I landed back in Singapore last week, and it felt like I had landed in a post-apocalyptic war zone.
The air was filled with smoke, to the point that visibility was cut to no more than a few feet by the thick, pea-soupy haze. There was a pungent, acrid smell of burning everywhere. I could literally taste the air as I breathed it in, a charred flavour that after a few minutes lodged itself in the back of my throat. Wherever I looked people in white face masks were floating through the haze, emerging ghostlike from the gloom and then melting back into it. It was as if a strange alien army had landed in my absence and taken control of this tiny island nation. What the hell?
It turns out that for the last few weeks, while I have been away in London enjoying the start of the European summer, Singapore has been caught up in the grip of the biggest environmental catastrophe it has ever faced. The hyper-organised, hyper-efficient, hyper-clean place that I have come to know and love has, it seems, been struggling to cope.
It all begins with palm oil.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that is made from the crushed fruit of the oil palm tree. This particular form of oil is one of the primary cooking ingredients in much of Asia, but more than that, it is cheap and stable, and is thus used extensively around the world in processed food production. Almost certainly palm oil will be one of the ingredients listed in the fine print on the back of the cereal box you ate from this morning, or is in the cookie you are munching on right now.
Between them, Indonesia and Malaysia grow a huge percentage of the world’s palm oil crop. It is a massive regional business, and palm trees are cultivated both on vast industrial plantations and on small family run farms. Drive anywhere in the Malaysian and Indonesian hinterland and you will be hard pressed not to come across swaths of turf that have been planted over with row after row of palms, stretching out in orderly lines as far as you can see.
Every year during the dry season (which starts around June and lasts normally until late September) palm growers clear their existing plantations ahead of the coming year’s activities, or clear the forests to make way for new ones. The cheapest, quickest way of doing this is to “slash and burn” – that is, set fire to the unwanted stuff, and burn it all off. This form of “agriculture” tends to occur mostly in Indonesia.
Of course, where there is fire there is smoke. And whether old palm trees or virgin rainforest, a heck of a lot of smoke is produced as it burns. Plus, once they get started, the fires often take on a life of their own, and rage out of control until the next rainfall, which can sometimes not come for weeks.
The result: towering columns of smoke and ash over the Indonesian plantations, but which then, depending on the direction of the winds, get carried away from the source, and dumped like a blanket of haze over Singapore and southern Malaysia.
To some extent this happens pretty much every year, but with differing levels of severity. Mostly, it just means that for a few weeks the air seems a little bit foggier than normal, and sunsets tend to be quite brilliant affairs, the additional smoke in the air amplifying the fading light and adding streaks of colour to the sky. In especially bad seasons, it can be quite smoky for a few days, but it always seems to pass quickly enough.
Still, it is an annual thing, and Singapore, fastidious little place that it is, maintains a whole battery of air quality monitoring stations across the island to keep track. There are fourteen in total, which continually measure atmospheric levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, ozone and airborne particulate matter. This data is then compiled according to some algorithm into what is known as the Pollutant Standards Index (or PSI to most Singaporeans, who absolutely love a good acronym). The PSI is reported on the National Environmental Agency’s web-site on a three-hourly basis, and then again over each 24 hour period.
On a normal day, the PSI is well under 50. On hazy days it can rise up into the range of 100 – 200. Apparently a 24-hour PSI of around 250 is considered “very unhealthy”, above 300 is “hazardous”, and above 400 “may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons”.
Based on the level of the PSI the Government of Singapore issues various health advisories (“stay indoors”, “wear a mask”, “don’t breath” – that sort of thing). Singaporeans, for their part, tend to do what they are told to do, especially if told to do that by their Government. All of which means that during each year’s haze season the PSI suddenly becomes a number of biblical significance in Singapore. Every water-cooler conversation in the office makes some mention of it; every evening news report kicks off with what that day’s PSI was; plans are made and changed based on the PSI (as in: “…so the PSI hit 186 and I had no choice but to cancel tennis yesterday”). At haze time everyone suddenly becomes an armchair expert in meteorology and wind direction – taxi drivers especially.
In short, for a few weeks each year, all across Singapore people begin to obsess about “the PSI” in much the same way that men who have overdosed on Viagra might obsess about their overly erect willies: something to talk about, for sure, but really, they’d rather it just go down already.
Over the ten years I have lived in Singapore, I have come to regard this annual bout of PSI-mania as just another quirky aspect of Singapore’s slightly hypochondriac, overly compliant national character. These are, after all, the same folks who en-mass donned face masks during the Chinese bird flu epidemic (excuse me people, isn’t China thousands of miles away?). And these are the same folks who, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, began bringing sandwich lunches to work, simply because their Prime-Minister had appeared on television and urged them to economise.
But this year, as I learned when I arrived back in town, the haze has been worse than ever before. Much, much worse. The previous all-time PSI high was in September 1997 (well before my time in Singapore) when it hit 226, or just a bit less than “unhealthy”. Over the last few weeks, however, as the fires began raging in Indonesia and the wind blew the crud over Singapore, the PSI got up to 246, and then kept climbing. It reached 321 on the Wednesday, 371 on the Thursday, and finally, on the Friday, clocked in at a whopping 401 (recall, a PSI over 400 = “life threatening to the ill and elderly”). For once it would appear that the good citizens of Singapore were not over-reacting.
All of which is nothing compared to the situation in neighbouring Malaysia. There, a state of emergency was declared in parts of Johor province, after the PSI level climbed to above 750 (it has since come down). I checked on the relevant web-sites, and the PSI advisory scale doesn’t even contemplate it ever going that high. Faced with this unprecedented event official advice was to “avoid all outdoor activity”, “drink lots of water” and “wear face-masks”, but that would have been cold comfort to those on the ground, not able to see more than three feet ahead and struggling to breathe properly. I can only imagine that it must have been bloody scary.
Certainly it was scary enough for a Singaporean Government minister to issue an official statement aimed at calming panicked citizens: “If a situation arises like in Muar where the PSI equivalent is over 700, nearly 800, we may have to close certain sectors. We will obviously consider what we need to do. And if we need to continue essential services, we have the ability to mobilise assets and personnel to make sure at least essential services continue. So I would say to Singaporeans not to worry”.
In short, you have a Government representative saying is that if things get as bad here as in Malaysia, we may have to shut down the country and mobilise troops. But hey, we’ve got a plan, sort of, so fear not. Which isn’t exactly the most reassuring thing you’ve ever heard, now is it?
The sustained disruption to daily life in Singapore caused by the haze has been extraordinary.
It is most evident in the smell. A strong burnt odour has seeped into every nook and cranny on the island, and is hanging around like an unwanted guest at the party. You see the impact on the streets as well: they are noticeably less crowded, no-one in their right mind is out jogging, and on peak haze days those still brave enough to walk around outdoors tend to be wearing the latest Singaporean fashion accessory, N95 face-masks.
That is, if they can buy them in the first place. Pharmacies sold out of face-masks in hours as panic-buying took hold across the island. It was pretty much as you’d imagine a run on a bank would look like during a financial crisis, except instead of walking out of the bank with bags of cash, people were walking out of the chemist shop clutching bags of face-masks.
Again, the strength of the public panic prompted official Government response. In this case, the Minister of Defence went on TV to hold a press conference, where he discussed the shortage of face masks, promised that more would be made available in a hurry, promised that prices would be capped to stop profiteering, and then announced that the Singapore Armed Forces were being mobilised to distribute one million masks to needy households.
Seriously: the Minister of Defence, on TV, mobilising troops, to distribute face masks. But not to worry people, everything is under control, just keep calm and carry on breathing…..
Other consequences of the haze: in Singapore, where kids are on vacation from school, all Government sponsored holiday activities have been cancelled (in southern Malaysia, where the smog is worse and kids are still in term, 200 schools have been shut indefinitely). Changi Airport, one of the region’s busiest, deployed emergency measures to allow ongoing operations even in low visibility conditions. McDonald’s cancelled fast-food deliveries. The army suspended field training exercises.
Not to be outdone Singapore’s Mufti, the country’s top Islamic cleric, got in on the act, decreeing that Singapore’s Muslim men were allowed to skip Friday prayers at the mosque, on account of the haze. So evidently, even the Almighty has made accommodations to the normal routine because of the persistent smog.
The haze has also sparked off a full-on political sparring match between Singapore and Malaysia, in the hazy corner, and Indonesia, in the other.
Initially, when things reached the “bad” level, Singapore’s grandly named Inter-Agency Haze Taskforce (the IAHT, of course) swung into action. It didn’t take long to figure out that committee meetings were not going to get rid of the smog, though, and then the diplomatic offensive ratcheted up.
First, a series of crisis meetings were held between Indonesian and Singaporean officials, the latter becoming increasingly vocal in blaming Indonesia for the crisis and demanding some action. The Head of the Singaporean Environment Agency even went so far as to say he had a “very frank exchange of views” with his Indonesian counterpart. Although knowing how aggressive Singaporeans can be, I suspect that this dressing down would not have been especially terrifying for those on the Indonesian side.
Then Singapore’s Environment Minister entered the fray, jetting off to Jakarta to demand “decisive action”. At which point the Indonesian’s got pissed off with all the moaning from the “little red dot”. The Indonesian minister responsible for coordinating his country’s response threw the blame back at Singapore, saying that many of the plantation companies that had started the fires were Singaporean owned in the first place. And for good measure he also tossed in some playground insults: “Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise,” was his considered view.
Singapore’s Prime Minister, now suitably annoyed, admirably held his cool on the basis that “megaphone diplomacy” wasn’t going to achieve anything. Not to be left out of it, Greenpeace chimed in with their two cents worth. The local Greenpeace chief went on record, helpfully pointing out that: “Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate”. Thanks for clarifying.
Finally, in an effort to calm things down and placate his clearly irate neighbours, Indonesia’s President ate humble pie, and said sorry: “As the President, I apologise for what has happened and hope for understanding from our friends in Singapore and Malaysia … for sure, what has taken place is not on purpose”. He accepted responsibility for dealing with the crisis, and ordered his officials to do what was needed to put out the fires. Helicopters with special cloud-seeding gear started flying sorties over the burning forests and fields, to try make it rain.
For now at least, things have improved. The political rhetoric has died down. The wind has shifted direction, and combined with the efforts of the Indonesians to get the fires under control, the haze seems to have dissipated. The PSI is hovering around 100. But everyone is on tenterhooks, knowing that with a small shift in the wind or a spike in temperatures, the smog could be back.
For me, this whole haze thing has taught me a few very interesting, quite valuable lessons.
One: in the rough and tumble of politics, apologising works, and does not necessarily have to be seen as a sign of weakness. Indonesia’s President (SBY as he is most commonly known – it seems the fetish for acronyms is a regional one) showed this, stepping into the breach and ended the escalating political showdown with a clear, decisive and accountable statement of apology. He diffused what was fast becoming a political tinderbox with a quick and unambiguous “I’m sorry”, which struck me as masterful statesmanship and truly presidential conduct on his part. More world leaders should take note.
Two: people are fickle. It would appear that in order to beat the haze, thousands of Singaporeans brought forward their holiday plans. Outbound travel spiked more than 20% at the worst of it. And where were most of those fleeing Singapore heading? According to a leading local travel agency, most were finding their way to the Indonesian island of Bali, and Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, both of these places being far enough away to be unaffected by the haze. Never mind all the whining and complaining in Singapore about Indonesia being responsible for the crisis.
Three: Singaporeans actually have a sense of humour. With little else to cheer about of late, the nation has engaged in a very uncharacteristic bout of self-mockery, often making use of what one newspaper referred to as “subversive social media platforms” (otherwise known to the rest of us as Twitter and Facebook).
This included a widely circulated picture of Singapore’s national icon, the Merlion, wearing a gas mask. Another doctored image doing the rounds was of the Singapore Flyer – the world’s largest Ferris wheel, and something of which Singaporeans are unnaturally proud – converted into a giant fan and blowing away the pollution (actually, I am a bit surprised that Singaporean city planners haven’t come up with such a scheme for real). Even retailers jumped on the haze band-wagon. Cadbury, for example, ran a snap advertising campaign for one of its chocolate bars: “Haze driving you nuts? Have a Haze-lnut”.
And four: we are all in this earthly experience together. A recurring theme from my travels, and which I have often written about in this blog, is how much smaller and more globalized our world has become, and how increasingly interconnected we now all are.
We live in a world where goods, services, people and ideas can move around the planet like never before, generally unrestricted, and at speed. As a result, national boundaries and sectarian loyalties are becoming less and less relevant. Whereas once upon a time it used to be that what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine, this is no longer true: what happens in your patch is very much my business, because it might just fuck up my patch, too.
The haze in Singapore these past few weeks has been a very tangible example of this. Our collective desire to eat cookies and crisps drives ever-increasing demand for palm oil, which in turn provides the economic incentive for landowners in Indonesia to clear their forests and fields by setting fire to them, which in turn means that hundreds of miles away in Singapore and Malaysia children get the day off school and people walk around in face-masks.
Something for you to think about, while you enjoy the lazy days of summer ahead. Meanwhile, in Singapore, hopefully the hazy days of summer won’t return any time soon.