Features | Environment | Southeast Asia

Singapore Haze: Discontent Rises

The severity of the haze from Indonesian forest burning has prompted a growing chorus of complaints this year.

By Kirsten Han for

Although a bustling, densely populated city-state, Singapore has nonetheless managed to maintain a reputation for having relatively clean air. Once a year, though, the island is engulfed in smog and haze, a result of forest fires caused by slash-and-burn tactics employed by plantations in Indonesia. For more than a decade now Singaporeans have endured the consequences of unethical plantations choosing the easy way out in clearing their land. Still, usually people just cough and scratch their noses, grumble a little and continue on their way.

Not this year, though, as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) climbs higher than ever before. At one point it hit 401, classified by the National Environment Agency (NEA) as “very hazardous”.

It’s all anyone can talk about. The Twitter hashtag “#SGHaze” is constantly trending in Singapore, and social media feeds are clogged with screencaps, comments and postings from those obsessively monitoring the PSI figures. The severity of this year’s haze problem has brought to the surface a plethora of worries and criticism of the government.

Stop work orders

With the smog hitting record levels, people have been advised not to remain outdoors for long periods of time. Several companies and employers have asked their employees to work from home, or stop working completely. McDonald’s temporarily ceased its delivery service, citing health concerns for its workers.

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Despite this, the government has yet to issue an official “stop work” order, and many construction workers – most of them low-paid migrant workers from Bangladesh, India or China – are still toiling away in hazardous conditions.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an NGO focused on migrant workers’ rights, wrote in a statement published on that website that it “is gravely concerned that current bad haze conditions will affect the health of workers in many trades, e.g. construction, marine, sanitation, landscaping.”

Concerned about the well-being of these workers, some Singaporeans have taken it upon themselves to do whatever they can to alleviate the situation. Visiting construction sites dotted across the island, they give out drinks and lozenges. In her blog post, filmmaker Lynn Lee observed the conditions in which the workers were working: “The hot, dusty worksite is also home to some 20 workers. For Zhou and his colleagues, there’s no respite from the haze. No respite from anything. The men sleep here at night – next to bags of cement and machinery and random bits of scaffolding. There’s a thin layer of dust everywhere. Zhou says their bunks are infested with bugs. Cockroaches and rats are a fact of life. There’s just one toilet. … No wonder they don’t see the haze as a big problem. There are other things to worry about.”

Although they have not issued a “stop work” order, the Ministry of Manpower has advised employers to “minimize strenuous work outdoors” for its workers. Tan Chuan-jin, the acting Minister of Manpower, wrote on his Facebook page: “I share many of your concerns, particularly for those outdoors carrying out strenuous activities, in particular construction workers, cleaners from NEA, our Town Councils etc; and also those who spend the better part of their day outdoors. … We have been coordinating with the various Ministries on our approach. … Meanwhile, do watch out for the elderly, young and those who have respiratory conditions as they will be most vulnerable to the worsening conditions.”

A rush for masks

As the PSI and PM2.5 (which measures the quantity of particles in the air) readings skyrocketing, so did demand for N95 masks. Indeed, for a several days masks were unavailable, the result of panic buying. As supply decreased, profiteers began to market masks at higher and higher prices.

Drawing on their stockpile of nine million N95 masks, the government has begun to distribute masks to low-income families. One million masks were distributed across the island in six hours. The government has also made them available for sale at retailers and supermarkets such as NTUC FairPrice.

However, this move has also drawn criticism. As blogger Alex Au points out: “On Facebook, people are up in arms after hearing that the state stockpile has been given out to commercial pharmacies, helping them make huge profits at jacked-up prices. Why didn’t the government also set prices? Did no one among the bright sparks in our civil service expect profiteering to happen?”

A lack of health information was also cited as a cause for concern.

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“There was very poor communication from the government. Twitter had the most up to date information,” says Crystal Nanavati, a mother of two who wrote a post on protecting children from the pollution. “The information that there are no masks safety rated for kids was not communicated, nor was there reporting on it until very recently. The information that pregnant women should limit the time spent wearing a mask wasn't disseminated until very recently. I saw plenty of kids with surgical masks – people seemed to think they were adequate when they're no more effective than nothing at all.”

A silent protest

Although the pollution has reached record levels this year, the haze itself is nothing new. For about 15 years Singapore has been a recipient of the smoke and soot coming from Indonesia’s forest fires, and Singaporeans are getting fed up with the situation.

As a way to express his frustration, retiree Patrick Low and his wife Maggie decided to organize a “Silent Haze Protest” in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park. Their goal was to urge the Singapore government to apply more pressure on the Indonesians to take action.

“[Indonesia] has refused to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution which was signed in 2002. Singapore leaders should take a harder stand to get them to ratify instead of excusing them by saying that there is a lot of politics surrounding the haze issue in Indonesia,” says Patrick Low.

“As expected the turnout was poor. People were worried about the haze and their own health,” he adds. “I had no great expectations in the first place. But I always believe that if something is worth doing then I must do it even if it turns out to be a one man show.”

Indonesia has now begun to waterbomb the burning forests in hopes of managing the blaze, and the PSI reading in Singapore is finally falling. Masks, too, are now easier to obtain, and the panic seems to have subsided. Yet not everyone is reassured, and it is only a matter of time before they begin to wonder, “Will we have to do this all over again next year?”