Hazy memories of 1997

The haze is back, declared headlines in Singapore and neighbouring countries, as smoggy skies gave a gloomy cast to the days ahead and everyone groused about that burning, nose-tickling smell in the air.

It's a near annual reminder of vigilance: That borders are porous and that keeping your own doorstep clean just isn't enough anymore -- not when your neighbour's dust may well redistribute itself with a strong enough gust of wind.

Smoke from forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, on Sunday caused air pollution to hit unhealthy levels in several parts of Malaysia.

In Singapore, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 100 on Monday. Any reading above 100 is considered unhealthy.

Nobody wants a repeat of 1997 when the PSI hit a record high of 226 points. It was so bad that I thought a fire had broken out in the university hostel I was staying in at the time. It was evening and, disoriented by my nap, I ran out of the room, only to find out that it was simply a very bad haze. Coughing, hacking and eyes tearing, we thought ourselves the unlucky ones, forced to stay behind and attend classes while thousands of adults with the means and the time booked holidays and left the country.

But we were all the lucky ones, it turned out. The haze was so bad in September that year that two ships collided in the Straits of Malacca, throwing dozens of seamen into the sea, while a Garuda aircraft crashed in Medan killing all 234 people on board. Airports were soon forced to cancel flights for lack of visibility.

Caught between the twin pressures of the haze and the financial crisis, Asean leaders said "never again", and started to get serious about eliminating the root causes of the haze in Indonesia. Sixteen years on, efforts continue to keep the traditional slash-and-burn methods of land clearing in check even as regional cooperation in meteorological surveillance strengthens.

For me, a mildly hazy day is far from a bother; I welcome the fact that it serves as a good reminder to us all that more can and needs to be done.


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