's highest PSI so far this year.

The severity of the situation prompted the Lie sisters Cheryl, 31, and Charlene, 26, to start a mask-collection drive known as "Let's Help Kalimantan", early last week.

"Separately, we decided that we couldn't sit back in our air-conditioned rooms and do nothing but 'like' a post on Facebook."

The decision to start 'Let's Help Kalimantan' was immediate and spontaneous, said Ms Cheryl Lie, who works in the education sector.

"I roped in my good friend, Hafizhah, who is fiercely passionate about helping others, and we haven't slept much since Wednesday."

She added: "In Singapore, we have a plethora of N95 masks and ground-up initiatives that deliver these masks to the needy.

"But in Kalimantan, where N95 masks are not sold, even the firefighters wear no protection at all.

"There is a dire need to even wear a mask indoors in an expensive hotel. That is how bad it is - so how can we not give?" she said.

Acknowledging that the haze crisis is complex and would take a long time to solve, she said: "We want to try to battle against this haze and run the race with them."

So far, the trio have collected over 17,000 masks, which were mostly donated by individuals. They are exploring their airfreight options and will be sending the masks this week.

Another Singaporean, Mr Jonathan How, 43, plans to fly to Kalimantan, if circumstances permit, in the next few days with 10,000 sponsored N95 masks.

If flights are cancelled due to visibility issues, the CEO of non-governmental organisation Relief.Sg said he would fly to the nearest possible place and travel on land to Kalimantan.

He told TNP that he had been in the middle of coordinating flood relief efforts in Myanmar when he saw the news of the soaring PSI in Kalimantan.

The children there had surgical masks, which does nothing to fight the haze, or no mask at all, he said.

"It just hit me that the PSI (there) is so many times more than ours. I'm a family man with three children and I'm trying to protect them as well.

"Once I found out that the PSI there was so bad, I realised the kids over there are like my kids but in a worse situation," said Mr How, whose children are aged between eight and 12.


Mr Cai Yinzhou, 25, wanted to distribute the masks to those in need.

"I heard about the community centres distributing two free masks to eligible Singaporeans and permanent residents and thought it was a good idea. I figured that I could help by plugging the gaps for people who didn't have access to the free masks.

"It could be the elderly, people with caregivers, migrant workers or anyone who was on trips and missed the collection, " Mr Cai said.

After collecting the masks at 4pm, he passed 200 masks to a group of friends, who distributed them to foreign workers and residents of one-room flats in Tampines. Another 150 masks were handed to Project X, a sex workers' rights group.

Later that night, he combed East Coast Park with a team made up of current and former beauty queens, as well as members from the Singapore Women's Association.

Besides giving out masks to the homeless there, Mr Cai felt it was important to educate them on the haze and wearing an N95 mask.

"We have to tell them when to wear the mask and remind them to seek medical help when they feel uncomfortable, especially when there are schemes for haze-related illnesses."

Mr Cai plans to continue his efforts even if the haze situation improves.

This article was first published on Sept 28, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.