Bright spots amid the haze

As my irritation grew in tandem with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading on Hari Raya Haji on Sept 24, my phone dinged with a timely reminder to keep things in perspective.

"Thank God our PSI is not yet 200. It is almost 2,000 in Kalimantan," read a WhatsApp message sent to one of my chat groups.

That was in the morning and things soon got worse. As dusk fell, the three-hour reading breached 300, crossing into the hazardous range. My empathy tank quickly emptied as I began to develop a slight cough.

At 9pm came the unprecedented announcement: Primary and secondary schools here would close the next day due to the haze.

Even with all our doors and windows shut tight and the air purifier running at full blast, I could still catch faint whiffs of the acrid air. I went to bed that night muzzling myself with my blanket, helpless anger coursing through me.

"How can this happen year after year? How can those responsible still not get their act together? Even if they don't care about us, what about their own people?" It is the same rant that plays in a mental loop each time the choking haze descends.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The text message from that morning sprang to mind, along with apocalyptic images of smouldering forests in Kalimantan I had seen online. To the locals, every breath of the toxic air is nudging them closer to a premature death. Where can they seek refuge? And how many of them can afford quality filtration masks, not to mention air purifiers?

The bright spot amid the suffocating haze is that I'm reminded to count my blessings.

I now cherish mundane acts I rarely  think twice about - throwing open the windows to let in the breeze whenever the PSI drops below 100 or taking in a clean batch of laundry without the clothes reeking of smoke.

As I hear of friends' kids falling ill because of the polluted air or needing nebulisers to breathe, I'm thankful mine have been relatively unscathed so far, complaining only of the occasional throat or eye irritation.

When it dawned bright and clear two Saturdays ago, I said another prayer of thanks. We had planned a family gathering to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival and my two kids would have been crushed if we had to scrap it. They had been waiting all week to flaunt their new lanterns while traipsing around the estate with their cousins.

The clear air and skies held out till nightfall, allowing us to enjoy a pleasant dinner out in the balcony. Clean air was no longer a given, but a luxury to be treasured.

I'm grateful also for the tips from friends and family on how to beat the haze. These range from traditional Chinese medicine remedies to a list of fruits and spices loaded with essential vitamins to a survival guide with details such as how to choose the right mask and air filter.

While banging out this column, for instance, I received a text message from my mother-in-law that contained an idiot-proof recipe for green bean soup ("to get rid of toxins and heatiness," she explained).

It was tailored specially for the hopeless cook that she knows I am.

I even appreciate how the dreary days have been leavened by funny haze-related memes and GIFs making their rounds online.

The good thing about a crisis is that it often brings out the best in people. After Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the United States in October 2012, Time magazine ran a feature on why people tend to exhibit selfless traits when disaster strikes.

In it, social critic Rebecca Solnit explained that a shared crisis "pulls people away from a lot of trivial anxieties and past and future concerns and gratuitous preoccupations that we have, and refocuses us in a very intense way".

She added: "In some ways, people behave better than in ordinary life and in some disasters people find (out about) the meaningful role of deep social connections and see their absence in everyday life."

Solnit wrote A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, a 2009 book which examines the altruism and sense of purpose that bind people together in the face of catastrophes.

No doubt the haze situation here falls short of the disaster label, at least for now. But the frustration and inconvenience it has caused are enough to prompt some people to rise to the occasion.

One random act of kindness cited online showed a screengrab of a text message from a taxi driver to a passenger who had made a booking: "The haze is very bad. You stay indoor (sic) first. I will sms you again when I am here, so you don't have to wait in the haze." To preempt any concerns, he ended with: "Will not start meter first."

Various groups have also stepped up to the plate. The People's Association has designated haze shelters at community centres and Residents' Committee centres, and handed out N95 masks to vulnerable people.

Others have been galvanised into action. Environmental group WWF Singapore  has partnered two other groups here to raise awareness of how we can play a role as consumers. The campaign, called We Breathe What We Buy, aims to collect 50,000 pledges from Singaporeans to buy products made from sustainable sources.

The website offers useful information such as a list of brands and companies that make the cut, since the recurring haze problem is attributed to fires caused by both large firms and small-scale farmers, who use the illegal slash-and-burn method to clear vegetation for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.

Another group of volunteers, called the Haze Elimination Action Team (Heat),  is planning not only to boycott companies responsible for the fires, but also to sue them.

So even as the haze stings my eyes and burns my throat, the various examples of how people are helping one another through the annual ordeal, even attempting to put an end to it, warm my heart.

When a friend said she was planning to buy masks for the security guards in her condominium the other day, I was pricked with shame. Why hadn't I thought of that earlier?

Rather than obsess about the hourly PSI updates, it's time I think of how I can brighten someone's day with small acts of kindness. The least we all can do is to bring a breath of fresh air to this stifling spell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Bright spots amid the haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe