This week of the children’s vacation was meant to be one of adventure. We were meant to go camping. I even bought a tent. We practiced setting it up, taking it down, and even spent a night in the tent while it was pitched in our study room.
Then came the haze: smoke from Indonesia’s man-made forest fires.
The acrid smell of ash filled every corner of the country.
Our eyes smarted and throats burned. People started snapping up respiratory masks as the PSI levels climbed to hazardous levels never before seen in the history of Singapore. In less than a day, there were no masks to be found in any of the pharmacies.
Quite bluntly, there was a shortage of fresh air.
When I saw that some Singaporeans had set up the Facebook page “SG Haze Rescue” to coordinate ground-up efforts to ensure that the welfare of the more vulnerable among us were taken care of, I joined immediately. I live a stone’s throw away from Dakota Crescent, a community of poorer Singaporeans who occupied government-subsidised rental flats. Only a few weeks earlier, I spent a few mornings photographing its little nooks and crannies.
It worried me that some of these people would have no access to respiratory masks, certainly not with the way some unscrupulous merchants were jacking up the prices. I scoured a handful of nearby pharmacies hoping to pick up a few spare masks I could give away to the folks who lived here, but they were all out. Even the crappy surgical masks that offered no protection against air pollution.
So this afternoon, in a fit of helplessness, I posted on the SG Haze Rescue Facebook page,
I can help out with the rental flats at Old Airport Road, but can’t get any masks anywhere. Willing to pay for the masks (at normal prices).
It was only a few minutes later when I got a response from Lindsey:
How many masks do you need to give out?
I scrambled together a makeshift plan, and dropped Lindsey a message. She offered to donate two boxes of N95 masks as long as I provided the distribution. The feeling of gratitude that swelled within my heart was tremendous.
For almost all my adult life spent working in the public service, I have been looking for people to work together to create a Singapore that was a little more compassionate, and more filled with character and less obsessed with material things or social status. I swear to you, I had just about given up.
And here, a woman I did not know, stood up and offered two boxes of the most sought-after good in all of Singapore. I needed this more than I imagined: the validation of my belief that there was good in us as a nation.
I carried the two boxes of N95 masks on the train, half afraid that someone would mug me, and not afraid that people would mistake me for a hoarder. At this point, I couldn’t care less what people thought of me. I only wanted to make sure this gift made it to the people who needed it.
The good folks at SG Haze Rescue informed me that someone else had indicated interest in helping out in the Dakota area. Andrew met up with me as I exited the train station and we headed up Block 6, Dakota Crescent together. We went door to door.
Every door that opened held a different story, a different colour palette, different families and lives. The earnest Chinese man, in his 60s with his mother who made sure he got my name right; the elderly Malay woman who left her door open as a stream of beautiful cats went in and out; the Indian family with two bright-eyed little children.
They are ours. Precious. Beautiful.
I had my camera with me, but some things seem so sacred documenting them would be missing out on actually savouring the moment. This was definitely one of those moments in life.
I am so glad I did this, and I write because I wish it for you too. That we might all step out a little, in this climate of little-itty-bitty adversity (it’s not like we’re undergoing a war or huge famine), and find ourselves a society worth living in and contributing to.
Because Singapore is beautiful. And she is defined through our celebration of neighbourly ties; finding that which is universal between us and overcoming our differences in language, culture and origin.
It is fitting that when our eyes are obscured by haze - only then do we stop chasing after what glitters, and find something a lot more worthwhile.