Singapore 'has learnt 5 key lessons from haze crisis': Ng Eng Hen

Ng Eng Hen says the authorities will continue to monitor situation, fine-tune contingency plans

Singapore will be even better prepared for the haze if it returns with a vengeance, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, pointing to five key lessons learnt from the latest episode.

At a press conference last Friday to assess the recent haze crisis, he added that the authorities will continue to monitor the situation and fine-tune contingency plans.

Dr Ng, who heads an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the haze problem, said: "I think we are better prepared, both our people and agencies. If the haze does return we are confident that Singaporeans will take it in our stride."

Last month, the annual haze in Singapore worsened to unprecedented levels, with the three-hourly Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting a record 401 on June 21.

Air becomes hazardous when the index crosses 300.

Fires in Indonesia had led to the pollution here, before rain, fire-fighting efforts and winds gave Singapore a respite.

During a community event at Pasir Ris Elias Community Club yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also spoke about the recent crisis, saying episodes such as the haze were "a timely reminder of the importance of being prepared in different emergency situations".

Haze is a long-term issue

Dr Ng said the first thing Singaporeans need to realise is that the haze is a long-term problem.

Reports showed that both small farmers and large corporations in Indonesia are still burning forests to clear the land for crops.

"Our records on haze go as far back as the 1970s, and I suspect this slash-and-burn practice will be hard to eradicate and change overnight. This is an area where we need a multi-pronged approach," said Dr Ng, adding that Singapore must keep up diplomatic efforts with Indonesia.

Last week, Indonesia began preparations to ratify an Asean agreement on transboundary haze after meetings with Singapore and other Asean members.

The Republic also needs to enlist non-government groups to help spread environmentally friendly land-clearing practices in Indonesia, for example, mechanical methods such as using bull-dozers.

Better early warning system

At home, Dr Ng has called for a better early warning system for haze.

PSI readings, he pointed out, show what the air quality was like in the past hours or days, not what it would be in the near future. But a predictive model will help Singaporeans plan ahead.

The Government responded with health advisories for the next day, but he wants more to be done. He said the Environment Ministry is already looking at a better model to predict haze conditions. "I think it will help us all," Dr Ng said.

Information management is key

But how the information is presented to the public is also key.

While some preferred simple guidelines on how to react to the haze in the recent crisis, others expected detailed information.

"I agree that we can improve on this," said Dr Ng, explaining that the Government recognises the need to cater to different groups.

Asked why the relevant ministries' contingency plans were announced only almost a week after the haze hit record levels, given that the haze was a perennial problem, he stressed that the plans were in place but had to be "customised" for the specific crisis.

"These contingency plans are generic in the sense that they respond to say, the haze, flu pandemics, terrorist threats. Each time we have an emergency or crisis, they are updated."

The Singapore System is robust

Despite the challenges, Singapore was able to respond quicker this time, thanks to its experience in handling major events such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

Dr Ng pointed out that the Government had distributed millions of face masks to homes and retailers within days. "Obviously there is room for improvement each time something happens, but we know our plans and structures are functioning as intended."

The authorities also rolled out other measures immediately, including subsidised medical treatment for haze-related conditions.

It also set up a fund to help childcare centres install air-conditioning to guard against the haze.

Singaporeans are resilient

But it was not just the Government which responded. Dr Ng lauded the initiatives taken by Singaporeans in helping one another fight the haze.

Not only did people get together to source and distribute masks, some even opened their air-conditioned homes so that others could take refuge from the haze, Dr Ng pointed out.

"That tells us the level of trust and care we have for one another," he said. "This is a good sign for nation-building. And I think if Singaporeans continue to respond this way it adds to our resilience."

Dr Ng said Singapore depended on Indonesia to solve the haze problem at its source.

"But if we take sensible precautions, look after ourselves and each other, the haze won't disrupt our lives. If the haze returns, I'm confident that Singaporeans will take it in (their) stride."