Haze robs us of health, wealth - and also self-respect

It has been weeks of daylight - and moonlight - robbery by the haze.

We have been seeing blue skies these few days, but, for weeks on end, the haze has stolen into our parks and school fields, hawker centres and cafes, and even into our homes like a thief in the night.

Robbing us of customers and tourists. Robbing us of the sun and fun. Robbing us of our very breath.

Over the years - and there were reports of the haze since way back in the 1970s - the price may have become too high to pay. The obvious blows fall, of course, on our health and wealth. But the cost also includes something more insidious.

Our gross domestic product (GDP) could take a hit from this year's haze, reported Bloomberg. Singapore and Malaysia are likely to see fewer tourist arrivals as some countries are starting to issue travel warnings about the two countries, which might impact hotels and retail spending, said Dr Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Singapore. He estimated that the impact on Singapore could range from 0.1 per cent to 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product, depending on whether the haze lasts for one month or three. "The health costs might rise exponentially if the haze worsens and persists for a long period," he said.

Perhaps, to keep our lives unchanged, we should change this way instead: Pay upfront for the lives we want and not pay for it later with our lungs. This means rewarding the more responsible brands and shops.

But here's another blow to us. The haze may also rob us of our self-respect. It could lower our personal standards of what we think we deserve. And it could come from trying to keep calm and carry on.

Trying not to change changes us.

Despite the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) numbers - a moderate 60 here, an unhealthy 170 there, a very unhealthy 240 and a hazardous 310 everywhere - raining down on our consciousness, some of us want to stay unchanged by it. But trying to carry on doing what I liked to do, as though the haze was not wrapped around my face like a suffocating mask, led to changes I did not expect in myself.

One of the things I most love doing in our country is wandering around safely in the streets in the middle of the night. Walking in the slow, sweet hours after midnight, it feels like Singapore belongs to me, and I to her.

One night in August, the hazy ghosts of trees and vegetation burnt in Indonesia started creeping over the Singapore landscape like pontianaks (ghosts in Malay and Indonesian folklore). Night after night through September, they kept sighing their long, last breaths over the sea into our air, blocking out the moon and the stars. Robbing me of what seems like a small pleasure.

Walking by myself late at night is a simple pleasure, but it is actually a complex comfort made possible by police work, calm citizens and the lack of guns in the hands of berserk people. In a world where people are shot in the streets, where no one leaves his or her home late at night in some cities, walking alone unscathed is actually a point of pride for many of us here.

"In Singapore, no matter where you are, you live in a good neighbourhood, you have good homes, you have parks, you have waterways, you can feel safe and secure, you can go jogging in the middle of the night, even if you are a young lady; safe. This must always be the reality for all Singaporeans," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally 2015 speech.

But where thugs and thieves fail, the haze may succeed. Robbing us of our pride in being able to wander the streets.

Change is a constant in Singapore. You may raise the price of my chee cheong fun dish, you may break my heart by flattening charming old buildings, but I do not want this one thing in my life changed, so out I went to walk in the pontianak haze.

And I found that trying so hard not to change changed me.

As the hazy days went by, and as the PSI numbers slid higher, my standards for what passed for good air slid lower.

PSI hovering at the higher end of the moderate range at 82? That's practically fresh air! Throw open the doors and windows!

An unhealthy reading of 149? I'll still head out!

A very unhealthy 210? It doesn't look and smell too bad! I'll nip out for a bit!

Little by little, in trying not to change my routine, my expectations of what I deserve to breathe sagged. And so, I suspect, did the expectations of others in Singapore. People were out jogging or walking their dogs in the hazy outdoors.

Only when the PSI level shot above 300 into the hazardous range did I slam the door shut on walks. I even locked the windows, as if that did anything to keep the bad air out. Maybe I was trying to lock myself in.

I could even start to understand how some residents in Kalimantan, Indonesia, don't wear masks though the PSI hit an eye-watering 1,800 the day a Straits Times correspondent was there. In an Oct 4 report, when the people at an open-air Internet cafe in Central Kalimantan provincial capital Palangkaraya were asked why they were not wearing masks, a student said: "We are used to it."

Back in Singapore, on Oct 8, during the second straight day of relatively clear skies, the social media was flooded with photos of blue skies and haze-free landscapes as "Singaporeans rejoiced at the respite from the haze", reported The Straits Times. "Air quality had improved markedly over the past 24 hours, with the 24-hour PSI in the moderate range of 73-82 at 11pm."

Rob us of azure skies and fluffy clouds for some weeks, and we were already driven to embrace merely moderate air quality like a long-lost son. I was almost grateful to smell even the sharp stink of fertiliser spread on the flower beds that I walked past, since the past hazy weeks smelled more like the backside of a bus.

Perhaps, to keep our lives unchanged, we should change this way instead: Pay upfront for the lives we want and not pay for it later with our lungs. This means rewarding the more responsible brands and shops.

Many grocery items here could have ingredients like palm oil that come from plantations that contribute to the haze, so we have our work cut out for us. Half of the products on supermarket shelves here contain palm oil - from toothpaste and cosmetics to bread and frozen fries, said Mr Stefano Savi from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in an Oct 9 Straits Times report. Mr Savi is the global outreach and engagement director of RSPO, a palm-oil certification body.

Mr Kim Stengert, World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore director of communications, said a range of certified sustainable palm-oil products is not yet available here. "At this stage, if all the non-certified palm-oil products were taken off the shelves, we would have very empty supermarkets. Consumers need to be able to express their preference for sustainable palm oil through their purchasing decisions."

Express our preference for not paying people who burn our present and future. Our preference to not be robbed of our self-respect.

An Oct 7 Straits Times report said that supermarket chains FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket have pulled all Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) items off their shelves, including popular brands such as Paseo. The Dairy Farm group, which operates chains such as Guardian, 7-Eleven, Cold Storage and Giant, has also stopped replenishing APP stock. Their actions came after the Singapore Environment Council temporarily suspended the green label of APP's exclusive distributor here, Universal Sovereign Trading.

Last month, during the run-up to the General Election, some Singaporeans joked that they would vote for anyone who could blow off the haze. It is a joke that can be taken seriously.

Express our preference for politicians who have the strategy and the smarts to deal with this grim and grimy problem.

It feels like the winds of change are puffing into the landscape. Hopefully, they won't die out even as the skies turn blue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Haze robs us of health, wealth - and also self-respect'. Print Edition | Subscribe