These are dark days indeed, literally speaking. Wong Soak Koon pines for the days not-so-long ago that were not so crazy and hazy.
Over the past few weeks I have forsaken my favourite roadside teh tarik stall for an air-con curry house. No, not because the morning tea is tastier or the nasi lemak more piquant. I simply have no choice.
One wakes up to a dull-grey sky and a tiny orange ball of sunlight trying desperately to shine through a poisonous, foul-smelling miasma. If it were not for the strong lure of morning tea and nasi lemak and the sad fact that most of us have to earn a living, no right-thinking human being would step outside the house. Even the birds have abandoned us. They have, very likely, completed their yearly migration to escape the haze. How long has it been since you enjoyed birdsong at dawn?
Inside the shop, other aficionados of morning tea-capati-nasi lemak have gathered to commiserate. Some had just finished their morning tai chi ( retirees, housewives, lucky office workers who have the luxury of reporting in at ten).
“Wah, today really bad-lah,” says an elderly gentleman.
“What is the API (Air Pollution Index)?” asked a young lady, studiously reading the New Straits Times.
“Where got daily API numbers?” answers a feisty-looking auntie in her sixties. “They never tell anymore. Machine broke, it seems. Cannot measure. Where got logic? Broke already, buy new one-lah. Think we’re stupid-ah. Got money to send people to be astronauts, got no money for machines!”
“Now, now, careful, maybe cannot talk about haze. Don’t know who is listening,” cautioned another auntie.
Yes, I do remember that some years ago when I was still attached to an institution of higher learning, all lecturers were told not to comment on the haze, which was really bad then. But being the bodoh-bendul(dumb) person that I was and am, I sent a letter to Aliran Monthly on the health hazards of the haze (which was published) and another to a local newspaper (which was not published).
I don’t seem to be able to say that a naked Emperor is resplendently clothed. Air almost as foul as a stinking cistern and as murky as smoke from forest fires is, quite simply, A BAD HAZE. By bringing up the haze I risked incurring the wrath of the God of Tourism and his human agents then. Even today there are many devotees of the God everywhere.
Sure enough, another customer of the curry house reminds us firmly of our lack of patriotism. “Don’t keep talking about haze, haze-lah! If no tourists come, our economy suffers. Why you people so busybody one? If scared, go home-lah, don’t go out!”
“Indoors also no escape, what,” I couldn’t help interjecting. On bad haze days, being inside is no help. The acrid smell in every room lets us know that the particles have penetrated our homes. Shades of a horror flick by M. Night Shyamalan! But I must not indulge in any humour. It is a serious matter of health and well being not only for us but for the generations to come. I have a frightening vision of this haze thing becoming an unending yearly nightmare.
Political will must triumph over economic imperatives. The Indonesian government should do much more than it has done. Some international body with power and clout to censure should oversee the Indonesian effort. An apology is merely good manners; it must be followed by improved, concrete efforts that produce results.
And every other government whose country suffers from the haze must be transparent in its monitoring activities. If necessary, clear directives must be given by the relevant ministries, for example, for the closing of schools or cessation of outdoor sports, etc. Simply leaving it to the principals to decide is really passing the buck. The Health Ministry should be transparent about health effects and should warn the elderly, those with respiratory or cardiac problems, if need be.
It troubles me to see mothers or maids nonchalantly wheeling babies in prams out for evening strolls when the air is as grey as a dead fish’s eyes. And on pasar malam (night market) days, elderly folks, oblivious to health risks, are lugging bags of goodies up hilly roads, their heavy breaths making me shudder to think of those lungs invaded by what lurks in the HAZE.
But no one has said clearly that it is unsafe. The authorities seem to prefer “discreet” silence because of economic imperatives. To fear loss of economic gains from tourists and not fear the loss of economic strength because of a sick citizenry whose productivity may be impaired both now and in the future is political-economic short-sightedness.
In the last few weeks, late afternoon rains have cleared the air. An act of God has come to our rescue, but will the selfish acts of men (rhetoricised as ‘acts of God’ in political speeches) continue? Will the dreaded haze return when the next dry spell is upon us? We can only pray that concrete new measures will be taken as we wait for our congested chests to clear and our dry throats and nasal passages to heal.
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