Haze in Singapore: 'People power' can make a difference

Nicholas Fang and Henrick Tsjeng Today Online 6 Sep 12;

Singapore has once again felt the impact of the haze blowing in from forest fires in Sumatra.

Even though our air has not reached unhealthy levels, the lowering of visibility and the rancid smoke remind us again that Singapore's clean air is something we cannot take for granted.

It is easy to point fingers and blame our southern neighbour. But this is neither productive nor responsible. It must be remembered that while the haze still strikes the region annually, much effort has been undertaken to control forest fires and Singapore in recent years has not been as adversely impacted compared to the 1997-1998 period.

Other cities in Asia, on the other hand, experience worse smog than Singapore on a more frequent basis.

Last month, Hong Kong registered its worst smog in two years, with pollution readings reaching "very high" levels and residents being warned to stay indoors.

The fact that Singapore's air quality levels are normally within the "good" range despite the latest haze illustrates that we are on the right track, although there is always room for improvement.


The Government, on its part, has been working to curb air pollution and continues to do so today.

The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources recently announced new measures, including requiring all new diesel vehicles to adopt Euro V emission standards (up from Euro IV) by January 2014, and all new petrol vehicles to adhere to Euro IV standards (up from Euro II) by April 2014.

The higher standards are significantly more stringent than their predecessors.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has also increased the reporting frequency of the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) from once a day to three times a day, and this now includes very fine particles, or PM2.5.

PM2.5 levels - finer particles that can penetrate deeper into the lungs and other organs and are considered more dangerous than fine particles, or PM10 - were previously only released on an annual basis and not included in daily air quality readings.

These efforts show the Government's commitment to maintaining good air quality. But Singapore can ill-afford to be complacent. The authorities' measures can be further boosted if the general public also does its part in promoting clean city air.


If citizens can organise themselves together to raise awareness of and call for cleaner air, this would lend a major boost to Government initiatives, in addition to making the authorities and the general public more aware of new air pollution problems. It could also be a catalyst for change.

The public could give the authorities greater support to amplify the effectiveness of air pollution control measures.

Last month, it was reported that the NEA was clamping down on vehicles that emit smoke. The agency is mounting video cameras in its vans to capture images of offending vehicles.

Citizens can also supplement these efforts. Pedestrians on the street can photograph and report instances where they see polluting vehicles. They could also share these photographs using social media, and reach out to a larger number of viewers. Most people, after all, carry smartphones with cameras and have ready access to the Internet.

Taking such pictures and spreading the word will not only highlight that vehicular emissions are indeed a problem, but also deter vehicle owners from flouting emission rules.

Promote green VEHICLES

In the same way, social enterprises can play a major role. The Government is conducting a trial of electric vehicles, while several manufacturers also sell a range of hybrid vehicles. However, awareness about such vehicles remains slim.

One company has taken a major step to provide rental services for electric vehicles. This will enhance the electric vehicle initiatives, in addition to letting the public try out these green vehicles and raising awareness of their utility.

These measures show us how the actions of the public can complement government measures, and put the protection of our air quality into the hands of the major stakeholders - the citizens themselves.

SIIA, along with several corporate partners, launched the Clean City Air Coalition in July, and will be hosting the SIIA-IndoChine Cocktail Fundraiser on Sept 12. The event, which will be held at the IndoChine Bar Opiume at the Asian Civilisations Museum, seeks to raise the profile of the institute's Environment and Resources Programme.

Nicholas Fang is the Director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Henrick Tsjeng is a researcher at the SIIA.

Focus on the root of our haze problem
Ang Peng Hwa Today Online 16 Sep 12;

I had thought that the story about a man who searched for his car keys under a lamp post because there was light, even though that was not where he dropped them, was a fable.

Then I read the commentary "'People power' can make a difference" (Sept 6), in which the writers stated: "It is easy to point fingers and blame our southern neighbour. But this is neither productive nor responsible."

So what do they recommend as presumably more productive and responsible? "If citizens can organise themselves together to raise awareness of and call for cleaner air, this would lend a major boost to Government initiatives, in addition to making the authorities and the general public more aware of new air pollution problems."

I found the statements baffling because it is not Singaporeans - the general public or the authorities - but some from our southern neighbour whose awareness needs to be raised.

Yes, it is easier to raise awareness in Singapore, like searching for keys under a lamp post. But with all due respect to the writers and our neighbour, we should focus on where the keys really dropped.

The writers are right on one point: That Singaporeans are not entirely helpless. In 2007, when the haze was bad, a group got together to strategise some courses of action and raise funds to implement some of those strategies.

A group of students from the Wee Kim Wee School at Nanyang Technological University, where I work, came up with the name for our group, Haze Elimination Action Team. One of the courses of action, education, was reported.

Some members went to Jambi to show how some alternatives might be adopted. In the recent haze, Jambi appears to be free from the fires, as it has been in the past few years.

Another course of action is a boycott targeted at the offending companies. Today's technology makes it possible to trace paper to the tree from which it came. So, it is possible to boycott those who make the products or plant in areas cleared by burning.

The haze appears to have abated for now. But many of us are literally sick and tired from facing it so often. So, while there is no urgent need for action now, we should not wait. We should prepare the plans and then execute those plans when conditions warrant.

"People power" has worked in other countries. For a start, join the Facebook group Haze Elimination Action Team. Singaporeans' people power, deployed correctly, can make a difference.