Seeing Through the Haze

By Yun Hui’En Amanda

There is no denying that this year’s haze episode is the worst that we, as a nation, have ever seen since our independence; with PSI levels breaking records more than five times within a span of three days, and in numbers well exceeding (the once thought highest possible value of) 300 even after being averaged over three hours.

For those who aren’t in the know: the highest three-hour average was 401 at 1pm on Friday (21 June).

We have seen much fluctuation over the last few days — not just in PSI numbers, but also in responses by both the collective, as well as politicians (whether the incumbent or  the opposition; local, or regional), in the form of emotions, opinions and actions.

Much name-calling has happened; by the masses who are directly affected by the haze, as well as by those who know no better. And of course, who can overlook that, as a nation, we have been called ‘children’ by an Indonesian spokesperson — a metaphor our own emeritus senior minister reused to describe our city state.

And perhaps, they’re not too far from the truth.


Hear me out before you flame

My focus is not on the implied lack of maturity, but rather, the inexperience of a child. A child that has never been hurt by an accident with the knife or the stove, has no prior experience to gauge or compare the degree of pain and/or discomfort in the encounter. The lack of experience leaves him/her at a loss on what to do or how to react. It is therefore natural, that on the child’s first encounter with the pain and discomfort that he inadvertently reacts in the way most natural to all of us: he cries. And does so until someone more experienced comes along to console and educate him.

Like that child, we (initially) thrashed and raged because of the unfamiliar and largely uncomfortable situation. After all (and as we have been told proudly in the early social studies syllabi), Singapore has no natural disasters. At least, not really.

In many ways that still holds true. After all, we are not like other countries that experience wraths of nature like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes/typhoons, and (more recently in Canada) flooding. Neither do we experience the more ‘smaller’ (potentially devastating) phenomena such as sandstorms which are common occurrences in Australia and territories in the Middle East. In some ways, the haze was our first so-called ‘Act of God’*(though some may argue that it’s perfectly within the control of the Indonesian government, businesses, etc…), and naturally, we squirmed. But the best part was, we didn’t stay there: we grew up.

((*an ‘Act of God’ is a legal term for events outside of human control))


The sleeping child awakes

What I’m thankful for is that there was, at least a section of society, who decided that this was a moment to show our humanity — not in frailties, but in compassion. Compassion for the less fortunate, for those weaker than ourselves, for our community. After the initial angst, and the full panic-acceptance cycle, some of us, chose to rise up and not let the situation determine their reaction. While we may have reacted badly at the beginning, I am glad that we still chose, nonetheless, to respond better once we realised how we erred.

Individuals, groups, and organisations rose to the occasion to be generous and kind to their fellow man; they did not wait to see if this will continue next week before taking action, and I commend the immediacy of their initiatives, their willingness to inconvenience themselves for someone else’s benefit, as well as their heart for their community.

These people/groups range from the colleagues in my office operating a one-man (or woman) movement to make sure everyone had a mask to go home safely with; to small groups of friends and acquaintances who went out around neighborhoods to give out the masks they had to the elderly living alone, that construction worker/sweep working in the open, and disabled individuals basking in the streets; to charities that offered aid to the community at large.

Moreover, the individuals who extended a helping hand in their own capacity, I am sure, did it at a cost which they regarded as secondary to the well-being of others — most, out of their own pockets. To these people, I wish to say: Thank you. You are a hero, and a shining example of looking beyond the world of me, myself, and I.

It doesn’t matter whether you were the first, or if you only lent a hand after you saw some inspiring video of someone else braving the haze to lend aid to those who needed help; what matters is that you took that step.

One other group I would like to commend, are the pharmacists and cashiers that kept their cool despite facing at least a week’s worth of tirades and threats (this I know from friends in the line of healthcare)  — you persevered despite repeated exposure to fiery tempers and irrational lashing-outs. Thank you.


Some things are taught when caught 

The of course, there is the political aspect of the event. To return to the analogy of the child, political leaders can then be seen as the metaphoric guardian of said child — and the reaction of the comforter is as important as that of the child in learning from the experience.

If you need empirical evidence, just run a search on Google or on news sites; there have been many articles, studies, and self-help books professing how a child will react to a situation as he/she sees the parent, guardian, or surrounding adults react to the situation.

An example of how the reaction of a grown-up affects a child’s would be the learnt fear of thunder. Children who spend their formative years in the company of, say, a domestic helper who cowers and hides whenever there are lightning strikes or the crash of thunder, often grow up mirroring the same reactions to thunder and lightning  — even though there is no logical rational or experience to justify the fear (i.e. the child in question is unlikely to have been struck by lightning nor harmed by thunder in any way as a child).

To put this in context: while some of us may still be questioning if the measures and actions taken by the powers-that-be were/are really the best or in the interest of the citizenry, there is no denying that we appreciate Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong’s level-headedness and ability to remain calm amidst the chaos and panic.

While the  government’s efforts (e.g. the release of N95 masks to major pharmacies and hospitals) may not have been lightning-fast (no pun intended), there remains room to acknowledge that it is still, nonetheless, room to acknowledge that it remains a better reaction than blame-pushing and/or being caught up in the hysteria.


Learning from experience

However, while the incumbent’s ability to maintain composure is a trait many of us should pick up (at least enough to think more rationally than immediately reacting in a frenzy), it has birthed some new questions in my mind about how things will be managed in future crises should be fall victim to horrors such as acts of terror (like the Boston bombing in April) or biological warfare.

In theory, we have the needed equipment and operational procedures (or so we have been told), but how events will really unfold remains a question-mark in my mind.



A few things troubled me regarding the information that did get disseminated to the public, and the later distribution of N95 masks by our Ministry of Health:

  1. There was no clear (and critical) information given out regarding how people could locate the correct/certified masks (as opposed to fakes) and alternative venues to purchase them should pharmacies run out. (I only learnt this bit of info this morning from a note on Facebook by a concerned individual.)
  2. Neither was there information on how to know if the mask one purchased was a good fit (this is more information only obtained from talking to friends in the healthcare industry — albeit way after I had gotten an N95 mask) nor how to wear them appropriately.
  3. It seems that the MoH only looked into distributing stocks after masks were largely sold-out islandwide
  4. There did not seem any arrangement to ensure that (at least) all citizens would be able to have access to it unless they had the cash to cough-up. (Again, no pun intended.)
  5. The move to distribute masks free-of-charge to the less fortunate came only after the hazardous haze levels had persisted for some days. Will it be the same in a case of biological warfare? If yes, would the waiting time prove too late for many?
  6. The decision to distribute only after checking known household income invoked the image of a power more interested in penny-pinching than life-saving.

Of course, some of these thoughts may prove unfounded or cases of misunderstanding with more information — but one must forgive the musings of a (wo)man in the street whose knowledge can only come from either state-approved media, or the rants and opinions broadcasted on blogs and social media. Still, with these thoughts in mind, one can’t help but wonder, what will happen then?


A moment to ponder 

On our part as individuals, the experience has provided us with an opportunity to evaluate our personal levels of preparedness for ‘unpredictable’ events outside of the day-to-day inconveniences. And from the tweets and Facebook sharings I’ve seen, it has also led to a greater awareness of the frailty of our environment — such as how seemingly benign, ‘annual’ events can escalate in severity beyond what we’ve experienced or expected at a turn of the head — to something as small as concern for that regular stray cat across the street.

Personally, it has given me a new perspective to appreciate our (though sometimes bipolar  — swinging from sweltering to a thoroughly drenching downpour — but otherwise) peaceful climate, and the beauty of a simple sunrise/sunset that we’ve taken for granted for decades.

Meanwhile, let’s not be complacent — the good weather over the weekend and this morning are not public announcements of the haze’s passing; take the necessary precautions based on your own health needs and prevailing conditions. And if uncertain, get medical advice and/or see a doctor.