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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Breathable air – A basic need I didn’t appreciate till last week

Updated: Apr 10, 2021


At 12 noon on Friday 21st June, the Pollutant Standard’s Index hit 401 in Singapore, the highest in Singapore’s history. The PSI, which measure sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and particulate matter of 10 microns or less in the atmosphere, exceeded the 300 level considered hazardous. Average 3 hourly PSI had exceeded the hazardous level late on Wednesday night and Thursday before hitting the 401 level on Friday. Thank goodness they’ve eased off over the weekend as the wind changed and blew some of it into neighbouring Malaysia

My chest has been tight all weekend

I developed asthma in 2004, when I was spending a lot of time in Hong Kong where the air is notoriously bad.  Midlife asthma onset has become less rare as air quality standards have plummeted in East Asia. Back then though, I attributed it to work stress rather than air…

But, just as those fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address too water for granted, I’d taken air for granted.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic human needs are – air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostatis and excretion. These form the bottom of the pyramid. At the second level are – security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property. The things I tend to ponder about on this blog are pretty much near the top – self esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others and by others. The things that contribute to my self-actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity – are at the very pinnacle. These are the values we hope to inculcate in society, the values we aspire to.

There’s a truth I forgot about Maslow’s pyramid. It’s the bottom of the pyramid, the foundations, that hold the rest up.

In most developed countries, the great debates have been about having enough of the 2nd level stuff – jobs, security, health care and access and security of property rights. That’s what we talk about in Singapore too when we talk public policy.

This week, driving on the freeway between the airport and my home, with only 30 feet of visibility in front of me, I was made acutely aware of how important it is to provide for those bottom-of-the-pyramid needs.

Without air, water, food, there is no basis for going anywhere further up that hierarchy of human needs. There is no way to climb the steps towards self-actualization.

It’s our life folks!

The haze that’s polluted Singapore and now floated over to neighbouring Malaysia comes from Indonesia, roughly 300 kilometres across the Straits of Malacca. Every year during the dry season, forests are burnt down there to clear land for farming. The reasons why the haze is getting worse is because the forests are no longer being burnt by small slash-and-burn farmers clearing land for subsistence agriculture but by large conglomerates clearing hectares for palm oil plantations. The land being cleared has also shifted from upland forests to peat swamp. When peaty ground catches fire, it burns hot and smoky for days. Most years, the Indonesians living in these forested areas bear with the smoke and haze. But, when the wind blows in a certain direction as it has this year… well, the neighbours get it and complain!

The diplomatic outcry from both Singapore and Malaysia came immediately. In response, a senior Indonesian Minister had mentioned that Singaporeans were childlike. Why, to paraphrase the man, hadn’t we been equally noisily thankful when the air was clear?

I don’t excuse his attempt to get Singaporeans to count their blessings when the forests in Indonesia aren’t burning. To be fair, some of the perpetrators of the burning may be multinational palm oil companies with Singaporean and Malaysian shareholders. It is a regional problem and we are not excused simply because the pollution is being generated on Indonesian soil.

Still… the man is right. We haven’t been grateful enough for the usually good standard of air we all enjoy in South East Asia. We go to Hong Kong and China and complain about the air there when we come home with the sniffles. But we don’t do enough to safeguard what we have. It’s just the medium we live in. We take it for granted, just like fish and water.

We need to pay more attention. The Heart Guy has a solution. Make the earth a “World Heritage Site”.

The same day the air hit “hazardous”, there was a newspaper article proclaiming that Mt. Fuji had just become a “world heritage site”.

The Heart Guy looked up and raised an eyebrow. Why not make the whole earth a world heritage site?

He has a point. We certainly ought to start thinking about it that way. The forests, the rivers, the air. Otherwise, we’re just going to gasp our way to oblivion.

How can we make the whole earth a world heritage site? What are the first steps? Do share your ideas here.


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