Schools Closed, Exams Postponed, Singaporeans Complain

South, Singapore Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) - 368 (hazardous) at 22:00 Thursday 24 September 2015Singapore’s haze situation worsened over the Hari Raya Haji public holiday.

Having just settled in Singapore for the long haul, I was impressed by the nimble efficiency with which so many parts of the Singapore government rolled out measures and made the requisite announcements (because silence from authorities = bad) about them, all pointing to much forward-looking contingency planning.

Protecting the People

Today, since there was a probability of PSI being at hazardous levels, Ministry of Education made the decision to close primary and secondary schools and postpone Singapore-Cambridge ‘O’ level examinations. Yet, it had the forethought to keep the premises open:”parents who are unable to make alternative care arrangements can continue to send their children to school. Teachers will continue to report for duty, and students will be placed in suitable facilities such as libraries and enclosed spaces…school-based student care centres will remain open.”

They also stocked air purifiers ready to tackle any potential disruption to national exams.

Free masks for elderly and needy from Channel NewsAsia. Singapore Haze 2015The People’s Association made available N95 masks for the elderly and needy at community centres, also distributing them and other essentials to the vulnerable and possibly housebound. And the Ministry of Trade and Industry ensured a sufficient stockpile of masks for companies.

National Libraries to open earlier. Singapore Haze 2015National Library branches opened an hour earlier to provide a community space for people wanting to stay out of the haze. Bravo, library staff!

The National Environment Agency continued to publish 1-hour, 3-hour, and 24-hour PSI readings, together with simple explanations of how to use these readings. And the Health Promotion Board had good write-ups on how to wear N95 masks.

More on the Air+ Smart Mask here.

Yet, you get Ugly Singaporeans complaining that there is no national work shutdown and also they want the government to pay for their utilities for staying at home. I thought it was a joke at first but the vitriol suggested otherwise. How exactly they expect to get their groceries, water, public transportation, security (from external threats and internal threats), wages, and money for doing nothing etc, I did not know; the complexity of the situation was swept aside in favour of their selfish greed.

Tackling the Source

But let us think about what can possibly be done about the source of the problem – the Indonesian forest fires. Of course, the transboundary haze has been going on for decades.

Here are some of the not-very-well-thought-through suggestions (or rather, going by the tone, demands) going round:

  • let’s water-bomb Indonesia – err, that is a violation of another country’s territorial rights and will possibly trigger an outright war. Consider our puny-ness and the extreme largeness of Indoneisa.
  • let’s boycott Indonesia – how exactly that will encourage the co-operation of the Indonesians isn’t clear. Singapore will surely stand to lose more. To them, our Little Red Dot is but a specky gadfly. It’s silly to ape superpowers like America in imposing bans without considering our own situation – Singapore cannot afford hostile relations with neighbouring countries, and it imports almost everything from everywhere including raw materials, clothes, maids from Indonesia.

The best that can be done, is alot of diplomacy and invoking of laws including the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

It doesn’t seem much.

But perhaps then, this is a good time to understand our place in Singapore society, and Singapore’s place in the region and the world, and the whole of humanity’s place in the workings of the earth. No human can command the wind not to blow and the rain to fall, at will, in a certain place.

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The Haze, Half-face Particulate Respirators and Filter Masks, and International Relations

Singapore haze: half-face particulate respirators - Air + Smart Mask and 3M filter mask
Since the Indonesian forest fires have had Singapore and bits of Malaysia on choke-hold a few weeks ago, I’ve manage to cruise along without much protection. But the recent onset of stinging in my respiratory tract has finally convinced me to play the adult and acquire a mask or two.

Most of the usual pharmacy chains (Guardian, Watsons) carried both the usual 3M N95 variety (introduced to the general public during the SARS period) and the much newer and more design-conscious Air+ Smart Mask (S$7.20 for a box of 3, S$29.90 for the micro-ventilator.

Singapore haze: half-face particulate respirators - Air+ Smart Mask, large sizeAir+ Smart Mask, in large

The friendly (over-friendly! said LL) sales assistant warned us that the medium sized Air+ was far too small and suggested a large for all adults. Our chat turned a little to international relations with Indonesia, the home of the “transboundary haze”.

Regional Haze Map Source: NEA

The recent hesitation of Indonesian politicians to accept Singapore’s offer of help to control the fires (“yes they did“, “no we didn’t“) might be explained by the relationship between the countries and their self-perception in the regional arena.

…size could also be a reason for the failure to resolve conflicts between Singapore and Indonesia. Size, in this sense, can be interpreted literally as well as symbolically, as the self-images of both countries. Both the original conflict in 1968 as well as the current one in 2014 have been directly attributed to size. When then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew turned down a direct appeal by former President Soeharto to pardon the two Indonesian marines, in the words of former MFA Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan, “he could not have done otherwise without conceding that the small must always defer to the big and irretrievably compromising our sovereignty.”

However, if Singaporeans are adamant that the small must not defer to the big, then the Indonesians are equally adamant that the big must not defer to the small. A few days ago, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto declared that “the fact that there is a different perception of Indonesian government policy by other countries, in this instance, Singapore, cannot make us backtrack or be uncertain about carrying on with our policy decision and implementing it.” Golkar MP Hajriyanto Thohari, deputy chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, went one step further, declaring “Let Singapore keep shrieking, like a chicken beaten by a stick.” (Singapore and Indonesia: An Uneasy Coexistence?, Yvonne Guo, The Diplomat, 2014)

In the aftermath of the Indonesian navy naming their warship KRI Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines executed in Singapore in 1968 for a 1965 terror attack on MacDonald House in Orchard Road, there were rather self-righteous and dull comments about how Singapore should have spared those men.

These commentators seemed to forget to take into account (i) the context of that event in Singapore’s national history (1965 was the year of its independence; and (ii) the context of Singapore in regional politics.

Said Kausikan:

…the respected American scholar of Indonesia, the late Dr George McTurnan Kahin, wrote in 1964 while Konfrontasi was still ongoing, that episode of aggression towards its neighbours was the consequence of the “powerful, self-righteous thrust of Indonesian nationalism” and the widespread belief that “because of (the) country’s size… it has a moral right to leadership”.

Time may have given a more sophisticated gloss to this attitude but has not essentially changed it.

This attitude lies, for example, behind the outrageous comments by some Indonesian ministers during the haze last year that Singapore should be grateful for the oxygen Indonesia provides; it is the reason why Indonesians think Singaporeans should take into account their interests and sensitivities without thinking it necessary to reciprocate. (Indonesia’s naming of navy ship: Sensitivity is a two-way street, The Straits Times, 13 February 2014)

and so instead of just keeping quiet, Singapore needed to protest this and show our stand clearly.

Curious about this ambassador-at-large, I came across his warning that “foreign policy cannot be a tool for partisan politics”

already and all too often, I see the irrelevant or the impossible being held up as worthy of emulation…

…I see our vulnerabilities being dismissed or downplayed; and I see only a superficial understanding of how the real world really works in civil society and other groups who aspire to prescribe alternate foreign policies… (Foreign Policy Cannot Be ‘Tool of Partisan Politics‘, Today, 17 September 2013)

This parallels nicely with some discussions we’ve been having about how American, English, Australian evangelical models of what godliness looks like might/might not work in a Singaporean context. But that’s for another day.

If you have an old 3M mask, check its expiry here.

Other helpful sites:

National Environment Agency’s Haze website

Ministry of Health guidelines on the use of masks