Wednesday 19 June 2013

Haze (2013): PSI in Singapore hits highest level since 1997

* HAZE updates @

Priority to protect the health and safety of Singaporeans: PM Lee

* Press conference on the haze situation on 20 June 2013

PM Lee lists priorities in tackling haze
He aims to help those at risk, work with Jakarta and keep country going
By Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

AS HAZE levels soared to a record high yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to focus on protecting vulnerable Singaporeans, working with the Indonesians to stem the problem and keeping the country going.

He outlined his approach during a press conference at the Istana, as Singapore endured yet another day where air quality reached the hazardous range.

At one point, it hit 371 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), making yesterday the most hazy day in the country's history. To carry out those priorities, the Prime Minister has asked Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen to head a Haze Inter-ministerial Committee.

It will review guidelines for protecting vulnerable groups, make sure society and businesses continue to operate, and issue clear guidance on the protective measures at each PSI threshold, said Mr Lee.

His comments were an apparent signal that the haze response would involve action at home, not just engagement with Indonesia.

Mr Lee warned that it was hard to tell how the haze situation would develop. It could last for a few weeks, or even until Sumatra's dry season ends in September. He said: "We will need to adapt our response to suit the changing situation, and protect ourselves in practical and sustainable ways."

Companies have been taking measures to protect their staff, such as giving out face masks, letting them work from home or, in some cases, sending workers home. But there is no magic PSI number that will trigger a work restriction order from the authorities, said the Prime Minister.

Instead, the approach will be to assess the haze situation on a daily basis and give guidelines to individuals, schools and companies.

"So, I don't think there is any hard line where we say everything comes to a stop, and indeed, it is not possible for everything to come to a stop, because life must still go on," said Mr Lee.

He also stressed the importance of collaborating with the Indonesians to solve the problem, instead of taking an antagonistic stance. For instance, Singapore has been promoting sustainable agricultural practices in Jambi, South Sumatra, so farmers and plantation owners do not need to clear their land by burning.

The pact is up for renewal, and Singapore is looking forward to continuing the partnership, said Mr Lee.

But he added that there are no levers that Singapore can pull to compel Indonesia to put a stop to the illegal burning as it is a sovereign country, just like Singapore.

"You can influence, you can encourage, you can persuade, you can request, but finally, it is within each country's authority and responsibility to deal with the problems within their own country."

Despite this, Singapore will take action against local firms - or foreign ones operating here - if they are guilty of contributing to the haze, said Mr Lee.

He urged Singaporeans to stay calm and to look out for one another: "I am quite confident that we can manage this problem, and we can go through it if we stay together and work on it together."

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, who was also at the press conference, said he was hoping to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his trip to Indonesia today.

PM Lee has also written to Dr Yudhoyono.

Yesterday, Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency said that Dr Yudhoyono has instructed its chief Syamsul Maarif to immediately use all national resources available to extinguish the forest fires raging in Riau. Personnel, equipment and cloud-seeding material to induce rain have already been sent to Pekanbaru, it added. The agency also said the Indonesian leader had ordered it to control the haze as soon as possible.

National Environment Agency chief Andrew Tan, who was in Indonesia for emergency talks, also urged Jakarta to take more decisive action.

Seek solutions, not harsh words: PM
By Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta And Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

INSTEAD of countering scathing remarks made by a senior Indonesian minister, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday that he preferred to focus on solving the haze problem and reassuring Singaporeans they will be fine.

Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono, who is coordinating his country's relief and response efforts, had hit out at Singapore earlier at a press conference in Jakarta, saying: "Singapore shouldn't be like children, in such a tizzy."

PM Lee said it would not be "fruitful" for him to respond, and refused to be drawn into what he called "megaphone diplomacy".

"What we need to do is to solve the problem and also reassure our people that they will be okay and taken care of, and that everything which can be done is being done," he said.

"And I think we should work towards solving the problem rather than exchanging harsh words."

Mr Agung earlier told reporters that Singapore said nothing when there was fresh air, but complained about the occasional haze.

He also rebutted criticisms that Indonesia had yet to ratify an Asean pact on transboundary haze pollution. "Singapore is like that. The border issue hasn't been settled, neither has extradition, corruption."

Asked about offers of assistance from Singapore, he said: "If it is just half a million (dollars), better we use our own budget."

His remarks quickly drew a flurry of angry responses on The Straits Times' Facebook page. "We are not children, we are just taking precaution as it (the haze) is hazardous to our lives," said reader Mildred Lee.

Q&A: 'No hard line where everything comes to a stop'

WITH haze levels here continuing to hit record highs, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong convened a press conference at the Istana to answer queries on how the Government intends to deal with the situation.

Some key issues raised and the responses:
What is the PSI threshold before stop-work orders are issued or schools are closed?
The decision to issue a stop-work order will depend on more than just a single number, said PM Lee.

"I don't think there is any single point where we turn action on or action off on stop-work because it will depend on what people are doing, what their exposure is, what our assessment of the situation is in the past 24 hours and the outlook..."

He said that the Government would likely take a gradually escalating series of steps as the haze worsens, but there is no "hard line where we say everything comes to a stop".

Similarly, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the Government will carefully consider when to close schools.

"We will assess on an ongoing basis when there is risk to the public at large before we make those decisions," he said.
What can Singapore do to compel the Indonesian government or companies involved to deal with the fires causing the haze?
Singapore will continue to engage the Indonesian government, said PM Lee as he noted that there was no mechanism for one sovereign country to cause another country to do something.

"You can influence, you can encourage, you can persuade, you can request but finally it's within each country's authority and responsibility to deal with the problems within their own country," he said.

He noted that while countries have certain obligations like the Rio de Janeiro Declaration which states that countries have a responsibility to ensure activities within their jurisdiction do not cause environmental damage to other states, it is up to each country to comply with them.

In the long term, Singapore wants to work with Indonesia on sustainable agricultural practices so that they can clear land without destructive burning. An existing partnership in south Sumatra has expired but the leaders of both sides have discussed a renewal.

PM Lee added, however, that the Government would act on any Singaporean companies found to have been responsible for the fires. He said the Government is studying what action it can take under the law.

"In principle, our view is you have to comply with Singapore laws and if you are doing something which is damaging the environment of Singapore, then we have to take it very seriously."
For PSI readings, why do we use a three-hour average instead of a one-hour average?
Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that the focus should not be just on the data but also on how it is analysed, so that it can become "useful, actionable advice".

He pledged that the Government will provide all the data it has, but added: "I also want us to understand that our reactions have to be carefully and deliberately and consciously thought through."

Both he and PM Lee noted that the numbers can fluctuate greatly, which means that what someone feels may not always directly tally with the three-hour average.

Go to for an edited transcript of the press conference.

Practical, flexible approach for workers during haze: Balakrishnan
Channel NewsAsia, 21 Jun 2013

Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has recommended a practical, flexible and customised approach for workers during hazy conditions.

The minister was speaking at Channel NewsAsia’s Talking Point programme on Thursday evening.

"For a worker who will have to do hard strenuous work, despite very high PSI level, we may recommend that he uses an N95 mask. And we'll have to make sure that N95 masks are available,” said Dr Balakrishnan in response to a question by a member of the public who asked why construction workers were still working under hazy conditions.

"We have to have a practical, flexible, and in a sense a tailored, customised approach to deal with the different demands and the different vulnerabilities that people will have. So we're not going to have a single on-off, stop-work, carry-on-work, kind of approach," he added.

The minister also noted that there was a great demand for masks, and assured viewers the masks will not run out -- the government has stockpiled a significant amount of N95 masks and has just done a re-stocking at all retail outlets, he said.

Anyone not able to get one should be able to do so later Thursday or Friday.

Also brought up was the scheme to help Singaporeans with their medical expenses, should they fall ill from the haze.

This applies to Singaporeans aged 18 and below, the elderly 65 and above, Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) card holders, as well as Public Assistance and Medical Fee Exemption Card holders.

A caller, who said she was asthmatic and 57 years old, asked if the scheme could target vulnerable groups or those with medical problems, rather than by age group.

"Come and see your local MP and we'll find a way to help you. Don't worry about the finances… just get access to medical care first and we'll sort the things out," said the minister.

Singaporeans in a haze over PSI readings
Govt says it will move towards publishing 24-hour PSI, PM2.5 data on hourly basis
By Kathy Cheng, TODAY, 20 Jun 2013

Frustration has been building among Singaporeans since the haze returned last Friday, with the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) three-hour Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) reading hitting new records this week, with no signs of any immediate relief.

And with many still in the dark about what how the hourly PSI updates are calculated, some have taken to venting their anger at the NEA, the Government and even the media online.

“I don’t think I can trust the readings,” @MinokoNg wrote on Twitter, while similar sentiments have been expressed on Facebook — one user wrote “Don’t distort the figures to mask the severity!” while another responded to a PSI update with “Dun lie please. We know common sense!”

The PSI was in the “hazardous” range for the first time at 10pm yesterday (June 19) with a reading of 321. But that record high was rewritten at 1pm today when the PSI hit 371.


According to the NEA, the three-hour PSI readings on air quality are derived by averaging the data collected for the immediate past three hours, in order to provide additional information on air quality and reflect a better and more current situation.

The readings are also an average for the whole of Singapore, with 24-hour averages provided for the five regions.

The three-hour PSI reading might therefore not correspond with what one observes immediately after a PSI update is released on the hour.

Irritation in eyes, lungs, nose and on skin are just some of the effects of the recent poor weather conditions, but the focus online has been more on poor visibility — through shared photos of foggy neighbourhoods.

However, poor visibility does not necessarily correspond to higher particle levels in the air as other factors, such as the presence of mist and reflection from the sun, play in a role in how far one can see.

At a briefing this evening, the Government said it would move towards publishing 24-hour PSI and PM2.5 data on an hourly basis.


The PSI is a uniform system of measuring the major air pollutants on a scale of 0 to 500, developed as an easy-to-understand system for the public through daily media reports.

The PSI is based on a scale devised by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Ambient air in Singapore is monitored through a telemetric network of air monitoring stations strategically located in different parts of Singapore.

Air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide are particulate matter called PM10, which is particulate matter of 10 microns or smaller in size, are used in the determination of the index.

The NEA also publishes 24-hour PM2.5 readings. The PM2.5 reading measures fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter, as well as ultrafine particles, and soot.

The NEA’s 24-hour PSI reading as of 12pm today is 169-196, while the 24-hour PM2,5 reading at 12pm is 232-291.

The US’s current Air Quality Index (AQI) scale incorporates both PM10 and PM2.5 readings.

Govt to give out free N95 masks to 200,000 needy households
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

ONE million N95 masks will be given out free to the poorest 200,000 households starting from Sunday.

Chairman of the inter-ministerial committee on haze Dr Ng Eng Hen announced this on Friday night.

The government's stocks of masks will also go to popular retail outlets such as NTUC Fairprice. Fairprice will cap the price of these masks and limit the number one person can buy, to combat panic buying.

A current shortage of masks at retail pharmacies is caused by panic buying which has caused "supply chain bottle-necks", Dr Ng said. He assured that there are enough masks for Singapore's needs.

Dr Ng, a doctor by training, explained that the majority of people who are healthy do not need to wear such masks unless they work outdoors when the 24-hour PSI reading is over 300. "We have not reached that yet," he said, as the prediction for Saturday is a 24-hour PSI of between 201 and 300.

That means healthy people should avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor exertion and wear N95 masks if such activity cannot be avoided. The elderly, pregnant, children, and ill should avoid all outdoor activity and wear N95 masks if prolonged outdoor activity is unavoidable.

The Health Ministry has said N95 masks can be reused as long as they are not out of shape or soiled.

N95 masks will not run out: MOH
The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

SINGAPORE will not run out of N95 masks, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said as it released some of its stock of nine million masks to pharmacy stores last night.

These are the only commercially available masks that will keep out the microscopic PM2.5 particles. These particles, if breathed in, could sink deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. This could affect the lungs and the heart.

By yesterday afternoon, most pharmacies had run out of these masks owing to overwhelming demand. But fresh stock from the ministry arrived on their shelves by last night.

MOH's director of medical services K. Satku said it had ordered more masks, so there is no likelihood of Singapore running short of them.

With an expected 24-hour PSI of between 200 and 300 today, people who are outdoors for long should protect themselves with an N95 mask, MOH advised. Employers should provide such masks to staff who work outdoors.

Air-con, fans for subsidised wards
Hospitals keep windows closed but provide cool, clean air for patients
By Salma Khalik Senior Health Correspondent And Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

PUBLIC hospitals are rushing to set up mobile air-conditioners, air blowers and fans to ensure clean air for their subsidised patients.

With the haze hitting hazardous levels, patients in B2- and C-class wards can no longer enjoy fresh air through open windows.

It becomes very stuffy when all the windows are closed, said Mr Joe Sim, chief executive of National University Hospital (NUH).

So, it has taken out its stock of more than 100 mobile air-conditioners and put them in these wards.

Changi General Hospital, on the other hand, is "blasting" air into the wards, said Mr T.K. Udairam, head of Eastern Health Alliance, which runs the hospital. This forms a positive pressure that forces used air out through the doors, so the air in the wards remains fresh.

At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), fans and air blowers are being rented and leased. It is also grouping patients at greater risk from the haze in special wards with greater protection.

Last night, the Health Ministry's director of medical services, Professor K. Satku, said not all patients need to be in wards with closed windows, only those who are frail or have underlying medical conditions.

KTPH is also limiting each patient to two visitors at one time.

"This is especially important as the windows in the ward areas are closed or nearly closed. Having many visitors in the wards may compromise the comfort level of our patients," said its spokesman.

The hospital's emergency department is seeing about 30 per cent more patients with asthma this month. NUH reported 10 per cent more patients at its emergency department yesterday.

At a press conference last night, the Health Ministry said there was usually a one- to three-day lag between bad haze and a rise in patient numbers. But polyclinics and hospitals are ready to cope with an expected surge.

It advised people to stay indoors today, as the 24-hour PSI is expected to be between 200 and 300. If they need to be outside for long periods, they should wear an N95 mask. Even healthy adults should avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor activity, it said.

Already, more people are heading to neighbourhood clinics with haze-related ailments, from itchy eyes to cough, asthma and chest pain. Doctors are also handing out more medical certificates (MCs) for sick workers to stay home.

Raffles Medical, which has 72 clinics, has seen the number of patients surge 20 per cent, said Dr Tan Joo Peng, its senior manager and physician leader.

Dr Philip Koh, chairman of the medical board at the Healthway chain of 53 clinics, said he has given about 20 per cent more MCs at his Tampines branch. "I haven't had to send anyone to hospital yet, but if this situation persists, I might have to," he added.

SingHealth Polyclinics has seen about 400 asthma patients since Monday, up from 340 in the same period last week, said family physician Jason Tan.

At Bukit Batok Polyclinic, shipyard worker Zaw Min Aung, 35, was spotted with a mask over his face. The Myanmar national, who was upset that the haze has interrupted his work and sleep, had to take the next two days off work.

Beauty consultant Faezah Sanim, 20, said her family of four has fallen ill from the haze.

But many acknowledge there is little they can do. Housewife Jolene Quek, 50, is relying on her air-conditioners. "I make warm chrysanthemum tea for my children and make sure they stay indoors as much as possible," said the mother of two.

Dr Elaine Tan of the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics said that with the dengue outbreak and the threat of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, clinics "may need to prioritise in attending to at-risk groups and those in need of urgent care".

Not act of nature but man-made: NEA chief
By Zakir Hussain, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

THE haze triggered by fires raging across Sumatra is not an act of nature, but man-made, National Environment Agency (NEA) chief executive Andrew Tan said yesterday.

Hence, Indonesia needs to take more decisive action against errant companies, Mr Tan told The Straits Times, echoing remarks he made at a two-hour meeting held here yesterday afternoon between Singapore officials and their Indonesian counterparts.

Singapore, he added, could work together with Indonesia to map its satellite images of hot spots onto land concession maps of affected areas in Sumatra, and track those responsible.

"I urged Indonesia to take more decisive action, because the situation is likely to deteriorate in the next few weeks and at the onset of the dry season if no further efforts are taken," he said.

"We registered that given the weather conditions, the burning actions are man-made and therefore can and should be averted. We pressed them to take our concerns seriously."

The emergency meeting at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry followed telephone calls between foreign and environment ministers from both countries on Tuesday. In addition, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishman is due to travel to Jakarta today.

Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit a record high of 371 at 1pm yesterday, an hour before the Jakarta meeting began.

"On Singapore's part, we conveyed the very serious concerns that Singaporeans have over the deteriorating haze situation... how this was unprecedented and (how) PSI levels deteriorated very quickly," Mr Tan said.

"(We) are now at a stage where air quality is at hazardous levels. So we can't take this lightly."

Singapore also proposed to bring forward a sub-regional ministerial meeting on transboundary haze set for August, he said.

Indonesian officials were asked to share if they have information about Singapore companies involved in illegal burning so that Singapore can act as well.

"We had a frank discussion with host agencies," Mr Tan said.

The Singapore side was updated regarding a ministerial meeting yesterday morning that saw a national task force on haze being set up. Measures agreed on included stepping up firefighting efforts and enforcement against errant firms. Immediate steps included cloud-seeding to induce rain.

The task force, chaired by Coordinating Welfare Minister Agung Laksono, includes the ministers for foreign affairs, the environment and forestry. Mr Agung told reporters that cloud-seeding would take place as soon as it was feasible, starting today. The salt is ready, the planes are in place, he said, but there must be clouds.

He noted that the burning was not always above ground. Some 850ha of land had been ablaze in recent days, and fires in some 650ha had been put out, he said.

The government is investigating which companies are responsible and will take action against those found culpable. "But there must be a process," he said.

Burning 'the cheapest way to clear farm land'
Poor farmers cannot afford machinery and manpower
By Joyce Lim and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Dumai (Riau Province), The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

WHY do people use fire to clear the land when tractors and earth movers can do the job? It is the cheapest way, came the reply from a plantation manager.

"It takes just 10 litres of diesel costing 50,000 rupiah (S$6.40) to flatten 1ha of land," Mr Fadli, who goes by just one name, told The Straits Times.

"In contrast, it would cost more than 15 million rupiah to hire workers and rent excavators to flatten and clear a plot of land that is of the same size," said Mr Fadli, a field manager at a rubber plantation in Pelintung, Riau.

And it would take men and machines one full day to finish the job, he added.

For poor farmers in Indonesia, it is hard economics and not green issues like environment protection that dictates what they do.

This is why they are likely to continue with a practice that has been used for generations, Mr Fadli said. "But we are not like that," he was quick to add.

He insisted his company does not use the slash-and-burn method, but was hard put to explain why there were burnt logs and branches in some parts of the plantation. Also, a worker was using an excavator to flatten land that had obviously been burned.

Mr Fadli declined to reveal the name of the company he works for or the size of the firm.

His boss, who wanted to be known only as Apeng, said it is common for oil palm plantation owners to hire contractors when they want to clear the land.

Some contractors may sub-contract the work. But as sub-contractors are not paid a lot, they tend to choose the cheapest and fastest way to get the job done.

Mr Apeng said the method of clearing the land is often not specified in contracts.

So, when the question of illegal practices arises, the owners are usually absolved of blame. Legally, they have not have broken the law, said Mr Apeng.

Yesterday, The Straits Times team spent 12 hours looking for hot spots and trying to find out the identity of their owners. Many of these plantations are massive, and it takes about two to three hours to get from one to another.

We managed to find three hot spots, but none had signage that would tell us who the owners are.

The firefighters we spoke to also claimed they did not know who owned the land.

Along the way, our team came across many smaller plots of burnt land. At these smaller plantations, we saw that one part of the plantation would be planted with oil palm trees and another part would be burnt. This is what is known as partial burning.

Plantation owners selectively burn parts of their land to clear it for planting new crops.

They would build canals around the plot of land that they intend to burn. After the land is set ablaze, water from the canals is used to put out the fire. The excavators would then move in to flatten the land and remove burnt tree stumps and branches, leaving no trace of the slash-and-burn method that had been used.

Firms provide help for workers
Many issue masks to staff or cut back duties
By Daryl Chin, Lester Wong And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

WITH the haze at record levels, Singapore's companies adopted varying approaches yesterday to protecting employees working outdoors.

Most tried to balance the continuing need to meet deadlines and deliver essential services with the welfare of their workers. So, while it was business as usual for most of the construction firms, many issued masks and conducted safety briefings.

Some, like engineering firm McConnell Dowell, which has ongoing projects in Jurong Island and Orchard Road, went further. It sent its 500 workers home yesterday afternoon.

"A few of our guys were coughing or had eye irritation, so we let them all go," said regional operations manager David Christodoulou, "Some clients may not be too happy, but in the long run, it is our workers who will get sick if they continue working."

Hexacon Construction general manager Dominic Choy suspended strenuous activities, such as plastering or working on reinforcement bars, in the afternoon, and added that work would stop if the Pollutant Standards Index went beyond the 400 mark.

The PSI level soared to a record-high level of 371 at 1pm yesterday, surpassing Wednesday's record of 321 and 1997's record of 226.

The polluted air is deemed "hazardous" when the PSI breaches 300.

On Monday, the Manpower Ministry said employers had a duty to protect their employees' safety and health at work, and must carry out proper risk assessments to mitigate the effects of the haze.

Workers providing essential public services were given the necessary protection or had their duties cut back or modified.

SingPost also set up a hotline for its 1,400 couriers and postmen in case they needed assistance. Masks and eyedrops were also given to them on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Comfort has started issuing masks to its taxi drivers, and advised them to drive carefully, as visibility on the roads is poor.

Over at the ports, operators like Jurong Port reduced outdoor work assignments for employees with existing heart or respiratory conditions and those above 55 years old, or reassigned them indoors.

A National Parks Board spokesman said workers had been told to scale back on outdoor activities and to seek medical attention if they were feeling unwell.

Dr Teo Ho Pin, coordinating chairman for People's Action Party town councils, said non-essential maintenance services such as landscaping works, block washing, tree pruning and the removal of bulky items have been postponed.

Essential services such as lift rescues and emergency repairs will continue as usual, but these workers will be issued masks, he added.

An Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council spokesman said projects delayed by the haze would be granted a deadline extension. Staff were given masks and advised to stay indoors whenever possible.

But there were also service providers that decided to cease operations altogether.

The Red Cross said it was keeping its First-Aider on Wheels - a volunteer patrol along East Coast Park - behind closed doors.

McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut all suspended deliveries completely.

Pastamania initially suspended deliveries but later re-started the service using vans and cars instead of motorcycles. "We cannot promise that we can deliver to all areas, but we will do our best," it said on its Facebook page.

Employers helping staff to breathe easier
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

STAFF at various companies across the island were able to breathe a little easier amid the haze yesterday after bosses installed air purifiers and carbon filters, handed out masks or allowed employees to work from home.

Restaurant chain Han's even served herbal tea and green bean soup at staff meals to keep health and spirits up.

The crisis response came as Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chief operating officer Victor Tay urged companies to put workers' welfare first.

"SBF has also distributed face masks to its employees, and understands that some professional services firms are contemplating allowing susceptible staff to work from home should the haze deteriorate further," he said.

Several big firms told The Straits Times that they have already allowed employees, especially those with heart, respiratory or skin conditions, or who are pregnant, to work from home.

OCBC Bank has also extended the option to parents whose children's childcare centres have closed.

Other firms have allowed staff to telecommute. Law firm Latham & Watkins, for one, is reimbursing employee cab fares and has asked its lawyers to work from home as much as possible.

For those who must work in the office, masks and air filters were the order of the day.

Several companies, including DBS Bank and ANZ Bank, have begun installing carbon filters and adding air purifiers at offices and branches.

Standard Chartered Bank is leaving its air-conditioners and air filters on around the clock.

These firms, as well as others including Hong Leong Finance, Citi Singapore, CapitaLand and Keppel Corp, have begun issuing masks to staff.

The Public Service Division has advised government ministries, departments and statutory boards to make adjustments to work arrangements and install air-cleaning devices.

Kaya manufacturer Fong Kit Kaya moved to get all 20 employees indoors.

"Jobs such as packaging and labelling are usually done in the open air, but we have moved the work to air-conditioned rooms," said marketing and research manager Goh May San.

Aik Moh Paints & Chemicals halted all outdoor activities.

Entrepreneur Pat Law began compiling a list on Facebook of companies allowing employees to work from home and by yesterday evening, it had more than 100, including her own branding consultancy Goodstuph.

Others on the list included multinational firms such as Dell and Nike.

The list also said restaurants such as Fabrika and Lucas Deli at Klapsons Hotel, rooftop bar Loof and Cajun Kings had decided not to open for business.

Singaporeans join hands to help people weather haze
They donate and distribute masks to needy, or offer homes as shelter
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2013

AMID the haze, groups of people have shown there is a kinder side to Singaporeans.

Several ground-up initiatives to help others have emerged, with one formed yesterday by Mr Jeremy Chua, a liberal arts student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, United States.

It is called SG Haze Rescue.

The 25-year-old started a Facebook page calling for people to help and donate their excess masks, almost immediately after seeing the Pollutant Standards Index rise to 321 on Wednesday evening.

Mr Chua, who is back home for the summer holidays, was inspired by community initiatives in the US where people offer shelter to the needy in times of crises.

"The haze is a crisis for us, and Singaporeans should come together not to complain, but to do things for one another," he said.

Within a day of making his call on Facebook, Mr Chua received a donation of 200 masks.

He and a group of 10 volunteers spent two hours last night distributing them in five Housing Board blocks at Toa Payoh Lorong 2.

"I see a lot of people complaining about the haze on social media, but hardly anyone is doing anything about it, so I am trying to make a difference and help others," he said.

About 120 people have e-mailed him to offer help.

He expects to receive nearly 2,000 masks by today, and intends to distribute them in the next few days.

He has also started a Google Documents form for people who want to offer their homes to anyone who needs temporary shelter.

Fewer than 10, however, have responded, and one of them is Mr Tong Yee, 39, director of a group of social enterprises known as Thought Collective.

He offered his Namly Crescent home in Bukit Timah, where he lives with his family - his parents, younger sister, wife and three daughters.

"My family's a bit concerned that I am offering our home to strangers, but it is a small risk compared to people's needs," he said, adding that his group of friends are also keen to offer their homes.

As of yesterday, there were no takers, but he said that his home and those of his friends can accommodate about 50 people altogether.

Other civic-minded Singaporeans are also going to HDB flats to distribute masks to the needy.

A group of friends, including Mr Tong and Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Clarence Ching, 18, have arranged for about 5,000 masks to be given to families in four estates: Bukit Ho Swee, Toa Payoh, Jalan Besar and Jalan Kukoh.

Singer Elson Soh, 25, with volunteers from Project Awareness, a group he started to help the needy, will also distribute masks and herbal tea drinks to more than 50 families tomorrow.

"Most of these families do not know how to protect themselves from the haze, and they cannot afford to fall sick because many of them are old and have medical conditions," said Mr Soh.

Worst haze in 16 years, with PSI hitting 155
Condition expected to last most of the week as fires rage in Sumatra
By Grace Chua And Hoe Pei Shan In Singapore And Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, The Straits Times, 18 Jun 2013

THE haze that shrouded Singapore yesterday was the worst in 16 years, and is expected to last for most of this week.

The three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which measures air quality, climbed steadily throughout yesterday, reaching a high of 155 by 10pm, crossing into the unhealthy range.

The haze, which first hit the island last Friday and is likely to persist for the next few days, has worried Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was "deeply concerned" that the 113 hot spots detected over Sumatra yesterday had caused air quality to plummet.

The last time Singapore saw such bad smog was in 1997, when the PSI topped 226.

Dr Balakrishnan said he would personally speak to his Indonesian counterpart to convey the seriousness of the situation, as well as renew Singapore's offer of assistance.

In a Facebook post last night, he said that "commercial interests in Indonesia have been allowed to override environmental concerns" for too long.

"We need the Indonesians to enforce their own laws," he wrote.

With the hazy conditions likely to continue, the National Environment Agency has advised people with heart and lung disease, children and older adults to reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion.

The Ministry of Manpower yesterday also told employers to issue protective devices such as N95 masks, which filter out 95 per cent of very fine particles, to employees with heart or respiratory illnesses who are working outdoors when the PSI surpasses the healthy threshold of 100.

The Singapore Armed Forces, too, has "reduced physical and outdoor training accordingly".

Yesterday, the acrid-smelling haze was visible across the island, shrouding landmarks like Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer.

The number of Sumatran hot spots detected by satellites rose from 101 on Saturday to 138 on Sunday, before dropping to 100 yesterday.

Indonesian officials say the smog is from huge tracts of peat lands around the coastal city of Dumai - located on the coast of the Strait of Malacca that faces Singapore - that have caught fire due to the early hot season.

Farmers are also burning plantations to clear land for the next planting season.

The dry season is expected to last until monsoon rains start in Sumatra around October, said Mr Okta Irawan, a weather forecaster based in Jambi, South Sumatra.

Meanwhile, "we are doing all we can to contain the fires", Mr Ilyas As'ad, a deputy environment minister, told The Straits Times by telephone.

Indonesia has deployed dozens of firefighters in the area to douse the flames.

Officials say they have managed to put out several fires near Dumai, 250km north-west of Singapore.

But there are many more fires in Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir, two regencies in Riau that border Dumai.

Water-dropping aircraft would be deployed only if local governors made a request, which they have yet to do, said the Forestry Ministry.

The lack of rain also means the pollution is not washed out of the air.

Then, winds from the west and south-west blow the smoke over to Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia.

Meanwhile, organisers of outdoor events this week are watching the skies closely.

Mr Ben Swee, race organiser of Running Guild, which is holding the Banana Relay fun run at Punggol this Sunday, said the race could be cancelled if the PSI that morning exceeds 100.

Singapore leaders want firms causing haze to be named
But Indonesian official says foreign parties should not meddle in its domestic affairs
By Neo Chai Chin and David Bottomley, TODAY, 19 Jun 2013

As the air quality in the Republic hovered around unhealthy levels yesterday — a day after the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading hit a record high since 1997 — both Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam called on the Indonesian authorities to name corporations responsible for the fires.

But the suggestion, which Dr Balakrishnan had also posted on Facebook, was promptly pushed back by senior Indonesian government official Sony Partono, who was quoted by Reuters as saying “foreign parties should not be interfering with our domestic affairs”.

Mr Partono added: “The most important thing is that we have attempted to control the damage resulting from the forest fires” and fire trucks had been despatched to affected areas.

The haze, which has also enveloped Malaysia, continued to shroud the Singapore skyline yesterday, with the PSI reaching as high as 134 at midnight. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a photo taken from the Istana on Facebook, with the cityscape “barely visible”.

He added that Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam have registered Singapore’s “serious concerns” and offered Indonesia help to fight the fires.

“We are all affected by the haze,” said Mr Lee. “Farmers and plantation owners in Sumatra are burning crops to clear land in the dry season, and unfortunately the winds are blowing the smoke all the way to Singapore.”

In a joint statement, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa “offered their assurances that Indonesia would address the haze problem”.

The statement added that both Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam had, in their conversations with their Indonesian counterparts, referred to the claim by Indonesian Forestry Ministry official Hadi Daryanto — which was reported in the media — that Malaysian and Singaporean palm oil companies investing in Indonesia may be responsible for starting the fires in Sumatra’s Riau province.

“(The ministers) asked Indonesia to share the names of errant companies involved in illegal burning, though primary responsibility to take legal and enforcement actions against these companies lies with Indonesia as they have clearly violated Indonesian laws within Indonesian jurisdiction,” the statement added.

Writing on Facebook, Dr Balakrishnan added that “we need to exert commercial pressure against companies causing the haze”. He also said that Singapore is waiting for Indonesia to publish concession maps which, combined with satellite images, would “enable us to pinpoint the errant companies”.

The 24-hour PSI reading at 4pm ranged from 112 to 123 for various parts of Singapore, while the PM2.5, which measures levels of fine particulate matter, was 149 to 169 microgrammes per cubic metre — concentrations prompting advice to those with heart or lung disease, as well as children and older adults, to avoid all physical activity. The National Environment Agency reported 187 hotspots detected in Sumatra yesterday, up from 113 detected on Monday.

Supporting the suggestion to name errant companies, Singapore Environment Council Executive Director Jose Raymond and Tampines GRC Member of Parliament Irene Ng said consumers could boycott products of these firms. Mr Raymond said consumers “should demand that the names of the business owners be made public” to show collective displeasure at their conduct, and “perhaps this will force them to change the way they operate”.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said the “answer to the problem” lies with the Indonesian authorities. “The ball is not in our court and we can only hope that more will be done to discourage the burning of the forest,” she said.

Some observers had suggested last year for Singapore’s pollution laws to apply to all polluters, wherever they may be located.

But Singapore Institute of International Affairs Executive Director Nicholas Fang pointed out that the Singapore authorities would need to be present on the ground to monitor the companies’ activities. Satellite technology “does not negate the need for on-the-ground surveillance, as solid evidence will be needed if offending companies are to be taken to task”, he said.

Singapore can do more to engage Indonesian provincial authorities, as it did previously in Sumatra’s Jambi province, said Mr Fang.

Meanwhile, two corporations here with palm oil plantations in Indonesia reiterated that they have a zero-burning policy.

A Golden Agri-Resources spokesperson said the company and its subsidiary PT SMART Tbk use only mechanical means such as excavators and bulldozers in land preparation and step up fire surveillance patrols during dry months.

A Wilmar International spokesperson said that, while it is committed to zero-burning, “we cannot prevent local practices of slash-and-burn for agricultural and other purposes”. “This may lead to high incidences of uncontrolled fires which inevitably spread over to our plantations. To minimise the impact of fire and haze in our operations and surrounding environment, we have a fire management programme that is based on principles of prevention and suppression,” she added.

Limitations on what can be done about haze: Shanmugam
By Tan Qiuyi, Channel NewsAsia, 19 Jun 2013

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, has stressed that the reality of international law and international relations must be recognised in response to criticisms made by some members of the public who questioned why the government cannot do more about the haze situation.

Mr Shanmugam said: "If it was within our control we will never allow this to happen. My point to Singaporeans is we will continue to do our best, please understand the limitations of international relationships and foreign policy and the fact that every country is sovereign and we have limited control over what happens in Indonesia.

"The deep unhappiness of Singaporeans over what is happening is entirely understandable, and my own belief is that most Singaporeans also understand that Singapore is doing what it can and these are not being caused within Singapore."

In 2002, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed an agreement, committing to tackle the haze. But 11 years on, Indonesia has yet to ratify this agreement.

Mr Shanmugam said: "The Indonesian parliament is sovereign in its own right, it makes up its own mind, and it has decided so far not to ratify the agreement. That shows the limitations in terms of what Singapore can do. But we will continue to express our views, we'll continue to do whatever is possible and within our means, and sensible to do."

This means continuing to put pressure on Indonesia at international forums.

But with the haze returning every year, has ASEAN failed?

Mr Shanmugam said: "I think the word failed is too strong. You've got to understand the role of international organisations like ASEAN. They cannot override national sovereignty.

"For example if in terms of domestic policy of Singapore, it is very difficult for ASEAN to impose its will on how we should handle a domestic situation. Likewise when events take place in Indonesia, Malaysia or Cambodia, in international law, it is not easy for ASEAN to say you have to do this.

"But we can try and use moral suasion. We can try and agree on common principles and really, we are dependent on each country in carrying out those actions."

Earlier in a Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam said every country is sovereign and Singapore cannot intervene in the actions in other countries.

He explained that in every field, Singapore's size and geography mean that we are often price takers, not price makers in the areas of economics, geo politics, or the environment.

Despite that, he said Singapore has done well and much better than bigger countries with more resources. This is because the government has managed to deal with most situations by anticipating them.

However, the haze situation is quite outside the government's control as the burning of forests is happening in Indonesia.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has raised the matter with Indonesian ministers.

Over the years, the government has offered technical assistance, expressed its deep distress at what is happening, and has also raised the issue internationally. Despite these efforts, the haze problem recurs.

Mr Shanmugam thanked members of the public who have noted the reality of the situation and the limitations within which the government operates.

He urged those who think the government can do more about the haze situation to tell them what can be done, rather than using this occasion to attack the government and the People's Action Party (PAP).

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