Singapore and the Smoke Haze Crisis

Vol. 53, Issue No. 3, 20 Jan, 2018


The 2013 and 2015 episodes of smoke haze over Singapore were some of the worst environmental crises in the nation’s history. Severe haze caused by land clearance fires in Indonesia blanketed Singapore for more than a month each time, leading to a dramatic shift in public attention and policies regarding the nation’s engagement with its neighbouring resource-extractive economies. This article reads the development of this crisis through the myth of the “air-conditioned nation,” arguing that it presents an opportunity to reconnect capitalism and regionalisation with their consequences.

In 2013, at the start of the forest clearance season, smoke from burning vegetation in the Indonesian island of Sumatra wafted over to Singapore, signalling the start of what had become a yearly event. Although the “haze” had become a frequent occurrence since the late 1990s, the 2013 event was the city state’s worst. The Pollutant Standards Index shot up to 471, four times above that of previously recorded incidents and way above the limit for healthy exposure. For more than two months, Singapore’s residents lived through a seemingly apocalyptic existence—an eerie orange pall fell over the island, and masked motorcyclists rode into the smoky abyss, eyes watering. People living in the high-rise homes all over the island reported the strange phenomenon of birds and bats making their way into apartments, seeking refuge from the smoke.

For people living in any number of cities in the developing world, these scenes looked unremarkable. Air pollution has long been a defining feature of Beijing, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai. But for Singaporeans, their first-hand experience of an environmental disaster on this scale was an unprecedented encounter with a physical environment beyond one’s control. The result was a major shift in the city state’s relationship with its external world; Singapore became an environmental state, and its citizens, environmental subjects.

Forced into this new state of exposure to the elements, residents complained loudly and bitterly: why were farmers using fire to clear land? Who was ultimately responsible for this occurrence on a large sale? People looked for something or someone to blame, but the facts were clouded by misinformation and speculation. The accusations were lobbed at the Indonesian state, its corruptibility, and failure to enforce laws. An Indonesian minister remarked that Singaporeans were behaving “like children” by complaining (Straits Times 2013a). A diplomatic crisis loomed.