Haze in Singapore reaches hazardous level

Channel NewsAsia 19 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: The haze levels in Singapore hit a record high on Wednesday as raging forest fires from neighbouring Indonesia triggered a major health alarm and sent residents scrambling for face masks.

The three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) soared past the "hazardous" level of above 300 to hit an all-time high of 321 at 10pm.

The previous high of 226 was recorded in September 1997 at the height of a Southeast Asian calamity resulting from the haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates vast amounts of smoke during the dry season that begins in June.

Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said a stop-work order may be issued if the haze conditions worsen.

The minister was speaking to reporters at a news briefing on Wednesday night, after the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) went into the hazardous range at 10pm.

The index fell back to the "very unhealthy" level at 282 at 11pm, and down to 218 at midnight.

The PSI has been rising throughout the day, from a "moderate" reading of 77 at 6am, to an "unhealthy" 103 at 11am, hitting a "very unhealthy" level of 290 at 9pm before reaching a peak of 321 at 10pm.

Experts have also warned that it is also relevant to consider another indicator known as the PM 2.5 Concentration reading in addition to the closely-watched PSI.

Kavickumar Muruganathan, resident environmental engineer at the Singapore Environment Council said: "PM 2.5 is basically a better measurement of smaller particles…

"Basically particles are finer, so these particles tend to penetrate into our respiratory tract deeper, and they can also embed in our lungs. So it's also equally essential to know this PM 2.5 value."

Wednesday's 24-hour PM 2.5 reading was 97 to 117. Any reading above 40 means the air quality is unhealthy.

The Singapore Army has ceased all outfield training until further notice.

A post on the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Facebook page said this was to ensure the well-being and safety of the soldiers.

The SAF has also issued its soldiers on duty with the N95 masks since Wednesday afternoon.

And the ground commanders have also been reminded to keep a close watch on the soldiers.

SAF said that it was closely monitoring the situation and would take additional precautionary measures when necessary.

As for the potential impact of the haze on businesses, CEO of SIAS Research Roger Tan said companies' productivity would be affected.

"For example, construction companies, who require workers to be out there working, they would definitely be affected. If companies are trying to protect their staff, they would probably have to stop work for a while, or probably... let them rest," he said.

Mr Tan also spoke about the worst case scenario on businesses.

He said: "It's the consumer side, where if people do stay at home, if tourists say 'let's stay at home', if it (the haze) doesn't go off in the next few days, it is going to hurt... (For) restaurants with open areas, the alfresco guys... are going to feel the pinch."

The last major haze outbreak in Southeast Asia was in 2006.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in Jakarta that his country had taken measures against the haze problem and "we have not had for some time now a recurrence of this type of situation."

"If there are any companies, national or foreign, which have been involved in any slash-and-burning activities then they must be held to account. Such a wish is not only the wish of our neighbours, but is above all our wish."

The Indonesian forestry ministry said Wednesday that it plans to use cloud seeding to try and unleash rain on Sumatra.

Haze set to persist for next few days: Balakrishnan
Leong Wai Kit and Alice Chia Channel NewsAsia 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said the haze is set to persist over the next few days, and whether a stop-work order will be issued will depend on the severity of the haze conditions.

Dr Balakrishnan was responding to questions from reporters on whether such an order was imminent, after the PSI hit hazardous levels on Wednesday night.

He said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has guidelines in place which all employers adhere to, and the MOM will give an update on Thursday.

Dr Balakrishnan said NEA's CEO Andrew Tan will be leading a Singapore team to Jakarta to attend an emergency haze meeting convened by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Indonesia.

He said Singapore expects to reach further agreement on concrete steps to tackle the haze, which it hopes the Indonesians will take.

A news briefing was called late on Wednesday after the PSI hit a record high of 321 at 10pm.

The PSI had been climbing all day on Wednesday, staying within the unhealthy range.

It has since dipped to 218 at midnight, and 195 at 1am on Thursday.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that this is the worst haze that Singapore has faced.

He said Singaporeans must not be too fixated with the PSI data.

Still, sports facilities and schools may be closed if needed.

He added that it's the mid-year school holidays now, so there's no urgent need to make that call now.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said dry weather conditions and prevailing winds blowing the haze into Singapore are expected to persist for the next few days.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singaporeans may need to make adjustments to their daily routines.

He said those with respiratory and cardiac problems and children should not exert themselves.

He noted that the only real solution is to deal with the source of the problem, which is the indiscriminate burning of land in Indonesia.

Singapore has urged Indonesia to take action to tackle the haze problem, and has also offered to help.

Dr Balakrishnan said Indonesia must stop new fires.

"We are publishing the high-resolution satellite pictures, including the coordinates of all hotspots, and NEA is going to update this on a daily basis. We are still urging the Indonesian authorities to publish the concession maps so that we can link the hotspots specifically to the individual companies," he said.

- CNA/xq/de

Limitations on what can be done about haze: Shanmugam
Tan Qiuyi Channel NewsAsia 19 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: 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).

- CNA/fa/ac

Indonesia govt has strict laws against burning but has enforcement issues: Balakrishnan
S Ramesh Channel NewsAsia 19 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the Indonesian government has strict laws against indiscriminate burning, but the issue was enforcement at a local level.

He also believes that non-government organisations and consumer pressure can play an effective part in this, because "the companies know if they are going to be caught out, they will begin to behave themselves".

In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan said the haze has been a recurrent problem for almost two decades and Singaporeans are "very frustrated, angry and distressed about the situation".

He said it is not a matter of traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, but "an industrial-scale deforestation and irresponsible commercial exploitation of the land". Thus, what is needed is "political will, effective enforcement and better collaboration between countries".

Asked about allegations by an Indonesian official that Singapore companies are to be blamed for the forest fires, Dr Balakrishnan said he has told his colleagues in Indonesia to name the specific companies if they have the evidence, and the ministry will take action against them.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that in the end, the haze was more of a commercial problem rather than an environmental problem as the cheapest way for the companies to clear land was to literally set the forests alight.

He added that the related problem was a lot of the land was peat land and once a fire gets started, it will continue to smoulder for weeks or even months. Hence, the need for commercial pressure to be applied against the errant companies.

Dr Balakrishnan believes by naming them and taking appropriate action against them, there will be some effective pressure on them.

- CNA/ac

NEA says it detected 173 hotspots in Sumatra on Wednesday
Channel NewsAsia 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: The National Environment Agency (NEA) said 173 hotspots were detected in Sumatra, Indonesia, on Wednesday and 187 detected on Tuesday.

The agency said it expects the wind and weather to remain constant, and so the haze will persist.

It also expects the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to increase overnight and reach the "very unhealthy" levels of 200 to 300.

The three-hour PSI reading had hit an unprecedented high of 321 at 10pm on Wednesday evening, but the 24-hour reading is in the range of 130 to 150.

Based on the 24-hour PSI readings, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is advising that Singaporeans limit prolonged or heavy outdoor activities.

In particular, children, the elderly and those with heart or lung diseases, should avoid outdoor activities and seek medical treatment early if they feel unwell.

MOH has activated the hospitals to prepare for the anticipated increase in the number of cases of asthma, bronchitis and conjunctivitis.

Given the current haze situation, Singapore is adopting a whole-of-government coordinated approach.

All 23 government agencies that form the inter-Agency Haze Task Force (HTF) have been activated and are co-coordinating their action plans to mitigate the effects of haze on the public.

The guidelines and advisories issued by these agencies remain relevant.

For example, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has disseminated guidelines on limiting outdoor physical activities in schools.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development requires childcare centres and kindergartens to cancel all outdoor activities for the children and for the operators to monitor the health situation of the children closely.

If a child falls sick, the parents should be informed and medical attention sought immediately.

The Ministry of Defence also has in place a set of guidelines to limit outdoor activities and training based on the PSI readings to ensure SAF troops train safely by modifying the nature and intensity of outdoor activities.

The Ministry of Home Affairs is also adopting appropriate precautionary measures for the well-being of its officers and National Servicemen deployed for active duties, while ensuring overall safety and security functions are not compromised.

The Haze Task Force will continue to monitor the situation closely and further advisories will be issued should the haze conditions deteriorate.

Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam and Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan had earlier conveyed the seriousness of the situation to their Indonesian counterparts and called for immediate action.

NEA's CEO Andrew Tan will be leading a delegation to Jakarta on Thursday for an emergency haze meeting convened by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.

- CNA/de

Singapore expresses concern over Sumatra forest fires
Antara 19 Jun 13;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - The Singapore government has conveyed its concern over fires in Sumatra that has caused haze in that country, Indonesia`s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said.

"Singapore`s foreign minister (K. Shanmugam) has communicated with us and each of us has conveyed information about the impact of the cross-border problem and measures would be taken," he said here on Wednesday.

In line with that, he said, the office of the coordinating minister of people`s welfare and other institutions concerned including the environment ministry have started conducting coordination and taking efforts to tackle the problem.

The Singaporean authorities have also conducted cooperation with the Indonesian government with regard to it, he said.

In view of that Marty called for prevention of any impression as if Indonesia has taken no concrete action or ignored it with impunity to cause a problem in Southeast Asia.

The two governments will to hold a senior official meeting to discuss the issue soon, he added.

(Reporting by Indra Arief Pribadi/Uu.H-YH)

Editor: Priyambodo RH


Shanmugam responds to criticism from netizens
Alfred Chua Today Online 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — There are limits to what the Government can do to combat the haze, which is “quite outside (our) control”, said Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam yesterday morning as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit a new high.

In a Facebook post addressing netizens’ gripes that the Government was not doing enough to tackle the problem, Mr Shanmugam noted that “(we) are often price takers, not price makers — whether it is economics, geopolitics or the environment. But despite that we have done well, much better than bigger countries with more resources, because we have managed to deal with most situations by anticipating them”.

He singled out comments by Facebook user William Sin, who employed expletives as he railed against the Government for the lack of a solution, in response to a post by Mr Shanmugam on Tuesday.

“If Mr Sin or anyone else thinks we can do more about the haze … perhaps they can tell us — but I suppose, for some, the temptation to direct expletives and use this occasion to attack the Government and the PAP (People’s Action Party) is too great,” said Mr Shanmugam.

His post yesterday, which drew more than 1,200 likes and close to 500 comments, saw netizens firmly divided into two camps: Detractors and supporters. Mr Sin weighed in on the post, saying that Mr Shanmugam could have done better being “a million dollar minister”, and called the Government inefficient.

Mr Shanmugam did not directly respond to Mr Sin’s comments. In a separate comment, he pointed out that the Association of South-east Asian Nations signed a treaty on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, but “Indonesia has not yet ratified it”. He said this was “surprising, given that the haze affects Indonesian public as well”.

Mr Shanmugam also dispelled rumours that “Temasek companies were involved” in the forest fires, saying “that has been checked and is completely untrue”.

Govt has convened taskforce to draw up contingency plans: Vivian Balakrishnan
Today Online 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — The Government will implement contingency plans such as closing schools and sports complex, if necessary, and the Ministry of Manpower may issue stop-work orders depending on the seriousness of the haze situation, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishan tonight (June 19).

The Government has convened a taskforce of 23 agencies to deal with the situation and draw up contingency plans.

The Government will also be publishing high-resolution pictures of all hotspots at Sumatra, which the National Environment Agency (NEA) will link to specific companies, said Dr Balakrishban. This, he said, would “allow us to take commercial action against companies”.

Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to the media at a press conference called after Singapore’s air quality reached “hazardous” levels. At 10pm, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading spiked to 321.

A delegation will also be attending an emergency haze meeting at Jakarta soon. Noting that “concrete action” is what’s needed, the real solution is to stop fires in Sumatra, said Dr Balakrishnan. Singapore does not have enough clouds to successfully execute cloud-seeding, he added.

The minister said the haze is expected to worsen overnight due to a high number of hotspots in Sumatra, and that things would get worse before they get better. Only rain and sudden wind changes will improve the situation, but the chances of it happening are slim, he said.

He expects tomorrow’s (June 20) 24-hour PSI to go beyond 200.

This is the worst haze Singaporeans have seen and adjustments in our daily lives must be made, added Dr Balakrishnan.

Responding to a question on the PSI reading, Dr Balakrishnan said: "We must not get fixated on numbers and focus on improving the situation first." The NEA will be completely transparent in the management of this crisis, he said.

He advised children, elderly and those with lung disease to avoid outdoor activities and to seek medical treatment early. The longer Singaporeans go through high levels of haze, the more people will need medical attention, he said, but assured that hospitals are well prepared to handle the situation.

“This is a crisis but I’m confident we can survive this,” said Dr Balakrishnan. “We are going to overcome this problem by working very hard with the Indonesians and get them to do the right thing.”

Haze spikes to 321, reaches 'hazardous' levels
Today Online 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — The air quality reached "hazardous" levels as the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading spiked to 321 at 10pm — from 290 an hour earlier. It is now at an all-time high, exceeding the 1997 reading of 226.

When the PSI is above 301, air quality is deemed “hazardous”. At 11pm,. the 3-hour PSI reading fell to 282, back to "very unhealthy" levels.

A ministerial statement is expected "shortly", according to Member of Parliament Alex Yam. Posting on his Facebook page, Mr Yam said: "Dear all, I have just confirmed with Minister for the Environment and Water Resources that the 290 PSI reading is not a typo. Please stand by for a Ministerial Statement to be issued shortly."

Mr Yam urged the public "to take all necessary precautions. Do not undertake strenuous activities".

According to the National Environment Agency, when the PSI is in the “hazardous" range, children, elderly and persons with existing diseases should stay indoors and avoid outdoor activity. The general population should avoid unnecessary outdoor activity.

In a Facebook post, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) said that as at 9pm today, it has "ceased all outfield training until further notice to ensure the well-being and safety of our soldiers".

"Since this afternoon, we have issued our Soldiers on duty with the N95 masks. Our ground Commanders have also been reminded to keep a close watch on our Soldiers. We are closely monitoring the situation and will take additional precautionary measures as necessary," the SAF wrote.

At 3pm today, the PSI hit 172 before dropping to 158 an hour later and to 146 at 5pm. At 7pm, the PSI had risen back to 161 and has climbed higher since then. PSI readings of 50 and below denote “good” air quality, “moderate” for 51-100, “unhealthy” for 101-200. The three-hour PSI readings are calculated based on PM10 concentrations only.

Indonesia has announced that it plans to use cloud-seeding to create rain and extinguish the fires on Sumatra island, but the operation will take place earliest on Friday as preparations need to be made.

Meanwhile, Malaysia has banned open burning in Selangor, Malacca and Johor — the states are currently suffering from the haze — until further notice.

In an interview with the BBC, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the haze has been a recurrent problem for almost two decades and Singaporeans are “very frustrated, angry and distressed about the situation”.

He said it is not a matter of traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, but “an industrial-scale deforestation and irresponsible commercial exploitation of the land”. Thus, what is needed is “political will, effective enforcement and better collaboration between countries”.

Earlier today, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam responded in a Facebook post to criticism by some members of the public, who questioned why the Government cannot do more about the haze situation.

“Look at the map, see where we are. Every country is sovereign and we can’t intervene in the actions in other countries,” said Mr Shanmugam. “The burning is taking place in Indonesia. What do you think Singapore can do about that?”

Pointing out that Singapore has raised the matter with Indonesian ministers, and has, over several years, “offered technical assistance, expressed our deep distress at what is happening, and have also raised the issue internationally”, he said: “The problem recurs, nevertheless.”

Despite the fact that “we are often price takers, not price makers”, Singapore has “done well” compared to bigger countries with more resources “because we have managed to deal with most situations by anticipating them”, he noted. “But the haze situation is quite outside our control.”

Thanking “those who have noted the reality of the situation, and the limitations within which we operate”, Mr Shanmugam said that if anyone “thinks we can do more about the haze that is caused by burning in Indonesia, perhaps they can tell us”.

“But I suppose, for some, the temptation to direct expletives and use this occasion to attack the Govt and the PAP is too great,” he added.

Separately, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also noted in a Facebook post: “The city is slowly disappearing as the haze thickens this morning.”

“I hope that cooperation with our neighbour will help to resolve this problem not just for now but the future,” he wrote.

Plans in place if haze worsens
Feng Zengkun and Bryna Singh Straits Times 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE endured its worst day of haze yesterday as air quality surged into hazardous territory for the first time, prompting government agencies to reach for contingency measures.

At 10pm last night, the Pollutant Standards Index stood at 321 - the highest in the country's history - as fires continued to rage in neighbouring Sumatra. The previous record was 226, in 1997.

Air becomes "very unhealthy" past the PSI's 200 mark and "hazardous" when it crosses 300.

In response to questions at an 11.30pm press conference last night, Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the Manpower Ministry may issue a general stop-work order - but only if the haze situation worsens severely. A decision will also have to be made on whether to close childcare centres and schools.

The Ministry of Manpower will provide an update to employers today about what to do, while the Ministry of Health has also alerted hospitals to cope with a potential increase in patients with respiratory problems.

Dr Balakrishnan said the National Environment Agency's (NEA's) chief executive, Mr Andrew Tan, will lead a delegation to Indonesia today to an emergency haze meeting convened by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.

"We are now at the stage where nobody anywhere in the world should believe that they have a right to pollute, to take short cuts and to make money at the expense of people's health," Dr Balakrishnan said.

In Singapore, a 23-agency haze task force met on Tuesday to coordinate plans to reduce the haze's impact on people.

In a Facebook posting after 1.15am this morning, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was dismayed to see the PSI cross the 300 mark last night.

The Cabinet had discussed the haze situation fully yesterday but given the worsening situation, he will meet the relevant ministers first thing today, he said.

Urging people to stay indoors where possible and avoid heavy outdoor activity if the PSI stays high, he said: "Look out for one another - we will get through this together."

Raging fires in Indonesia - some started by companies to clear the land of vegetation - have led to the haze here.

The NEA has published high-resolution satellite photos of hot spots or fires in the region and will update this daily. The hope is that it will help identify some of the firms responsible for starting the blazes.

While Indonesia will attempt cloud-seeding - a method used to artificially create rain - to combat fires there, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore would not follow suit to reduce the smog here.

"For cloud-seeding to work, we need the clouds. Our meteorological service says we don't have enough cloud cover for that at the moment, but we will keep that option open," he said.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has stopped all outfield training indefinitely and all soldiers on duty have been given protective N95 face masks. Ground commanders have been reminded "to keep a close watch" on soldiers, said a spokesman on the SAF Facebook page. Other organisations here, such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force, reduced physical and outdoor training when the index crossed 100.

An SMRT spokesman said bus captains have also been reminded to drive safely due to reduced visibility on the roads, and maintenance work on its tracks was suspended last night.

Air traffic controllers at Changi Airport have also taken steps to ensure safety on the runway due to the poorer visibility, said a Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore spokesman earlier yesterday. "The controllers have increased the separation between flight takeoffs and landings as an added precautionary measure," she said.

Thinner crowds outdoors as most take cover
Amelia Tan, Lim Yan Liang And Bryna Singh
Straits Times 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPOREANS headed indoors to seek respite from the hazardous haze last night, as evident in the visibly thinner crowds in popular shopping and dining areas like Orchard Road, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay.

Many people wore masks and used handkerchiefs and tissue to cover their mouths, while others were seen scurrying indoors.

Pub and restaurant staff at Clarke Quay and Boat Quay said customers have been staying away since Monday, but last night was the quietest of the week so far.

Mr Yap Eng Chew, who owns Harvest Seafood at Boat Quay, said business had halved yesterday. "Usually, I would be able to get passers-by to come for dinner at my restaurant but today, there are few people here," he said.

It was the same story a few doors away at Italian restaurant Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore. Only one table in the outdoor area was occupied.

Waiter Aung Khin Myint said: "Our customers said they want to sit indoors because their eyes and throats were irritated."

Mr Ryan Ravelo, manager of Senor Taco at Clarke Quay, added: "We are usually full almost every night. But today, only three out of our seven tables are full. Even our regulars are staying away."

Some shoppers and diners said they were going home early because they had difficulty breathing, or their eyes were watering.

Ms Sarah Emmanuel, 24, who works for an events and public relations company, said: "It is really bad. Even in the underground tunnels in Orchard Road, you can smell the smoke."

Software engineer Dilpreet Singh, 32, shelved dinner plans at Boat Quay and bought a meal to eat in his office.

"I am buying dinner for eight of my colleagues too because no one wants to come out. The air quality is so bad," he said.

IT engineer Kuo Ting Ting and her friend Ray Zhang usually dine at Boat Quay after going to the gym, but decided to go home instead.

Said Ms Kuo, 29: "We usually have dinner here along the Singapore River to unwind. But we are going home as soon as possible today. We don't want our health to be affected."

The heartlands appeared to be less affected. Shopping areas such as Junction 8 in Bishan were still packed with shoppers and diners.

Twins Jane and Jenny Goh, 18, were among those who sat outside The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafe at Junction 8. They had heard that the PSI had hit 290 at the time, but shrugged it off.

Jane, a student at the Millennia Institute, said: "It is quite hot out here, but there were no seats inside earlier, and now we are too lazy to move."

Marketing communications manager Wendy Ong, 27, was more cautious. She said she immediately closed all the windows in her house after learning about the PSI levels on the news on television.

Bishan Swimming Complex was almost empty. A lifeguard who gave her name only as Marian said there had been only 10 swimmers all day. Staff at the outdoor pool have been advising visitors of the PSI reading this week and telling them to go home.

Even the ongoing National Day Parade rehearsals could fall victim to the haze.

Parade and ceremony chairman, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Lee, told The Straits Times yesterday that the executive committee was discussing contingency plans in case the haze worsens.

"It could be a scenario that the schoolchildren are not involved, so we are left with the adults. Another scenario could be that we truncate the parade and make it shorter," he said.

Additional reporting by Jermyn Chow

What you should do when PSI levels rise

ACCORDING to a government health advisory, when the 24-hour PSI passes 100, the elderly, children and those with heart or lung diseases should reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor activity and seek medical help early if they feel unwell.

Yesterday's 24-hour average at 4pm was between 101 and 121, though this was before the situation worsened at night. This is taken from readings in the previous 24 hours. The three-hourly reading, which soared to 321 at 10pm, is an average of the previous three hours.

The advisory said outdoor physical activities, physical education lessons, sports and games should be cancelled for schoolchildren, and outdoor activities cancelled at childcare centres.

Employers should also minimise outdoor work involving strenuous activity.

S'pore, Indonesia officials to meet
Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta
Straits Times 20 Jun 13;

OFFICIALS from Indonesia and Singapore will meet in Jakarta today to discuss how to stem the haze together, said Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono.

Separately, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took umbrage at suggestions that Indonesia had not taken the steps it should have to prevent the haze, or done enough to punish those responsible. "Calls of such a type are a bit redundant," he told reporters at his ministry yesterday.

Explaining, he said: "It suggests as if the Indonesian government and people do not ourselves wish to ensure those who are responsible are brought to justice or held to account."

His comments came as Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Indonesia had strict laws against burning, but enforcement was an issue.

The haze also began to attract wider attention in the Indonesian media, as it blanketed much of Riau province and spread to its capital Pekanbaru yesterday.

In Batam for a ministry event, Indonesia's Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya told reporters that he suspected the burning in Riau was carried out by irresponsible companies from Singapore or Malaysia. "We will check who owns these companies, then we will coordinate," he said.

A deputy from the ministry will be in Bengkalis, Riau, today to investigate the causes and companies behind the burning, he added.

Dr Marty said incidents like the haze were not unique to Indonesia, citing forest fires in the United States and Australia.

"The first instinct must be one of wanting to express sympathy and wanting to express solidarity rather than wanting to apportion blame," he said. "That must be the overriding sentiment, most of all within Asean, about how can we support one another and encourage one another."

Singapore, Indonesia to hold talks on smog crisis
Martin Abbugao (AFP) Google News 20 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — Singapore and Indonesia were scheduled to hold emergency talks on Thursday after thick smog from forest fires on Sumatra island reached unprecedented levels in the city-state.

Singapore said it was sending the chief executive of the National Environment Agency (NEA), Andrew Tan, to attend an emergency meeting to be hosted by Indonesia's foreign ministry in Jakarta on the haze crisis.

"We need urgent and definitive action by Indonesia to tackle the problem at source," said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for the environment and water resources.

"Singaporeans have lost patience, and are understandably angry, distressed and concerned."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he will meet "relevant ministers" on Thursday and hold a press conference on the situation.

"Please stay indoors where possible and avoid heavy outdoor activities. Look out for one another - we will get through this together," he said on his Facebook page.

Singapore's air pollutant index was still in the "unhealthy" band at mid-morning Thursday with a reading of 153 after spiking past the government-designated "hazardous" level of 300 the night before.

Smog was still visible as Singaporeans went to work Thursday, and more commuters were seen wearing disposable medical masks than in previous days.

The acrid odour of burnt wood could be smelled even inside the air-conditioned trains of Singapore's metro system.

Drug stores in the central business district were sold out of disposable masks and refused to take advance orders, telling customers to return the next day in case new stocks arrived.

The previous Singapore air pollutant index high of 226 was recorded in September 1997 at the height of a Southeast Asian calamity also resulting from vast amounts of haze from Indonesia, where slash-and-burn farming generates large amounts of smoke during the dry season that begins in June.

Singapore has urged children, the elderly, and those with heart or lung disease to avoid outdoor activities and seek medical treatment early if they feel unwell.

Local and international schools were already on summer holiday when the haze reached unhealthy levels at the start of the week.

Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by the smog.

The Indonesian forestry ministry said Wednesday that it plans to use cloud seeding to try and unleash rain on Sumatra.

Smallholders and plantations in Sumatra -- some of them with Singaporean investors -- have been accused of using fire to clear land for cultivation, but big palm oil companies deny involvement in such activities.