PM Lee urges Singaporeans to prepare for prolonged haze

S Ramesh Channel NewsAsia 23 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has urged the nation to be psychologically prepared for a prolonged period of haze due to the dry season and monsoon winds.

His comments came despite the slightly clearer skies on Sunday, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hovering in the moderate range for most of the afternoon.

"Today with the masks and the blue skies, we (can) relax a bit. Tomorrow it may come back again… because the burning is continuing. There is no rain, it's dry weather, the winds are blowing from Sumatra to Singapore.

"We must psychologically be prepared to see this come, go, get a bit worse, get a bit better but I think this is a problem which is going to last a few weeks, maybe a couple of months until the start of the rainy season which may be September/October."

The prime minister also added that Singapore is very serious about the haze problem and that Indonesia understands this.

"It is affecting us and we want the problem to be solved. Indonesia is a big country and the government doesn't reach all parts of the country.

"In the short term, we have to get the Indonesians to try and put out the fires and to stop people from starting more fires... In the long term, they have to have the right way of farming and cultivating so that you don't have farmers burning like this all the time."

When asked if there were differences between the current haze problem and the SARS episode ten years ago, the prime minister said: "There are some interesting differences. The first thing is SARS can kill you, if you get sick it’s a very serious matter. The haze, if you are ill, can make your illness worse for most people. The haze is an inconvenience but life can carry on.

"Secondly, SARS is infectious… the haze is not infectious. Also with haze we are not talking about something so poisonous that you must avoid contact."

Speaking at a townhall meeting, Mr Lee said PSI readings will fluctuate day-to-day and hour-to-hour.

However Singaporeans must take this in their stride, adapt and continue with their lives.

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said: "I understand the clamour for people saying we should stop work. We do that when particular incidents happen, when we need to freeze. But we need to also look at things in context. This particular situation is serious but it is not SARS, it's not even dengue where fatalities can happen. This is something for those with vulnerabilities and is being aggravated by the haze conditions.

"If you are a crane operator and you are hoisting up heavy loads and visibility is bad, I would say you would stop until visibility improves, when you sense it is safe to do it. That applies when there is haze or no haze."

The prime minister also emphasised that Singaporeans must avoid speculation and clarify rumours.

He added that they can do so by checking the haze microsite.

Mr Lee also urged Singaporeans to help their neighbours, especially older Singaporeans and young children.

He said community clubs have air conditioned haze shelters and that more are being created throughout Singapore.

On the supply of the N95 masks, Mr Lee noted that the government is urgently delivering them to clinics, pharmacies and retailers, and that there is no need to hoard or panic-buy the masks.

- CNA/fa/jc

Govt prepared should haze soar beyond hazardous levels: Ng Eng Hen
Kimberly Spykerman Channel NewsAsia 23 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: The government is prepared should haze readings soar far beyond the level considered hazardous, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Sunday.

Dr Ng is also Chairman of the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee.

The minister’s comments came as Malaysia declared a state of emergency in parts of Johor, where the Air Pollution Index surged past 750 early Sunday morning.

He said: "If a situation arises like in Muar where the PSI equivalent is over 700, nearly 800, we may have to close certain sectors. We will obviously consider what we need to do. And if we need to continue essential services, we have the ability to mobilise assets and personnel to make sure at least essential services continue. So I would say to Singaporeans not to worry."

Dr Ng also added that the supply for N95 masks has stabilised.

More than four million masks were pushed out to residents and retailers over the weekend; one million were distributed to residents through the SAF and People's Association, while more than three million were distributed to retailers.

The minister also urged Singaporeans not to panic buy or hoard masks.

"There's no shortage... prices have actually stabilised and come down… All in all, I would say over the weekend that I'm quite satisfied with the progress,” said the minister.

Dr Ng said that although the haze situation has improved, there is still a need to be prepared and that the government is tightening its plans and examining the various sectors to ensure Singaporeans can get on with their lives.

He said: "We were fortunate this weekend, the winds changed and went up north… But you know the winds can change back and come down south and I think we have to prepare for that. We don't know how long the haze will be with us. We certainly hope it won't, but let's prepare for it so I think it's wise for us to literally make hay while the sun shines."

- CNA/jc

Don’t profit from haze: Balakrishnan
Imelda Saad Channel NewsAsia 23 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: 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.

- CNA/jc

Singapore getting "conflicting signals" from Indonesia
S Ramesh Channel NewsAsia 23 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Law and Foreign Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam said Singapore is getting contradictory signals from Indonesia about the issue of local companies involved in causing the haze fires in Sumatra.

The minister noted that Indonesian officials had said there were no companies with Singapore linkages involved.

However publicly, they have said something else, and hence there is a need to clarify.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore needs a clear clarification and statement from Indonesia together with evidence because the companies which have been named have all denied involvement.

Mr Shanmugam added: "They say they are prepared to take people down to their plantations so who do we believe? And before we can take any action, there has to be evidence and Indonesia is best placed to give us the evidence and we have to ask them for it. We will ask them for it and give it to us as quickly as possible."

Mr Shanmugam also spoke about the impact of the haze on the economy.

He revealed that a major conference on the nuclear threat initiative on June 25, which was to be attended by three very prominent Americans, has been cancelled. The three speakers, all in their eighties, decided to cancel their trip.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's tourist industry and the people in the tourist industry will be feeling the impact.

It will also affect other aspects of the economy too very quickly.

- CNA/fa/jc

How Govt will act if haze rises to Muar levels
Ashley Chia Today Online 24 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — The Government is looking at ways to ensure minimal disruption to essential services should the haze crisis escalate further.

Referring to the situation in Muar, Johor — where Malaysia’s air pollutant index reached 746 at 7am yesterday and forced the government to declare emergency status in the town — Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who chairs the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, said the Government was “examining sector by sector how to make sure that Singaporeans can get on with their lives”. He said he will elaborate on this when he meets the media today.

He added: “If a situation arises like in Muar ... we may have to close certain sectors, we may have to obviously consider what we need to do and if we need to continue essential services. We have the ability to mobilise assets and personnel to make sure that at least the essential services continue.”

Dr Ng was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a visit to the Care Corner Seniors Activity Centre (CCSAC) at Block 62B in Toa Payoh, where he distributed masks to some 90 elderly residents.

He said: “We were fortunate this weekend, the winds changed ... but you know any time the winds can change back and come down south, and I think we have to prepare for that. We don’t know how long the haze will be with us. We certainly hope it won’t but let’s prepare for it.”

On the distribution of N95 masks, Dr Ng said that four million — about half of the Ministry of Health’s nine million stockpile — have been supplied to retailers and low-income households. Of these, one million are currently being distributed to 220,000 low-income households — an exercise that will be completed over the next few days.

The remaining three million masks have been supplied to retailers. Dr Ng noted that, as a result, retail prices have “stabilised and, in fact, come down”. “There is no shortage of masks now available. There is no need to panic-buy and no need to hog,” he said.

Govt will act if bosses disregard workers' health
Feng Zengkun Straits Times 24 Jun 13;

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

Minister to seek clarification on Singapore firms
Jalelah Abu Baker & Feng Zengkun Straits Times 24 Jun 13;

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 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.