Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Image from Ya Kun Kaya Toast

“One kopi!” Who would’ve thought that those two words could change the very air we breathe?

Surprising though it may seem, the power to stop haze can start with something as small as our next cup of kopi. Traditionally, this Singapore favourite is made with sweetened condensed milk, but if you’ve looked over the counter at the local kopi shop you may instead find “non-dairy sweetener” or “sweetened creamer”.

Non-dairy sweetener, as you may have guessed, is a cheaper substitute for condensed milk. One of the things that makes it so cheap is how land is cleared to farm one of it’s ingredients. Look on the back of a tin of non-dairy sweetener and you’ll probably find palm oil on the ingredients list.

Palm oil is now a common ingredient in processed foods (and body products). It is one of the cheapest forms of vegetable oil available, thanks, in part, to the way the land is cleared for new palm plantations. Many fires in Indonesia are started because they are the cheapest way to clear the land for palm plantation farming. Some farmers have even said – we are simply not paid enough to clear the land using any other means.


The farmers then grow the palms, harvest the oil and sell it to food manufacturers – some of which then ends up in your Kopi as non-dairy sweetener with the not-so-sweet side effect of contributing to Singapore’s annual haze problem.

Does that mean we should blame our kopi aunties and uncles for the haze? No, of course not. They have a family to support and a business to run and are making the best decisions they can, probably unaware of the impact their choice of sweetener has.

Scolding your kopi auntie because her kopi contains palm oil is like scolding your mother for not knowing how the internet works: she can probably scold you back twice as good and it doesn’t solve anything. Haze is a human problem, so we have to tackle it with a sense of humanity.

You could try talking to your kopi auntie, perhaps not even about palm oil first, but just about the haze, what impact it’s had on her, on her business, on her family. Then as the conversation progresses (maybe over more than one kopi) you could share what you know about palm oil.

Or if you’re not sure how to approach the matter, you could start by bringing your own condensed milk and asking them if they’d mind using that. They might ask you why and then you could explain your reason. What about the left over condensed milk? You could always let auntie donate it to the next customer, that might make her think well about the anti-haze movement.

At the same time, by taking a more personal approach, you’ll also be helping to revive the lost art of conversation. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. In the last 4 years as a volunteer with Ground-Up Initiative I’ve worked helped in programmes tackling many different social issues. In all the activities and programmes we’ve run, the most powerful and transformative experience for our participants has been helping them to make real connections with those around them in their neighbourhood and community. Conversations and connections, more than anything else remind us of the reality that those in our global community are facing, and the humility and compassion we need to take to solve regional and global problems.

After all, if we can’t make a genuine connection with our neighbours and community at the kopi shop, how can we hope to work with our neighbours in Indonesia to tackle haze and the many other challenges that this region must face together?




chrisChris Jensen is the founder of Good for Us, a social enterprise that helps people to make the connection between their spending and the issues they care about he. He is also a volunteer

with Ground-Up Initiative, a non-profit community organisation that connects people to one another to heal people, heal community and heal the Earth.

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