Sunday 30 June 2013

Don't let haze blacken good neighbourly ties

Don't forget Singapore's aid to Aceh during the 2004 tsunami disaster, says one writer to Indonesia's chief welfare minister, while another reminds Singaporeans to show kindness not just during hazy times.
By John Mcbeth, The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2013

COULD anyone have been more boorish than Indonesia's chief welfare minister Agung Laksono when he told Singapore to stop acting like a child over the health-destroying haze gripping the South-east Asian peninsula?

Mr Agung, a former Speaker of the People's Representative Council and a longstanding member of the Golkar party, not only should have a more caring attitude to fit his job description, but he also has a very short memory.

Singapore was, after all, one of the first countries to respond to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern tip of the same Indonesian island where uncontrolled fires have contributed to the worst pollution levels.

"How quickly memories fade and gratitude is replaced with contempt, a culture I observed only too clearly at the international level in Aceh," says Australian Bill Nicol, author of the newly published Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures In Disaster Management on the US$7 billion (S$9 billion) recovery effort.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had to deal with Indonesia's worst-ever disaster within a couple of months of taking office, knows that only too well, and was gracious in apologising to his neighbours for the latest smoke blanket.

Even then, he found himself under attack from domestic critics, many of them siding with Mr Agung and Mines and Energy Minister Jero Wacik. The latter weighed in as well, by telling Singapore and Malaysia to stop trying to blacken Indonesia's name.

Neither made any attempt to put themselves in the shoes of their hapless neighbours, or even their own countrymen. And when Singapore offered initial cash help, Mr Agung snorted: "If it is only half a million, or one million dollars, we don't need that."

The leader of 250 million people, Dr Yudhoyono found himself in the ridiculous position of having to defend his apology, explaining that Indonesia is not afraid of Singapore or Malaysia and that the fires had nothing to do with state sovereignty, territorial integrity or other issues.

What is it about hairy-chested Indonesian politicians and government officials who feel that they have to play to the nationalist gallery any time the country comes under implied criticism? Surely, it is bigger than that.

What about the future? Will they act like bullies if Indonesia reaches its true potential as one of the world's biggest economies over the next two decades, with all that entails as a genuine power in the region?

There was a time not so long ago when Indonesia was a cowed nation. Many of its citizens were in despair over whether it would ever regain its position in the world as it struggled to find a way out of the crippling 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Now with a newfound confidence, borne out of a huge uptick in consumer spending and resurgent economic growth rates, the pendulum has swung the opposite direction.

Indonesia may have many complaints about the way Singapore's size belies its influence over the archipelago, but Mr Agung's comments make a mockery of Asean unity only two years away from the creation of the South-east Asian community.

Frankly, it doesn't matter whether the plantation owners are Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian or Martian.

The fires are burning in Indonesia and, if the blame belongs anywhere, it is with slack law enforcement - nothing else.

In any event, while Singapore- owned firms may conceivably have some small plantations in Sumatra, monitoring agencies say that almost all of the major concessions where the fires are concentrated are Indonesian, even if their head offices are in Singapore.

Defeated in the 2009 legislative elections, before being named a Cabinet minister, Mr Agung needs to realise that indulging in a blame game is helpful to no one when the health of Sumatrans is equally at risk. He also needs a timely reminder about how quickly Singapore responded on Dec 26, 2004.

Within three days, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had mounted its biggest-ever rescue and relief operation, code-named Operation Flying Eagle, with missions to Medan, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh and other parts of the region.

Because Indonesia was hampered by a minimal airlift capability, a twin-rotor SAF Chinook helicopter was the first to deliver relief aid to hard-hit Meulaboh on Aceh's devastated west coast with a shipment of water, food and medicine.

Later, the Singaporeans lifted Indonesian military satellite communication systems and relief teams into the town, along with a Telkomsel GSM base station. More aid was to follow, including money for the much-needed rehabilitation of Meulaboh's port.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Meulaboh within days of the tsunami. He, then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean and other officials spent 16 hours touring northern Sumatra to assess what other assistance they could provide. It is exactly what good neighbours are meant to do.

"Memories are short when selfishness prevails, perhaps the greatest disaster of all in an interdependent world," says Mr Nicol, senior adviser to Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the celebrated former head of the Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency.

Mr Kuntoro himself, who must have inwardly cringed at Mr Agung's callous display of indifference and ingratitude, had no reservations about calling Singapore's assistance "timely and invaluable".

"Their rebuilding of the pier in Meulaboh, as well as their hospitals there and in Nias, became the backbone of the whole rebuilding of west Aceh," he told The Straits Times. "The Singapore Red Cross and Mercy (Relief) were among a number of Singaporean organisations which supported us very strongly. I owe them a lot."

A silver lining in the hazy cloud
By William Wan, Published The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2013

HE last two weeks have been trying ones for Singapore. The annual haze, previously just a mild annoyance, climbed to record levels, sparking panic and sending jitters across our normally peaceful island.

While its impact ranks nowhere close to that of the Sars epidemic, the haze still presents one of the biggest tests of our Singaporean character and resilience in the way we react to it.

If we look, we will find many reasons to be proud of our fellow countrymen. As the haze worsened, anti-pollutant masks and air purifiers were in short supply.

Singaporeans, in groups or as individuals, many of them younger people, spontaneously stepped up to help. Many were found hastily distributing their own supplies of masks to family, friends and strangers. Some put in orders from abroad for future distribution should the situation worsen.

Groups such as Project Awareness, SG Haze Rescue, the Halogen Foundation and several others began to distribute masks to senior citizens and less privileged individuals across Singapore.

Among the more creative responses to the worsening air quality was that by volunteers offering to share their air-conditioned homes with strangers who needed a respite from the haze.

And there was one importer of the highly prized N95 masks who sent the company's staff through the queues of people outside its warehouse with temporary masks and bottles of water. Other young people from grassroots organisations were out distributing drinks and masks to senior citizens who live alone.

This outpouring of charity and goodwill wasn't the result of an edict from above. Rather, it arose from spontaneous people-powered initiatives. As a people we stood up and collectively demonstrated that we are unfazed by the haze.

These individuals and hastily-cobbled, volunteer-led organisations, united by a singleness of purpose and simplicity of action, remind us of the importance of taking ownership of our own communities. They worried less about what the causes of the haze might be. Instead, they focused on what needed to be done. What might seem to be small, even random acts of kindness and charity by individuals, many of them strangers, when multiplied, can create enormous impact on the lives and safety of others.

But the haze also clearly revealed the other side of the coin. Less scrupulous retailers seized the opportunity to charge exorbitant prices for masks which suddenly became their most desired commodity. In a classic example of kiasuism, consumers also bought and hoarded in excess, creating shortages across the island. Others sought to exploit the situation for self-promotion, with irresponsible statements and petitions on social media that exacerbated the panic and created divisions. Some even went so far as to start rumours and hoaxes over the Internet and via SMS.

Whether motivated by ill-judgment or ill-intent, such actions highlight the challenges we still face as a nation striving to be a home where we look out for each other, rather than only for ourselves. To be sure, there will always be a few who will, even during a crisis, continue to choose self-interest over the common good. But these incidents were overwhelmed by a surging tide of pro-social behaviour - a flood of spontaneous small kindnesses.

My immediate neighbour, for instance, came over to give us four masks because we had just returned from Malaysia the day after the most severe haze hit the city. I have been told of many such acts of kindness among neighbours. The kampung spirit is evident across the nation. Seen as a whole, Singapore acquitted itself well, and that is something we should be proud of.

This episode affirms a belief I've held for a long time, that we are all innately kind. If it were not so, our efforts in aspiring to be a visibly gracious society would be in vain. Given the opportunity, we will choose kindness over unkindness, and graciousness over ungraciousness - any time.

Shared challenges can draw us together and bring out the best in us. The barriers of self-consciousness are lowered by the urgency of the situation. Our innate kindness is unlocked, allowing us to reach out without being afraid of being labelled a do-gooder or, less kindly, kay poh.

If there is anything the haze has taught us, it is that when we face a common danger, we are capable of awakening from our boh chap attitude and rise to the challenge of releasing the goodness that is in us.

Clearly, the last couple of weeks have shown that when we act for the common good, each of us, the giver and the recipient, benefits equally.

In the coming weeks and months, when the air quality returns to normal, perhaps we will take advantage of the bridges we have built in the time of crisis. Perhaps we will find it natural to greet our neighbours, or offer a stranger a smile and a helping hand. The less fortunate will continue to be among us and will continue to need help - not just at a critical times, but at all times.

Perhaps then we won't need perilous clouds hanging over us to find opportunities to show a little kindness to all.

The writer is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

S'poreans do have the necessary resilience
Outcry, criticism of authority can be a sign of an ability to handle crises
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2013

THE "haze-steria" that erupted as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) breached historic levels last week - from calls for a stop-work order to reports of mask-hoarding - has made some question if Singaporeans have the necessary social resilience to handle a bigger crisis like a terrorist attack.

Academics Norman Vasu (NV) and Yolanda Chin (YC) of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies work on issues pertaining to social resilience, and they believe that despite some bad behaviour and misinformation, good sense and resourcefulness have prevailed.

They caution against confusing an outcry and criticism of the authorities with a breakdown in social resilience. In fact, they argue, it can be a sign of it.

Was there anything in the public response to the record levels of haze last week worrying to you?

YC: I'm hard-pressed to think of an instance in which the public response has been worrying. Even the initial concerns over the inadequate supply of N95 masks did not lead to any form of mass hysteria. On the contrary, it seems most people queued up at the shops. Moreover, useful information on different ways to deal with the haze was shared through social networks. Of course there were also instances where tempers flared and misinformation was disseminated. But all this is unavoidable in any crisis. What's important is that all in, good sense has prevailed.

NV: I am surprised by the suggestion that Singaporeans lack resilience in the face of the haze issue. I have found Singaporeans remarkably resourceful as they continue to try and come to terms with the problem and to make sense of it.

For example, (there are) groups like SgHazeRescue, (which is) a collective attempt to offer air-conditioned spaces to individuals and families without such privileges. There is also the advocacy group Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT), which was formed in 2007 with the twin goals of educating farmers to stop land-burning while also urging a boycott of companies identified as offenders.

With regard to trying to make sense of the situation, there is an interesting website ( that attempts to calculate the hourly PSI reading based on the National Environment Agency's three-hourly average.

I'm not a mathematician and cannot comment on the accuracy of such a measure but I am certainly impressed that there are Singaporeans not just seeking government information but also trying to add to it in a responsible manner. These examples show that Singaporeans are very far from the oft-portrayed image of being a whiny population unable to muster without government steerage.

What about conspiracy theories that the Government is hiding the real PSI level from the public, or the persistent calls for stop-work orders?

NV: There will always be alternative views when faced with a national problem. The thing to consider here is whether these folk are the majority. I think they are not. Also, in a situation where people are trying to make sense of a problem, there are bound to be alternative views to the official line.

The same thing happened in what some have suggested are the "models" of social resilience - London and Japan. It is sense- making in a vacuum and is to be expected. People will find explanations when they are faced with a crisis. Also, having alternative views may be good during a crisis. No one has the monopoly of knowledge and it's healthy to see others offer alternative viewpoints.

YC: There are always Singaporeans with alternative views on all policy matters so it should not come as a surprise when people question information and decisions made by the Government pertaining to the haze.

To some, diverse opinions in a crisis may be an indicator of the absence of resilience as there are concerns it may lead to mass confusion and, in a worst-case scenario, a breakdown of law and order. (But) the underlying assumption here is that, presented with contending views in a crisis, a critical mass of the population cannot be trusted to behave responsibly.

To others, the proliferation of alternative views in a crisis is actually an enabling factor for people to make more informed decisions.

This comes from the belief that rational and responsible responses will prevail on balance, and the majority of people will be able to carry on with their daily routine.

There is no denying that there have been incidences of undesirable behaviour such as profiteering when the masks were in short supply. But Singaporeans on the whole did not let these isolated individuals hold the entire nation hostage. Instead, there was strong public disapproval of such behaviour and the majority either found alternative sources, improvised or just made do without masks till more were made readily available.

In fact this is a fine example of organic social resilience - a society adapting in the face of adversity without government steerage.

The Londoners after the terrorist bombings in 2005 and the Japanese after the Fukushima nuclear crisis were lauded for their stoicism. Is it a bad sign that Singaporeans complained long and loud about a much smaller problem?

NV: Firstly, there is nothing wrong with complaining. If people did not complain, how would anyone know whether there is a problem? Secondly, and as I have said, it's been admirable that folks have not just been complaining but have also banded together to find solutions and help each other. Let's give credit where it's due rather than keep looking for the half-empty glass.

Folks complain justifiably, but they are also trying to get on with their lives and find solutions. Finally, airing complaints on platforms such as social media is a form of crowdsourcing. Individuals identify a problem and others chip in to suggest solutions.

Generally, what is a good measure of how well Singaporeans have coped?

NV: Identifying and measuring resilience, to put it mildly, is difficult at best. Identifying its presence is much like identifying art, pornography and terrorism, I'll know it when I see it but I can't give an absolute definition. Perhaps it's a post-facto label, when the dust, no pun intended, has settled, we can sit down and analyse the overall response and then decide if resilience was exhibited.

YC: I have a different view. Given that the typical routine of most Singaporeans necessitates some exposure to the outdoors, it is illogical to expect life to go on as normal in all aspects for the duration of the haze.

Hence, a marker of social resilience is whether normalcy is restored in these areas of life after the haze is over. For instance, the level of outdoor activities for both leisure and work will dip during this period - but if they resume to pre-haze levels once the dry season is over, we can say that Singaporeans have been resilient.

Yolanda Chin is a research fellow, and Norman Vasu, assistant professor, at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

A different backlash and a red herring
By Rachel Chang, The Sunday Times, 30 Jun 2013

That the heavy haze came with a side of anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theory last week was completely expected.

The Government was slow to act, said some; it was masking real PSI levels from the public for some reason or another; it was failing to tell people how to take care of themselves at any given moment (an only-in-Singapore demand for over-instruction as a marker of government competence).

But this is not new. Some of the voices leading the charge had led so many charges in such similar ways before.

What was more interesting to me was the backlash against the backlash.

The gist of this, as I distilled it, was a broad irritation at the idiocy and abdication of personal responsibility on display in some corners.

Why do the same people who criticise the Government for over-regulation and an obsession with control, now charge that it is not doing enough?

Why must our first question in any mishap always be: What is the Government doing?

And in so asking, is the implication that Singaporeans can only obey (say, an outdoors stop-work order), with no ability to act with agency according to good sense and compassion?

If so, how does this square with the openness and consultation that we perennially demand?

What these views represented to me was water finding its own level. They punctured a self-serving argument that has been forwarded by the conservative fringe of Singapore society for some time now.

This is that our new-found openness - encapsulated in the thriving online sphere - will be the country's ruin because of an inability to self-regulate and the way it blinds itself with its own bile.

It is true that some people cannot differentiate between when something is the Government's fault and when it is not.

But for the vast majority of Singaporeans, both online and off, the haze was obviously a national problem for which no local blame can be ascribed.

It wasn't an MRT breakdown or an overly liberal immigration policy. It was something out of our control that nevertheless affected everyone.

And the only possible response for ordinary Singaporeans was to look out for one another - and hunker down and wait till it all passed.

This was what 99 per cent of Singaporeans did - because they can differentiate between when policy correction may be required, and when it is simply off-topic.

There were indeed reports of mask-hoarding and inelegant displays of hysteria online. But for every one such instance, there were teenagers who went door to door of their own accord to give masks to their neighbours, or Singaporeans willing to open their air-conditioned doors to those without.

We could argue over which group outnumbers the other. But perhaps the belief that the bad outweighs the good comes from paying too much attention to a loud minority in lieu of noticing the reasoned majority stoically and quietly going about their lives.

It is also perhaps borne of a biased assumption that a large swathe of Singaporeans are infantilised, and will react only impetuously and with impunity if not taken in hand by a nanny-esque state.

There is no doubt that there are Ugly Singaporeans out there who are doing their best to make themselves heard.

But let's not let them be a red herring argument for political stagnation.

No comments:

Post a Comment