This week, Singapore has been enveloped in a smoky haze from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia. Plantation owners and farmers in the Sumatra region started the fires to clear land for cultivation. As of 1:00 pm on Thursday, June 20th, the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) hit a record high of 371, increasing from the previous record of 321 set the night before. According to Singapore’s National Environmental Agency any reading above 300 is “hazardous,” while a score above 400 is “life threatening to ill and elderly people.” In the words of Singapore’s Environment Minister, “This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced”. The previous record was set in 1997, when the PSI hit 226, considered “very unhealthy.”
Photo by Robert Jessing.
I live in Singapore. And while the statistics indicate a dire environmental circumstance, they fail to convey how it actually feels to go about daily life in the city. The smell of burning wood and rubber permeates the air. The air is partially opaque; a small orange sun floats in a greyish yellow sky. Just minutes outside, and already my eyes are burning and I feel throat irritation. Children and the elderly are noticeably absent from the streets. Even the typically omnipresent foreign construction worker is harder to spot, although he might simply be obscured by the smog. A growing number of people are wearing face masks on the street and in the subways. Most simply cover their mouths as they rush to get from point A to B. Inside the stores, shelves are empty of masks, air purifiers, and eye drops, and in their places, hand written signs read “sold out.”
Photo by Max Hirsh.
For all the proud talk on the part of Singaporean political leaders about creating a “first world oasis in a third world region,” times like these highlight the importance of developing together as a region. As Singaporean and Malaysian officials have met with their Indonesian counterparts over the past few days to urge prompt intervention, much finger pointing and bickering has ensued, with Indonesian officials shifting some of the blame onto Singaporean and Malaysian investors of palm oil companies that engage in slash and burn agriculture. While actively pursuing an environmental sustainability agenda domestically, the “clean and green” city-state has drawn accusations of being less rigorous in cracking down on the flow of illegally harvested timber products and other environmentally sensitive goods through its ports, which adversely impact its neighbors.
This raises a series of planning questions: First, what is the relationship between environmental sustainability and the political economy of global capitalism? Can the former be achieved without tackling the latter? Second, how might a country like Indonesia transition from a commodities-based economy to one that is higher tech and consumption-based? What role could regional partnerships and collaborations play in such a transition? Finally, what are the pitfalls of simultaneously pursuing a pro-development and social democratic agenda? What are alternatives that foster greater environmental and social sustainability?
Post by Lily Song.