Government disappoints with hazardous haze response

Since the worst of the haze appears to have passed – for now – it may be instructive to analyse the response of the Singapore government to the worst public health crisis to affect the island in recent years. As the crisis unfolded over the previous week it struck me that the government response was slow and reactive and did not come across as having been well planned or co-ordinated at all. Was it my imagination, or was the government dropping the ball almost on a daily basis, in a manner unbecoming of the world’s most handsomely remunerated administration? Let’s take a look back at what actually happened.

To contextualise the government response to the haze crisis, the most important thing to remember is that this is now a very predictable annual event, the only difference this year was the severity. Previously the worst haze experienced in Singapore occurred in 1997. In 2005 a “Haze Task Force” was set up, consisting of 23 government and agency bodies, one of the goals of which was to draw up a “National Haze Action Plan”. Clearly the government has had a lot of time to, and ostensibly expended a lot of expensive civil service effort on, preparing for this year’s haze incident. So the lack lustre, ill-prepared and reactive response which followed was both surprising and disappointing.

Starting somewhere near the beginning of the crisis, at 9pm on Wednesday 19 June the highest PSI reading ever recorded in the history of Singapore was published – 290, a value which broke the previous record of 226 set in 1997 by some margin. Many Singaporeans were on the edge of their seats looking for the next update to see if the significant value of 300 would be breached – a breach that would put Singapore’s air quality officially into “hazardous” territory for the first time. It was therefore extremely surprising and disappointing that the publication of the 10pm reading was significantly delayed – until at least 10:45. Make no mistake, there was a significant public health event unfolding in realtime and the inability of NEA to publish this value on time was a significant failure. Where is the value in publishing public health statistics on a regular schedule if the most important reading in the history of Singapore is inexplicably delayed? NEA in fact did come out to explain this delay as being due to technical issues while noting that significant numbers of visitors were hitting the web site to check for the value. While conspiracy theorists may have a field day with this explanation, pointing to the fact that NEA’s reporting page was responsive and error free at the relevant time, I choose to accept the explanation given. But it still does not address the question of planning and preparedness. Did NEA or the Haze Task Force not think that a record-breaking haze situation, where Singapore’s PSI readings were pushing into hazardous territory for the first time ever, would inspire many thousands of people to visit their web page? Was the site not stress-tested for a situation such as this? Furthermore, noting the significant nature of the incident and considering the importance of sharing public health information with those affected, could NEA not have found other means to make the hazardous reading publicly known? CNA had an on-screen live ticker showing the PSI value updating hourly – could NEA not have put a quick call into CNA to get them to update the latest value? Could NEA not have updated citizens through their Facebook page that the latest value was “hazardous” and shared instructions on how to manage the situation accordingly? Could the PM’s Facebook page not have been deployed in support of this public awareness effort? There are a multitude of ways in which the public could have been kept informed of this crucial information, but NEA clearly dropped the ball in not deploying any of them. That this happened literally at the worst possible time paints NEA’s preparedness and crisis management skills in a very poor light.

Following on from the record-breaking PSI value of 321 which was eventually released almost an hour late, the next morning the Straits Times ran with the front page headline “Record PSI at 10pm 321. Plans in place if haze worsens”. It was notable that the government didn’t see fit to activate these plans even though air quality had already reached hazardous levels for the first time ever. It was also curious that neither the details of what those plans would be, nor the level at which they would be activated were spelled out. If NEA or the Haze Task Force had an objective, science driven set of planned actions to carry out at specific levels of public health threat, they were clearly not being shared with residents, an observation which underscores the impression that the government did not actually have an objective plan in place for this extremely predictable incident. Furthermore, as soon as 1pm on the same day that ST ran that headline, the haze did indeed worsen significantly to 371. If the plans that were supposed to be in place were activated at that time, then the details of this were also not communicated effectively. This all adds up to create the impression of a government with no concrete plan defining what steps should be taken under what objective, measurable conditions. Instead, the government appeared to be responding reactively to a fast-moving situation, and being unable to define or execute supposedly existing plans because they were not in fact in place. The impression that the 23 government bodies tasked to create a “Haze Action Plan” had failed to deliver was inescapable.

Up to this point, all public debate and reporting around PSI figures had focussed on the 3 hour average. Singapore’s previous record value of 226 set in 1997 was a 3 hour value – as was the occasionally reported value of 106 from 2010 – the last time the value had exceeded 100. CNA’s on-screen PSI value at that time showed the 3 hour value. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and National Resources lamented the fact that the 3 hour PSI value had reached 152 in a Facebook posting on Monday 17 June. PM Lee himself in a Facebook post on Wednesday expressed dismay that the 3 hour PSI value had spiked above 300.

PM Lee referring to the 3 hour PSI average.  Singaporeans were later informed that the 24 hour average was more useful

PM Lee referring to the 3 hour PSI average. Singaporeans were later informed that the 24 hour average was more useful

But in spite of the fact that everyone in Singapore, including government ministers and the PM himself were consistently framing the debate around the 3 hour average, the government subsequently claimed that the 24 hour value was a more meaningful and appropriate measure – changing the terms of the debate while the crisis was ongoing. This is staggering. Putting aside the question of which metric is actually more useful, how could we possibly be in a situation where the primary metric driving both public debate and government policy is changed mid crisis? Again, the question of preparedness is front and centre. Had the Haze Task Force, set up in 2005 and consisting of 23 government agencies, not actually managed to define the correct metric by which air quality should be assessed? Having to change the quantitive measurement used to drive what one can only hope is an objective, science driven response mid-crisis just looks amateurish and reeks of a lack of proper preparation. If the 3 hour average is inadequate or flawed, why was it not phased out years ago? Why did the Haze Task Force not address this when it was set up in 2005? These questions all appear to remain unanswered and again the conclusion that the Haze Task Force has not properly prepared Singapore for the current – predictable – crisis is inescapable.

One of the main issues concerning Singaporeans throughout the crisis was the difficulty of obtaining N95 masks. Many postings on social media lamented the fact that stores were either sold out or experiencing long queues. Speaking on CNA’s Talking Point on Thursday 20 June, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan reassured viewers that the government had adequate stockpiles and that a re-stocking had been performed that evening at all retail outlets. But despite this supposed re-stocking on Thursday, many retail outlets were still found to be sold out on Friday and Saturday. In response to this failure by the government to ensure adequate supplies were available for purchase, it was actually netizens who spontaneously organised to alleviate the problem, setting up the facebook group Places to get Face Masks in Singapore which crowd-sourced real-time information on where masks could actually be purchased and at what prices. Another area where netizens out performed the government response was in crowd sourcing information on air-conditioned spaces which could be used to offer respite from the haze to vulnerable citizens. This step was something which appeared to inspire the PAP to open up their air-conditioned RCs for public use over the weekend. But again, this government response does not appear to have been part of any planned or organised haze response. If it were, one wonders why it was activated so slowly – so slowly in fact that ordinary citizens had already organised to provide the same to vulnerable citizens. The observation that the government was responding reactively rather than activating an existing planned response is again hard to avoid.

The final point I want to make is on the offers that the Singapore government made to Indonesia to assist with combating the haze. Since the root cause of the haze is fires burning in Sumatra, a core part of any haze response should surely be assistance with fire fighting. But the government’s position on this was vague and unhelpful. While there were a few occasions where assistance was apparently offered, the majority of the government’s effort was expended on telling the Indonesian government what they should do. What was also notable was how relatively little reporting effort was expended on informing Singaporeans what assistance had been offered, but the fact that it had not been accepted was on the other hand often repeated. Some details are available regarding the assistance package however and it appears to consist of three things – assistance with cloud seeding, high-resolution satellite imagery and hotspot co-ordinate information. I could probably write five thousand words just on why this offer of assistance is completely laughable and frankly insulting to Indonesia, it is no surprise to me that Indonesia did not accept it. The government of Singapore can and probably should offer much more, especially when the health of Singapore’s own citizens is at stake. Regarding cloud seeding, this is something Indonesia has been doing for years and has plenty of experience with. In fact cloud seeding is regularly performed around Jakarta in an attempt to induce rainfall and to prevent flooding. Regardless, cloud seeding is actually quite simple, it typically involves nothing more complicated than dropping salt from an aeroplane. On the topic of satellite imagery and hotspot data, the fact is that Singapore doesn’t operate the satellites which gather this data. The information Singapore seeks to share in this regard is actually produced by the US government and is presumably equally available to Indonesia as it is to Singapore.

US NOAA satellite imagery of hotspots in Sumatra

US NOAA satellite imagery of hotspots in Sumatra

One can in fact see the name of the US government department – typically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA – emblazoned across the top of the imagery. There is even a web page describing all the foreign operated satellites from which Singapore obtains this data. So for Singapore to seek to “offer” this to Indonesia is slightly bizarre – not least because if there were any value in Indonesia receiving this from Singapore, the government should just send it to them! Why bother to treat this as an “offer” that was not accepted, when the data can simply be sent. Remember, this is data which ostensibly can be used to mitigate a public health crisis affecting Singapore, and sending someone an unsolicited email is hardly an intrusion into their national sovereignty.

If Singapore were serious about offering assistance, they may like to offer meaningful assistance with firefighting, but as far as I can see, no such offer was made – certainly not a public one. How to fight the fires is probably a topic for another time, but for now let us just note that both water and access to the sites of the fires appear to be readily available – all that is required is manpower, equipment and organisation – all of which Singapore can choose to help with if desired.

For all of the reasons above, the suggestion that the Singapore government has responded to the haze crisis in line with a pre-established action plan is not credible. In light of the fact that a 23 agency task force was set up eight years ago to draw up such an action plan, this failure appears to be unforgivable. The government has consistently failed to describe or execute objective steps in response to a consistent quantitive understanding of the unfolding situation. In fact, the metrics used to assess this ongoing public health emergency have been changed while the crisis was ongoing and essential public health information has not been shared with citizens in a timely manner. Conversely, it has been netizens and ordinary citizens who have implemented the most meaningful positive responses where government failure to act had left a void.

To prevent similar problems in the future, the government of Singapore must set up a credible haze action plan, no later than nine months from today. This action plan must be made public and it must describe in full the metrics that will be used to assess the severity of the unfolding situation. The plan must also spell out – objectively and based on a scientific understanding of pollution exposure and risks – what actions will be taken at what levels of severity. The current situation where the government chooses not to take steps while consistently stating that unspecified actions will be taken at unspecified levels of greater severity does not instill public confidence and in fact creates needless uncertainty. Uncertainty is the last thing anyone wants to see when a public health crisis is unfolding.

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One response to “Government disappoints with hazardous haze response

  1. Pingback: Integrity or Fear. PM Lee, Cabinet prioritise fixing opposition over national agenda | andyxianwong

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