The S family lives in this regular neighborhood and they have a neighbor (Family I), a large clan of 50 members living under one roof. Part of the I family land is used for agriculture. Their usual practice is to clear the land for planting season. The patriarch of the clan tells the members they’re not to burn the humongous pile of dead leaves they have during the hot summer season to prepare for planting. But a couple of freaking members ignore anyway and go ahead and set fire to the pile. The wind direction causes the smoke to engulf the S house, turning it into a hot, smoky and suffocating hell for the family. As the leaves burn, the smoke continues to envelop the S home for 24 hours a day. Now this is enough to send one marching to the neighbor with a gun in hand, screaming “WTF”. But too bad, many of the I clan members are sub-machine gun toting burly guys, and the far fewer S members have only hand guns in hands. So how loud can they scream?
Now in situation like this, the family’s well being should be of utmost priority. S family can’t move out of the house and so the sensible thing is to get protective face masks for everyone against the pollutants, like the 3M’s N95 masks, for instance. As the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) starts climbing, so does the PM2.5 (a measure of particles smaller than 2.5 micron) and this is a danger indicator. However papa S tells his family members that they shouldn’t be too fixated with the PSI number, which after all is a 3-hourly average and it fluctuates. He tries persuading them to look at the 24-hour average number instead. So meanwhile life should go on and work has to continue. This implies that the foreign helps like the pool boy, the gardener, and housekeeper, etc, have to continue with their everyday duties. Papa S reasons that if he issues the stop-work order, the economic output of the family will be diminished.
The family members get alarmed as the PSI level climbs to record high of 321, which is considered hazardous, and the foreign helps and some members are still made to carry on with their work. Worse, there are only a couple of protective masks at home. Despite holding a large purse string, papa S continues telling them to hang in there, that he’s closely monitoring the situation and urging the members to stay in their rooms if needed, while he will continue talks with the neighbor on the situation. He assures the family that the 24-hr PSI level is not so dire that everybody has to stop work, besides some of the work is essential service.
But the air is getting really difficult to breathe and some S family members are getting sick from the pollutants. They try getting face masks at the stores but none is available. As the PSI climbs above 400, they urge papa S to do something about it. They are getting angry with Papa S for acting NATO (no action, talk only), and nothing is being done to take care of the helps and family. Some of them are also furious with papa S for not seeing this coming since the neighbors have recalcitrant members who start a bonfire every year at the same time, and pile of growing dead leaves can be seen. They blame papa S for sitting on his ass and negligent in his duty, since he talks to the clan patriarch regularly.
Finally papa S says he has more than enough masks stored away in the basement. He will distribute the stock to the stores so that the family members can then buy them. The stores, seeing the high demands, take the opportunity to profit from the misery, and sell the masks at higher price than the suggested retail price. A couple of family members are poor and so papa S, in his magnanimity, offers to give them the masks free. He also declares that for the young members 18 years old and below and the old members aged 65 and above, they only have to fork out $10 for medical fee for smoke inhalation problems and he will pick up the balance.
Seven days after the dead leaves started burning, the sky turns clear when the wind direction changes and blows the smoke away. Papa S chooses this significant day to give out the masks to the poor members of his family, and he also calls in the town reporter to report on the event. He assures everyone that as long as all remain calm, they will be able to get through the crisis together. The next day, there is a picture of papa S giving out free masks on the front page news.
For almost a week last week, the whole country was plunged into a suffocating haze of pollution. Even parts of Malaysia were also affected. For those not familiar with the haze problem, Singapore is located at the bottom tip of the Malaysia peninsula, and fairly close to Indonesia.
For 20 years, Singapore and Malaysia have suffered the haze problem resulted from the slash and burn activity in Sumatra. Such activity usually happens in mid year which is also during the dry season, and much of it happens on concession land leased to agriculture companies who clears the peat lands for palm oil plantation. It’s a recurring problem because of poor governance, corruption and little enforcement in Indonesia.
You can imagine huge tracts of concession lands that are ablaze, sending billowing smoke into the atmosphere, which unfortunately travels to the Malaysia peninsula and literally blankets Singapore sky. The extent of the burning is akin to the ravaging Californian forest fire or the Australian bush fire. But the difference lies in the actions or inactions of the governments.