Bloomberg News

Singapore's Record Haze: Hey, We Didn't Start the Fire

June 20, 2013

Singapore Haze

A worker wears a mask to protect from a haze blanketed the Singapore Central Business District, or CBD skyline in the background on Thursday, June 20, 2013. A smoky haze triggered by forest fires in neighboring Indonesia has caused air pollution to briefly hit its worst level in nearly 16 years in Singapore. (AP Photo/Joseph Nair)

Overheard in the Bloomberg newsroom in Singapore…

Colleague 1: You know what? It feels like I’m in Beijing.
Colleague 2: You know what? Beijing’s better than here!

Singapore, the island state, is known for its blue skies, vivid skyline and green garden environment. That’s clearly not today. The central business district looks like it’s blanketed in a thick London fog. Except it’s not fog. It’s smog.

Specifically, it is smoke produced from the uncontrolled fires of "slash and burn" cultivation in the neighboring island of Sumatra, Indonesia, the practice of clearing forest to make way for agriculture. It happens around the same time every year. Only this year, the smog’s broken the Pollutant Standards Index records. It hit 400 at 11 a.m. today; anything over 300 is regarded as hazardous. The previous record was 226 in 1997.

Needless to say, Singaporeans are not pleased, for a lot of reasons. Never mind the health hazards, particularly to the old and sick, the cost to the economy (possibly over S$1 billion), the disruption to tourism, the flight hazards, the political bickering. One reason in particular stands out. This haze, smog, pollution, whatever you want to call it, is completely beyond Singapore's control. And for a country that’s very much controlled everything from the economy, land (think reclamation), right down to chewing gum habits and heavy fines on not flushing public toilets, I can’t even begin to describe the level of frustration felt.

We didn’t start the fire. We’re just on the receiving end of the smoke!

For all its wealth and prosperity, Singapore is and always will be a tiny country subject to whatever the winds may blow its way — literally, in this instance.

The Singapore I remember as a child never had smog problems. Two decades ago, we didn’t have a haze season. The term “slash and burn” was only to be found in international forestry policy white papers. Twenty years later, come June, we’re stocking up on masks, making sure the air filtration systems work and trying to find agricultural alternatives to slash-and-burn. How things have changed.

And yet, my frustration is also tempered by other realities. How do you tell a villager in Sumatra that he can’t clear forested land to provide for his family because it causes headaches in other countries? How do we balance a healthy environment with the needs of a growing population? What are the alternatives we can offer them? Education? Technology transfers? How do we create sustainable livelihoods that will stand the test of time and put out the fires?

Until there are more answers than questions, or the monsoons come, we’ll deal with the particulates as best we can, preferably with grace and humor. We’ve been assured by building management that they’ve reduced the outdoor air in-take for the air conditioning. A new Haze Playlist is already circulating around the newsroom. Now all I need to do is collect my mask from Reception…

The Haze Playlist:

  • "We Didn't Start the Fire" - Billy Joel
  • "Leave me breathless" - The Corrs
  • "Harder to Breathe" - Maroon 5
  • "Blurred Lines" - Robin Thicke
  • "Purple Haze" - Jimi Hendrix
  • "Smoke on the Water" - Deep Purple
  • "Smoke gets in your eyes" - Jo Stafford
  • "The Fog" - Kate Bush
  • "A Foggy Day" - Fred Astaire
  • "Firestarter" - Prodigy
  • "Beds are Burning" - Midnight Oil
  • "Light my Fire" - The Doors
  • Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

    Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.


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