The Haze Was so Bad in 1961, Singaporeans Thought That a Nuclear Bomb Had Exploded.

The air is thicker and heavier. 

The skies are greyer and duller.

The haze is back, and Singaporeans know the drill. When the PSI hits hazardous levels, schools shut down, N95 masks are distributed, and the army reduces strenuous activities. The reason why we are so familiar with the process, is because we’ve been through it (many times, in fact).

However, for many millennials, it would come as a surprise that Singapore has been dealing with the issue for more than 50 years now.

19 October 1961

Singapore’s first real encounter with the haze came in 1961, presumably due to forest fires in peninsular Malaysia. While Singapore might have experienced the phenomenon before, the extent of the haze took Singaporeans by surprise.

In fact, in a climate of Cold War tensions, several Singaporeans contacted the Straits Times to inquire if the weather had anything to do with a nuclear explosion or fallout. The Meteorological Service had to allay these fears by issuing a statement on the newspaper – telling Singaporeans that the occurrence was normal, and that it will be okay.

Meanwhile, in Kuala Lumpur, the haze had gotten so bad that several passenger planes had to be diverted to Singapore. The pilots could barely see a mile away and refused to take the risk. 

The haze eventually cleared in about a week.

 14 October 1972

Nearly a decade later, the haze returned. This time with a vengeance. Mass burning of forests around Palembang, Indonesia, blanketed Singapore and most of West Malaysia with smoke. 

Things reached their peak on 14 October 1972, when visibility dipped and motorists had to switch on their full headlights in broad daylight. 

20 October 1977

On 20 October 1977, Singaporeans woke up to a different city. Overnight, the island became shrouded in haze – probably blown over from forest fires ranging in Sumatra. 

At this point, Singapore’s reaction mechanisms to the haze weren’t concrete – with life proceeding as per normal. 

In the pictures above, we see schoolchildren playing in their field, despite the haze. We would never see this today.

18 September 1997

The 1997 Southeast Asian haze has long been remembered for its length and intensity. Due to dry weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon, massive forest fires at Kalimantan and Sumatra led to around two months of haze. On 18 September, the PSI reached a peak of 226. The economic costs – increased spending on healthcare, downturn in tourist industry – led to losses of between S$97.5 million and S$110.5 million

21 June 2013


The 2013 haze outbreak, is by far the most serious one, with a peak PSI reading of 401. Like most other haze episodes, this one started due to the burning of forests in Indonesia. 

When the Singaporean government expressed its displeasure with the situation, the Indonesian authorities claimed that some of the companies engaging in the burning of forests were owned by Singaporean investors.

By now, the government had processes in place to deal with the haze.  Schools were closed as a precaution, the government’s stockpile of N95 masks were released and healthcare subsidies were granted to vulnerable groups.

Singapore has had a long and well-established relationship with the haze. While the situation remains similar to what it was 50 years ago, there have been great strides made our in preparedness to deal with, and mitigate the effects of the haze.

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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