Over the past week, everyone of us in Singapore has been suffering from the horrendous haze, the worst-ever, caused by the slash and burn fires in Indonesia. In addition, we have been frustrated and very disappointed by the lack of leadership shown by our government in putting in place measures that will calm, assure and help the people who are increasingly stressed out by the haze.
There have been numerous on and offline criticisms made about the ineptitude of our government. And lest I be accused of jumping on the bandwagon just to take pot shots at the ministers, let me explain very clearly what I am disappointed with and why I expect much more from them.
Companies that run a business know the necessity of crisis planning and of having business continuity plans. Not every one does it but the larger organisations like the MNCs would have planned for various crisis scenarios and have appointed committees to tackle those crises should they ever arise. This is called pro-active planning so that no one gets caught flat-footed when trouble erupts suddenly. Damage and losses are contained, reputations are preserved and employees, shareholders and consumers are comforted when management show that they have a good grip on the the crisis and are managing it well.
If crisis planning is important for those running businesses, it is even more imperative for governments that are responsible for the lives of millions.
But in the case of our government, what have they done instead? They have been ploddingly reactive and not proactive. Since the haze started about a week ago, they have held two press conferences, and the environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has gone on Talking Point TV program. Essentially, they talked a lot, to tell us this haze is not a problem they can really solve as it is not of their making, and that we have to “learn to adapt” to the conditions as it will last a long time. And they have issued advisories on official websites. More recently yesterday, several days after the haze started, they announced some piecemeal measures such as giving a discounted price of $10 to those who need to seek medical help for haze-related illnesses at certain clinics (but NOTE only if you are 18 or younger or older than 65. The rest of us are on our own).
In the second press conference held on Thursday, PM Lee said he had formed a Haze Inter-ministerial Comittee to review guidelines for protecting vulnerable groups, ensure continuity of society and businesses and issue clear guidance on the protective measures at each PSI threshold. This was a real shocker to me and many others.
Hello! You mean to tell us, our government has NO crisis plan in place to manage the haze which has been around since the early ’90s???
Only now are they forming an inter-ministerial committee. This explains why our various ministries had no answer for us when we asked them why haven’t they issued stop-work orders to construction companies where the workers are still slaving in the smog when the PSI has gone through the roof. It explains why our Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin and our Health Minister Gan Kim Yong have been strangely quiet when we are seeking answers on health and work guidelines. It explains why Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan put up such a pathetic performance on the Talking Point TV discussion on the haze on Thursday.
The key points made by Vivian B on Talking Point pretty much sums up our government’s stance on the haze so far:
1. Sumatra is a very big island with many fires so we have a very big problem.
2. Indonesia is being very difficult about resolving the haze issue and has been uncooperative for many years (and still is).
3. Nothing much can be done as they are a sovereign country, just as Singapore is, but he will keep trying to “persuade them” said VB who practically implied that they hold all the cards while Little Red Dot has none (thanks for the reassurance Vivian).
4. No stop-work order will be issued to construction companies during extremely high PSI days (an irate caller to the program had asked why there was no stop-work order and if construction workers’ lives are worth less than hamsters). No order to shut preschools (even for those without air-con) in response to a distraught preschool teacher who called about her pitiful charges being stuck in a centre without air-con and with windows shut). Vivian’s response for not having a stop-work order had something to do with having to look at PSI which is different every hour and and having to think about “practical, tailored, customised” solutions (though now we know it is because they haven’t got a clue yet on how to go about doing this).
5. To a caller’s proposal for Singapore to use international environment agencies to pressure Indonesia since we are unable to do so, Vivian replied he will consider it when necessary (hello it is been many years since the haze problem started and you still haven’t considered it?).
6. Bottomline – This is a bad, bad haze and it will be here for weeks and may even reappear in one or two months, so Singaporeans had better learn to get used to it and adapt.
Wow, tell us something we don’t already know! It is not the first time that we have been inflicted by this haze which has become an annual curse since the ’90s. But this time, it has gotten really bad with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) setting new records and hitting 400 today. Basically, the haze has reached very unhealthy and dangerous levels which can affect everyone’s health. To make matters worse, Prime Minister Lee and various ministers have warned us that this haze will last for weeks!
This is a national crisis as it affects everyone from the young to the elderly, from the Singaporean to the foreign worker, from the MNC employers down to the poor hawkers and newspaper vendors who are suffering while working in the open.
In such a scenario, who are we supposed to turn to for comfort and help? Our highly-paid elected government officials of course. But we have not been getting this comfort as they have shown little leadership but a lack of foresight and planning and no real useful ideas. If anything, the community, fed-up with the government’s lack of initiative, have taken things in their own hands. We have self-help groups going around handing out masks and water to construction workers and the needy. We have many people offering good ideas on how the community can help each other and several have also written to the government with ideas on how they can help us.
As we have been warned repeatedly that the haze will last for weeks, we need action now and not more official meetings and bureaucratic constipation. When we look out our windows, the scene looks apocolyptic and depressingly surreal. Everything looks murky brown and smoggy. The blue sky is missing from view and the birds have gone eerily silent. Outdoors, many are wearing masks and worried frowns as they scurry to the nearest shelter.
Even indoors with the air-con on, it is warmer than usual and we can still smell the acrid smoke which seeps in, those insidious, tiny microparticles filling our noses and lungs and stinging our eyes. I am fortunate I have air-con at home, yet I feel miserable when I smell and see this brownish haze, morning, day and night. I feel guilty as I wonder how much worse those living and working without air-con must be feeling. And I wonder how those staying in old-folks homes, community shelters and cramped dormitories are coping as they do not have air-con in their shared quarters.
It is a dire situation that we are all in currently. We need the government to get their act together Now! Use the PA grassroots organisations, get the volunteers and staff to fan out to help the residents. Explain the hazards of the haze and meaning of the PSI, teach the people especially the elderly how to protect themselves and how to wear the N95 mask which is not easy for a first-time user (I have met elderly people who wore the soft surgical masks upside down and did not know how to tighten the wire around the nose bridge). Get the press, radio and TV to run public service announcements to explain relevant points on the haze and health tips. Give out free masks to all especially the needy. Check on the community hospitals and old folks homes to see what help they need be it masks or coolers or air-purifiers. Direct the employers of foreign workers to give them extra care, masks and sufficient ventilation and water. Give guidelines on stop-work orders to employers (to avoid disrupting businesses completely, there can be plans for shorter hours, shift work, longer breaks or a day break on really bad haze days etc).
On the issue of face masks, our first line of defence, they appear to be sold out all over the island as at today, despite PM Lee personally assuring us we will not run out of the masks as they have stock. Well, where are these masks? Do people know that we can only wear the masks for limited periods only (assuming short-exposure each time). This means we are going to need millions more masks to meet the needs of a population of over 5 million. What if the haze lasts longer than a month? What if it gets worse? How many masks will be enough to last us through the crisis? What is the long term effect of the haze on our mental and physical well-being? Can something be planned now to mitigate the negative effects? There are so many questions and so few answers are forthcoming.
Prime Minister, we desperately need your leadership. We need answers and action now as the people are all suffering now.
Footnote:When we first criticised the PAP-run Government for having no crisis plan to manage the haze problem, many of their supporters dashed to defend them by pointing to the stockpile of 9million N95 masks as proof that the G did prep for the haze. Well, the truth was finally revealed in Parliament on 8 July. The G disclosed that the 9 million mask stockpile was not meant for the public but for healthcare workers in case of an epidemic outbreak. Let’s just hope that they learn from this haze lesson to be more pro-active in planning ahead for various crisis scenarios.