Tuesday 25 June 2013

Keep calm, go about daily routine: PM Lee on haze

By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday urged Singaporeans to stay calm and carry on with their normal routine, even as the country faced the possibility of the haze not abating any time soon.

"This is a problem that will last at least a few weeks, maybe a couple of months until September or October, so I think we have to be psychologically prepared," he told some 300 residents during a dialogue in his ward of Ang Mo Kio GRC.

"Keep on working, keep on living. But be ready, if it gets worse, we know what to do."

He sought to draw the distinction between the haze and the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis.

Noting that SARS was deadly and infectious, he added that the haze was "not something which is so poisonous that you must avoid all contact".

"The haze can make your illness worse if you are ill. But for most people, the haze is an inconvenience, life can carry on."

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan made a similar point yesterday, adding that most people should have "no problem" with the haze especially if they stayed indoors.

And face masks are not needed indoors, PM Lee pointed out.

"If you are normal, healthy, you should not need the mask. Unless it's really bad outside," he said in Mandarin.

He also emphasised that there is no danger of a shortage of the masks, after major pharmacies temporarily ran out of stock last week amid panic buying.

The Ministry of Health has begun distributing its stockpile of nine million N95 masks to pharmacies, clinics and retailers, as well as free to low-income households, he said.

Over the weekend, more than four million masks were pushed out - a million to constituencies, and the rest to retailers.

PM Lee also paid tribute to Singapore Armed Forces personnel and People's Association employees who worked through the night to get the masks to constituencies around the island.

Apart from PM Lee, several other ministers and MPs also fanned out in their respective constituencies to distribute masks.

At the dialogue, PM Lee said that ministries have plans in place to deal with the haze, and the Government is also keeping an eye on the Middle East respiratory syndrome.

'Right way of farming' is long-term solution
Instilling such practices in Indonesia will tackle haze problem: PM Lee
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

THE long-term solution to the haze problem is to instil the "right way of farming" in Indonesia, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Speaking to Ang Mo Kio residents at a dialogue, he said this would mean that farmers would not resort to burning as a "short cut" to clear land for crop planting.

Singapore has been attempting to nudge the Indonesians towards sustainable practices, such as through a joint project in Jambi which promotes such agricultural practices to farmers and plantation owners.

The pact is up for renewal and PM Lee said that Singapore wants to extend it, and hopes that the Indonesians agree.

But he also noted that the authorities there face challenging obstacles in tackling the root cause of the haze, including the sheer size of the land area which is burning, and corruption.

He pointed out that the area over which forest fires are burning is much bigger than the whole of Singapore. Singapore's small size means the authorities are able to enforce laws easily and quickly.

This is not the case in Indonesia, he said, using the Chinese proverb "shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce" (Whatever laws are handed down, the people on the ground will find ways around them).

One resident at the dialogue asked PM Lee about the detention last month of Riau governor Rusli Zainal by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission. He is a suspect in a graft case involving the illegal exploitation of forests by logging companies.

Riau is ground zero of the forest fires producing the haze.

PM Lee said that he had heard the same thing about Mr Rusli, adding: "So these are the real problems in Indonesia."

He struck a sanguine note when another resident lamented that Singapore is "crippled" when it comes to fighting the haze as there is nothing it can do to stop the burning.

"This is our lot in life," replied Mr Lee in Mandarin.

"These are our neighbours. We can't change them. The responsibility for solving this problem is with Indonesia."

Separately, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who heads the haze inter-ministerial task force formed last week, told reporters that Singapore "stands ready to give assistance to Indonesia if asked".

He said that he has asked the Singapore Armed Forces to be on standby: "There is an open offer if they need assets that we have to help them in this firefighting. We are ready to go."

But Singapore respects and recognises Indonesia's sovereignty, and "we can only go if they ask us", he said.

Mr Lee and other ministers, in their efforts to distribute masks to residents around the island yesterday, also highlighted the efforts of the Singapore Armed Forces and People's Association in getting the masks around the island.

Meanwhile, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said Singapore is likely to stick to hosting the 2015 SEA Games in June, rather than move it to a different part of the year for fear that it could be hit by the haze. There is no "perfect window", he said, adding that efforts should be focused on preventing the haze from recurring and preparing the Republic.

At Ang Mo Kio GRC where he is an MP, PM Lee also announced that three blocks in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 had been selected for the Home Improvement Programme which will fix problems in ageing flats such as ceiling leaks.

MOH pushes out four million masks from govt stockpile
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

THE Health Ministry has pushed out four million face masks over the weekend, with one million going to various constituencies for their lower-income residents and vulnerable groups and three million sent to the retailers.

There should be ample supply, so there is no need to panic buy, said Haze Inter-ministerial Committee chairman Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

Prices have also stabilised and even fallen, said the Defence Minister, who was handing out masks to residents at a seniors' activity centre in Toa Payoh yesterday.

Dr Ng also reassured those from poorer families that they will be given the masks.

"No need to rush, we will get it to you," he said.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has said that healthy persons need to wear a mask only when prolonged and strenuous outdoor activity is unavoidable when the PSI goes beyond 200.

Yesterday, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam acknowledged that there was some public confusion over who should wear a mask.

It is the condition of your health, the degree to which you are exposed and the kind of effort you are exerting, he said.

As the N95 mask increases the effort needed for breathing, pregnant women in their second or third trimester are advised not to wear the masks for more than 15 to 20 minutes each time, the NEA said.

Yesterday, queues for N95 masks were spotted outside pharmacies, even as Singaporeans breathed easier in lighter haze conditions.

Over at NTUC Unity in Tampines 1 mall, a queue of about 30 people had formed by 1pm as customers jostled for stocks that had just been replenished in the morning.

"I had been trying to buy masks since last Thursday when the PSI crossed 300," said housewife Janet Soh, 49, whose name was on a waiting list at several pharmacies.

"We have only one at home for my child and I'm buying for my elderly folks."

About 15 people were queueing for N95 masks at Watsons in Tampines Mall at 1.30pm.

"They probably just got their stocks this morning and people do not know yet. If they did, queues would be much longer," said Mrs Susan Lim, who is a housewife.

The Guardian outlet near Toa Payoh HDB Hub still had stocks of N95 masks at 11am, although there was hardly a queue at the time.

FairPrice said it will be stocking a fresh supply of N95 masks at all of its 115 stores from today.

Stocks from suppliers and the Ministry of Health have arrived over the weekend.

Govt will act if bosses disregard workers' health
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

EMPLOYERS who flout the Government's health advisories for the haze could be penalised, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin warned yesterday.

"If employers do not follow the advisory and are wantonly disregarding the safety and health of their workers, action will be taken. Our inspectors will go out to inspect and we will follow up on feedback provided," he said.

Speaking to reporters at Chai Chee where grassroots organisations were distributing face masks to residents, Mr Tan said some irresponsible actions include expecting crane operators to hoist heavy loads when visibility is bad.

"If the conditions are such that outdoor workers are expected to work with masks, we expect that to be adhered to. If there are circumstances where they are not, that's something we need to follow up on with the companies," he added.

Mr Tan also spelt out avenues of help for employees who feel their health is being threatened: "We encourage workers to take it up with the unions, their supervisors, with management.

"If they can't find a solution or they are worried or afraid, call us and that's something we'll look into and address as best we can."

Mr Tan added that the Manpower Ministry is working with the Ministry of Health to make sure companies have enough face masks for their employees.

"Those who need them can call in and we will make the arrangements and push it out to them," he said.

Asked whether the Manpower Ministry would consider stopping work for specific groups such as outdoor construction workers when the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index crosses a threshold, Mr Tan reiterated that the Government is basing its health advice on the 24-hour forecast.

"I know that when we see the PSI spike and the haze is particularly thick we tend to get panicky, and that's perfectly understandable... but it's the cumulative effect (of) exposure over the course of a day that has the real impact," he said.

That being said, firms also need to be flexible. "Employers do remain responsible to exercise their discretion and adjust their work practices based on the prevailing circumstances," he said.

Workers can call the Manpower Ministry's call centre on 6438-5122, and if there are significant safety concerns on outdoor work during the haze situation, they can call the ministry's safety hotline on 6317-1111 or e-mail oshd@mom.gov.sg.

Minister to seek clarification on Singapore firms
By Jalelah Abu Baker & Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

FOREIGN Minister K. Shanmugam said he will ask for a clarification on the “contradictory signals” from the Indonesian government regarding the list of Singapore-linked companies which apparently use fire to clear land.

He also intends to ask the authorities there to provide evidence to Singapore as soon as possible.

This comes after an Indonesian presidential aide said last Friday that two firms with links to Singapore - Jakarta-based Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (Smart) and Asia Pacific Resources International (April) - were named as having plantations within the area where hot spots are.

But Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has also said that when he met his counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya on the same day, he was told by the Indonesian Environment Minister that none of the eight companies identified by the Indonesian authorities was Singaporean.

"We need clear clarification and a clear statement from Indonesia together with evidence, because the companies which have been named all denied any involvement," said Mr Shanmugam yesterday, before giving out masks to residents of studio flats in Yishun.

"They said they are prepared to take people down to their plantations. So who do we believe? And before we can take any action there's got to be evidence, and Indonesia is best placed to give us the evidence."

Earlier, Mr Shanmugam, who also holds the law portfolio, had pointed out that "serious" issues of jurisdiction and international law need to be considered, and he has asked the Attorney-General to look into what can be done to such companies if there is proof that they contributed to the haze.

Yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan confirmed this when he told reporters: "We are discussing with the Attorney-General's Chambers whether we may need to make some changes to our own legislation so we can take action against companies who cause trans-boundary haze."

Meanwhile, an article on Indonesia news site Detik.com quoted the country's Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan as saying that there has so far not been any strong evidence that two paper companies - April, which is headquartered here, and Asia Pulp and Paper, which is supplied by Smart - were responsible for burning forests in Riau.

Are Singapore-linked firms on hot-spot list?

"The majority of hot spots in Riau (province) are inside April and Sinar Mas concessions."
- Indonesian senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto to Reuters on Friday. Both companies are Singapore-linked

"Don't make accusations without prior evidence. To prove this, there needs to be more detailed investigations. We are focused on putting out the fire for now. "
- Indonesian Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan, saying there was no strong evidence that April and Sinar Mas were responsible for the fires

Do not profit from haze: Vivian Balakrishnan
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 23 Jun 2013

Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has urged retailers not to take advantage of the haze situation to profit from it.

Prices of N95 masks have shot up in the past few days as Singaporeans scramble to get hold of them.

However Dr Balakrishnan has asked retailers not to take advantage of the circumstances.

He said: "Remember that how we behave in a crisis - this is what people will remember. This is the character of the company, the character of the retailer, and people will remember. And when times revert back to normal I'm sure our actions will reflect that.

"This is the time for us to do the right thing, to be cohesive, to be collectively responsible for each other. Not a time to profit, not a time to spread rumours, not a time to take advantage of people's fears. I would make that plea very sincerely and as strongly as possible."

Separately, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore leaders have been in contact with their Indonesian counterparts, who have been providing daily reports. He said he was glad to see that the tempo of action on the ground has been stepped up.

However he added that while he is glad to see this, action needs to be sustained over a considerable period of time. Dr Balakrishnan urged his Indonesian counterparts to keep up the work.

He also said that it was a "promising start" that eight companies have been identified by the Indonesian government.

"What I would like to see is for them to go on to the next stage which is to complete their investigations and then hopefully to even prosecute these companies because we need to send a very strong signal that this kind of irresponsible environmental degradation is not acceptable. So I hope they will go on and take the next step."

Dr Balakrishnan noted that while his Indonesian counterpart had told him no Singaporean companies were among the eight, it does not make a difference to him.

"I just want those companies named, if there's sufficient evidence I want them prosecuted. And on our side, if there's any action that we can take within the framework of our current laws, we would do so."

He also reiterated that Singapore is reviewing its laws and discussing with the Attorney-General's Chambers whether any changes need to be made to current legislation so that action can be taken against companies that cause trans-boundary haze.

Malaysia's worst haze in 16 years
By Teo Cheng Wee, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

MALAYSIA woke up yesterday to its worst levels of haze in 16 years, which forced the government to declare emergency status for two Johor towns, and to shut schools in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Pahang, as well as the coastal town of Port Dickson.

Many residents in the Johor town of Muar were shocked yesterday morning when the Air Pollutant Index (API) hit 746 - more than twice the standard hazardous reading and a level not seen since 1997, when Sarawak recorded an API reading of 860.

In Malacca, two areas registered API readings above 400.

Malaysia's haze readings are different from those in Singapore, which uses the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). The same five pollutants are measured, but the scales differ in the standards used to calibrate key components such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

As pollution readings in Muar and the nearby town of Ledang shot well past the maximum range for both the PSI and API scales, Prime Minister Najib Razak swiftly declared emergency status for the two towns.

The local authorities ordered schools, government offices, factories, plantations and construction sites to close immediately.

The use of private vehicles was restricted, all land clearing was stopped and a ban on open burning was enforced. However, clinics, supermarkets, hawkers and providers of essential services were allowed to stay open.

The government also extended precautionary measures to schools in the states of Selangor and Pahang, and in Kuala Lumpur and Port Dickson.

The capital, previously spared the choking haze that had enveloped Singapore and southern Malaysia, witnessed hazy conditions and reduced visibility yesterday.

Five areas in Selangor - home to most people who work in Kuala Lumpur - had "unhealthy" levels of haze. Port Klang registered the highest reading of 214.

"The haze situation continued to worsen as of 5pm, and schools have been ordered to close as a precautionary measure, since the bad air quality would affect the health of the students," said Natural Resources and Environment Minister G. Palanivel in a statement yesterday evening.

He advised parents to keep their children indoors and to use face masks if they must go outside.

The deteriorating haze situation has angered many Malaysians, some of whom feel the government has been slow in its response so far.

Datuk Seri Palanivel is set to meet with his Indonesian counterpart on Wednesday, but that is not soon enough for many.

"Please go and meet your counterpart by Monday, not Wednesday. Many Malaysians will have choked to death by then," wrote Mr Eddy Wong on Mr Palanivel's Facebook page.

The opposition said it will make the haze a priority when Malaysia's Parliament sits today.

In a statement yesterday, opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang said it is "imperative that Najib should take this issue to the highest levels".

"The time has come for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to fly to Jakarta for an emergency meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the haze catastrophe choking millions in the three Asean countries of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia."

BOTH scales were derived from the Pollutant Standards Index developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Malaysia modified the index after conducting its own studies. Singapore published separate data on PM2.5 - particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter - to reflect the concentration of such fine particles in the atmosphere.

The two indexes measure the same five pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and PM10, or particulate matter of 10 microns or less.

They differ in their calibration of three of the pollutants - sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

However, the standards used in the two indexes to measure carbon monoxide and PM10 - the main pollutants in haze - are identical.

The two indexes will give the same readings up to a level of 50. Beyond that, the API will give a higher reading than the PSI for the same amount of soot and ash in the air.

The maximum reading of 500 on the PSI comes to about 577 on the API.

Indonesia begins cloud-seeding to fight haze
Channel NewsAsia, 23 Jun 2013

Indonesia has begun seeding clouds in an attempt to create rain to extinguish raging fires that have cloaked neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia in choking smog, an official said.

An aircraft with cloud-seeding equipment on late Saturday managed to unleash rain over Bengkalis district on Sumatra island, where some of the biggest fires are burning, disaster management agency official Agus Wibowo told AFP.

"We will continue our cloud-seeding operations today using two aircraft," he said.

"We hope the haze situation will improve, provide some relief to those affected and everything will go back to normal soon," he added.

Wibowo said Riau province, where the fires are burning, was in a "state of emergency", with the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) exceeding the hazardous 400 level in several locations.

Three helicopters were also to drop water to put out fires on hundreds of hectares of carbon-rich peat land that have engulfed Singapore and Malaysia in smog.

The pollution index dropped to "moderate" in Singapore on Sunday after having hit "hazardous" levels but the smog intensified in parts of southern Malaysia.

According to Malaysia's environment minister G. Palanivel, the air pollutant index (API) hit 750 -- a 16-year high -- Sunday morning in Muar.

"Director general of environment Halimah Hassan has asked the National Security Council to declare an emergency in Muar today," Palanivel said.

The haze crisis has escalated tensions between Singapore and its vast neighbour, with the city-state repeatedly demanding that Jakarta step up its efforts to put out the fires.

However, Indonesian officials have become irate at the demands, and on Thursday the minister coordinating Jakarta's response to the crisis accused Singapore of acting "like a child".

The crisis also brought more negative publicity for big palm oil plantations and pulp groups -- Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian -- which deforest vast swathes of Sumatra, although the companies insist they have strict "no burn" policies.

They have been accused of starting many of the fires to clear land through the practice of slash-and-burn, which is illegal but still frequently used because it is the quickest and cheapest way of preparing land for plantations.

Prolonged haze 'may hit Singapore's competitiveness'
By Aaron LowThe Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

THE haze would "almost certainly" have an impact on Singapore's economy, especially on the tourism industry here, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

One small but clear example of this already happening is a nuclear energy forum that was to be held on Tuesday, but has since been cancelled because of the haze, he said.

This after three prominent American speakers, all in their 80s, decided that it was better to cancel the trip.

The three were former Senator Sam Nunn, former Defence Secretary William Perry, and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

"There would be an impact to the image of Singapore. Because they think of Singapore now, during this period, many people will associate it with the haze. One small illustration is this cancellation," said Mr Shanmugam, at the sidelines of a community event yesterday.

He added that the tourism industry is likely to be hit and that would have other secondary effects on the rest of the economy.

Other business leaders and analysts agreed, noting that a prolonged period of haze could put Singapore's reputation as a leading international centre for business and talent at risk.

The Singapore Business Federation's chief operating officer, Mr Victor Tay, said that one of Singapore's key competitive strengths has always been the clean environment but this has come under threat with the haze.

" Companies move their regional headquarters here because their senior managers like the place. This prolonged haze exposure is certainly putting the country's reputation at risk," said Mr Tay.

The air quality deteriorated significantly last week, with the PSI level hitting 401, the highest ever in Singapore. But it improved over the weekend, after reports showed that Indonesia was water-bombing the hot spots.

The hit to Singapore's reputation could be worse if the haze worsens every year without a permanent solution to fix the problem, said Mr See Hong Pek, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"If the haze is likely to continue worsening year after year without affirmative action, Singapore's reputation will be badly damaged," he added.

Surveys conducted by research outfits such as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) looks at the country's environment when assessing its overall competitiveness.

The EIU projected earlier this month - before the onset of haze - that Singapore is expected to retain its position as the most competitive city in Asia in 2025, due to the Republic's top ranking in the environment and natural hazards category.

But Kelly Services country general manager Mark Hall said that Singapore will still retain its ability to attract talent.

"In Beijing, the air quality year-round is bad. But people still move there to live and work. Singapore, in comparison, is still a highly liveable city."

'Putting a dollar value on haze' can help Singapore
Cost can be used to press Indonesia, says economics prof Euston Quah
By Feng ZengkunThe Straits Times, 24 Jun 2013

ADD up the cost of the haze in terms of medical bills, tourism losses, businesses hit and face-masks bought.

Armed with this bill, Singapore could then go to a third-party country and ask it to exert pressure on Indonesia to reduce the smog-causing forest fires there.

That is the advice of Professor Euston Quah, who pioneered cost-benefit analysis courses at two universities here, and who put the bill of the 1997 haze here at almost US$300 million (S$383 million).

"There is nothing much Singapore can do about cross-border pollution because of sovereignty issues," he said. "But if Singapore has leverage over a third country which has leverage over Indonesia, the (intervention) model will work."

Even if help does not materialise, calculating the haze's cost would help Singapore better decide how much aid to offer Indonesia, and how best to assist sectors here hurt by the haze, he said.

Head of the Department of Economics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Prof Quah has been putting a dollar sign to the intangible for several decades, to help businesses and organisations make more informed decisions.

He was involved in the Environment Ministry's air pollution studies here, for example, to guide its investments to improve air quality. He has also published ground-breaking studies on smoking costs here, the cost of dengue-related sickness to the economy, as well as the first study on transboundary haze pollution in 2002.

His first major focus, however, was on housewives. "Production that takes place outside - the normal economy - gets counted in the Gross National Product but there is production at home, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, done by housewives."

Prof Quah went on: "People get the wrong impression that economics is the study of only money, banking, finance. It covers so many areas." For example, all environmental issues are economic issues, he explained.

"Take a piece of forest land. You can leave it as is, convert it to a park or landfill or use it for commercial development. You have to know all of the trade-offs and opportunity costs of each option to make a better decision," he said.

Prof Quah cited a case in Australia in the 1980s. A farmer was trying to sell his land and was offered a price by a commercial developer. "But the Nature Society there found that it was a habitat for a prized creature called the wombat." Instead of the usual collection of signatures, the society asked concerned citizens to put their money where their mouth is.

"It got people and companies all over Australia to pledge money to a trust fund to keep the land as it is. And they managed to collect pledges far exceeding the commercial developer's value," he said.

Such a method may have helped to save local landmarks such as the Bukit Brown Cemetary, reckons Prof Quah.

"The logical choice is that the Environment Ministry sets up an agency or unit to solicit values of people and firms' willingness to pay. I don't see why we can't do it here, since we have an affluent, educated society," he said.

The father of two also applies the rational method at home, for example when he and his wife decided to have children. "Children are a very time-intensive good and they are not cheap goods as well," he said with a laugh.

"I always tell my students, if you sharpen your mind on cost-benefit analysis, you can apply it to everyday life. For example, should I do this course, who should I date and marry, or even if I should get a divorce, buy a car, travel or stay at home."

Even though he has built up cost-benefit analysis courses at both NTU and the National University of Singapore from scratch, Prof Quah does not see himself leaving academia. He has chaired NTU's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and held other appointments at both universities.

His free time is devoted to his various positions such as president of the Economic Society of Singapore and Singapore Economic Review editor, and advising various government ministries.

And wine. "I love my wines," he said, chuckling. But even there, he cannot resist: "I do study the health benefits, and one of my favourite hobbies is to distribute medical health articles to non-believers. I live and breathe cost-benefit analysis."


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