The separation of public power and private benefit is essential for transparent, effective and honest governance. The Chairman of NEA cannot ask his staff to go and clean his kitchen, or the premises of his sister’s hawker stall, when it gets dirty. The Commissioner of Police cannot ask his officers to set up a road block at the end of his street because he finds the traffic too noisy. The Minister of Community, Culture and Youth cannot just instruct a local museum to display his daughter’s art work. So can the Prime Minister ask a civil servant to write letters on his behalf, and in his support, on the very personal topic of his defamation case against Roy Ngerng? This question matters, and it is the reason Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party is quite right to seek a full accounting of public funds spent on a case the PM has clearly stated he is bringing in his personal capacity.
Tag Archives: Accountability
Temasek doesn’t really make 16%
Your CPF money isn’t really safe.
And Lee Hsien Loong is a coward.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day arguments that crop up on Facebook, social media, and even in real life, that we lose track of the big picture. Despite the very obvious question marks surrounding the way CPF funds are managed, though the government, through Temasek, through GIC and ultimately by the Lee family, I realise that I’ve written almost nothing on the topic. Given Lee Hsien Loong’s sustained and ethically dubious attack on fellow blogger Roy Ngerng, now seems like a good time to visit these topics.
Temasek’s offer to buy out Olam in a S$2.53 billion deal comes as the commodity trader continues to pile on debt. While Olam’s politically well-connected management and shareholders may appreciate the sovereign wealth fund’s backing, this is a deal which ticks all the wrong boxes for Singapore.
Olam’s management have been fending off critics of their financials and accounting for years. While Carson Block’s very public decision to short the stock in 2012 was widely reported, less well-known is the fact that top Asian equity house CLSA incurred the commodity trader’s wrath the year before over a research note that raised some of the same concerns. And while the public response from Olam has always been defiant, privately management have admitted defeat – tearing up a flagship six-year plan to generate US$1 billion in profits by 2016 and slashing the debt fuelled growth that Block saw as unsustainable.
This is part two of my year in review, you can read part one on justice here. 2013 has seen significant changes in Singapore, some real and some illusionary. Ironically the changes which were hardest to believe were often the ones most hyped up by the government and their supporters, whereas the most significant and regressive changes were downplayed as if they were of no significance whatsoever. Perhaps most interesting however were the number of cases where the government said one thing, and then did almost exactly the opposite. Let’s take a look at a few.
The biggest u-turn this year, in fact the most significant explicit policy change overall was probably the government’s decision to renege on “light touch” regulation of the internet with the introduction in May of burdensome licensing requirements for loosely defined “news websites”. Despite a large public relations effort to downplay the impact of the new regulations, government claims that changes were required to synchronise rules for online media with those for mainstream media did little to dispel fears that this was a thinly veiled attempt to chill freedom of speech. The Economist described the change as “draconian“, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called government justifications “utterly absurd“. Many expect Singapore to fall further down RSF’s annual press rankings next year, the city-state already languishes at 149, one place below Russia.
One of the hotter policy topics this year has been the structure of Singapore’s public transport operators. With two state linked companies enjoying a cozy duopoly, the government’s plans to inject some competition into the market by tendering certain routes to private operators were warmly received. Hopes for market principles to take hold in centrally planned Singapore were however dashed when the government did a u-turn and awarded the first such tender to the state linked parent company of an existing operator. Neglecting to award the tender to a true new entrant was a missed opportunity to introduce new ideas into a transport sector which while high profitable, has a growing reputation for poor service standards.
From maintaining an existing monopoly to creating a new one, this time in telecoms. The IDA did a u-turn in allowing state controlled Singtel to buy out previously independent fiber broadband network builder OpenNet through its wholly owned business trust NetLink, giving Singtel a monopoly over the next generation broadband network in the process. At the same time Singtel won a four-year extension on its mandatory divestment of NetLink, a move that is predicted to entrench their incumbent monopoly power, and which drew stinging criticism from industry players.
The most recent and probably most superficially annoying u-turn of the year came just last week on the “do not call” registry. After years of planning the government pulled the plug on key features of the scheme just days before it was due to go live in an all too predictable sop to business interests. Consumers can unfortunately expect to continue receiving unsolicited messages after the registry goes live in January.
Any government u-turns missing? Speak up in the comments if you can think of any others.
The Court of Appeal has just handed down judgement in Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s IMF loan case. The case is crucially important and it raises two key points. Can the government lend away the wealth of the nation without Presidential approval? And can an individual citizen challenge the behaviour of the government in court, if it is alleged that there has been a breach of the constitution? The ruling of the court is against Kenneth on both counts. The government apparently can lend away the reserves without Presidential approval – effectively making the role of the President as the holder of a “second key” worthless. And furthermore, an individual citizen does not have the right to challenge the government in court, even if the case is of such gravity as this one where a breach of the constitution has been alleged. In stating as they do, that “the nature of the issue is entirely political” – the judges have completely misconstrued the reality of the case and the nature of the constitution. The decision is a difficult one to agree with. Upholding the law is not political.
Does Tan Chuan-Jin betray a sense of entitlement in framing the fact that someone may choose not to vote for him as a threat?
In Merriam-Webster, a threat is defined as “an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury or damage”. Other definitions exist, but they are usually quite negative and tend to imply harm. I’ve never heard of someone threatening to do me a favour.
So why does the (acting) Minister for Manpower make it all so dramatic? Does he see the default position as being that everyone should vote for him, and any suggestion that one may not, is an implication of impending “injury or damage”? I’m afraid Mr Tan’s years in the Army may have conditioned him to expect everyone around (or beneath?) him to do as he wishes. This may be a valid approach when encouraging young conscripts to run up a hill, but it is the antithesis of representative democracy. As an MP Mr Tan should have realised by now that the tables have turned. His job – more or less – is to represent the wishes of his residents in parliament, and he should further realise that a vote has to be earned, it is not an entitlement.
As readers may know, I have e-mailed the minister myself once or twice recently. Of course, I received no reply, but I did not take this personally, I just assumed he is either lazy or rude. While the polite thing to do might be to at least send out a stock response or a simple acknowledgement – probably delegated to a secretary or assistant – this apparently is a level of engagement still beyond the ruling party.
There are many valid reasons why one would choose not vote for the PAP. I for one will not be doing so, in no small part due to the mess that is our labour market under the negligent oversight of Mr Tan’s MOM. But this is my right, and in saying so, I am exercising my own free will, not issuing a threat. Rather than fretting over the fact that someone may choose not vote for him, Mr Tan should knuckle-down, do the best job he can, and hope that it is enough to win the trust of his residents in 2016.
Barely a week after Lee Hsien Loong spoke of integrity and the importance of admitting ones mistakes, the Auditor General released his annual report and gave the PM the perfect opportunity to practice what he preached. The report for 2012/13 cites more than two dozen incidents relating to contracts worth almost S$300M where the PMO’s National Research Foundation appear to be in violation of The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act. While the PM himself is not directly implicated, the failure of a department under his oversight to abide by its legal and contractual obligations clearly raises significant questions. Will the PM or his office stand up for their integrity and admit to these mistakes – as the PM has urged his political opponents to do over much smaller matters – or will a hypocritical silence be maintained?
To quote the Auditor General’s report directly, under the heading “Prime Minister’s Office”:
62. The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act (Cap. 30B, 2006 Revised Edition) stipulated the time frame for making payment and requirements for payment response to a payment claim. The Act was passed to address cash flow problems faced by the construction industry by upholding the rights of parties to seek progress payments for work done and goods supplied.
63. For the contract for building works construction and another contract for foundation works (total contract value of $295.72 million), AGO found 32 instances of late payment to contractors (totalling $254.04 million). In six instances (totalling $26.09 million), the delays ranged from 33 to 174 days.
64. For the three consultancy services contracts (total contract value of $27.25 million), AGO observed that NRF did not provide payment responses to the consultants’ payment claims (totalling $24.56 million).
Report of the Auditor-General for the Financial Year 2012/13
Some observers may find it shocking that the Auditor General claims to have observed unlawful behaviour on the part of the government, but in fact this year’s revelation follows even more serious breaches detected by the AG last year. As was first reported by Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Ministry of Finance last year broke the law – in fact the constitution – in issuing a “promissory note” to the World Bank without presidential approval. In the same year, the Ministry for National Development was also found to have breached the constitution by engaging in unlawful accounting methods on a land reclamation project.
In any normal democratic country, unlawful or unconstitutional behaviour on the part of the government would be a significant scandal, in Singapore however these mistakes go completely unreported by a mainstream media that apparently deems the cleanliness of a hawker centre to be much more significant. A mainstream media also that uncritically toes the government line on what constitutes “integrity“, but will surely not call the PM out if he maintains a hypocritical silence in failing to admit to the many unlawful mistakes that have been committed by entities responsible to him.
The key question arising from the AG’s findings is whether the current government are fit for purpose in terms of upholding the public interest. Can a government that despite being extremely well paid, repeatedly breaches the law, the constitution and their own contractual obligations be entrusted with the wealth and wellbeing of the nation? The PM should take his own advice. Speak the truth. Things have clearly gone wrong, and even though it is inconvenient the PM should admit to the unlawful mistakes made by the current government. A failure to do so will only leave the PM open to accusations of hypocrisy since these are exactly the steps the PM urged his political opponents to take over actually much more trivial mistakes made in the cleaning of a hawker centre.
The PM should respond. His integrity is at stake.
* * * * * *
The author of this article contacted the Prime Minister’s Office who were offered the chance to comment on the concerns raised by the Auditor General’s report. No response was received.
Any doubts as to the level of fear that consumes PM Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party were blown away recently in a week where the full force of the government was directed at attempting to discredit the opposition Workers Party over a series of controversies which are seen by many citizens to be non-issues either manufactured or exaggerated for political gain.
The fear that many assume torments the mind of Lee junior is the ever-increasing probability that his government will suffer a historic reversal in what is expected to be a 2016 general election. The fallout from a significant swing away from the ruling party would likely force many of Lee’s cabinet out of government and also make his own position as PM untenable. Such a shake-up of power in Singapore would be unprecedented in modern times and may well lead to a period of sincere soul-searching on the part of the PAP – soul-searching that may require an admission of and move away from the mistaken politics of the past. The impact of such a process on the reputation and legacy of Lee and the men in white is likely to be damning and it is therefore a fear of losing not just power over Singapore, but the power to protect their own reputations, that consumes many in government today.
In their coordinated and wide-ranging attempt to discredit the opposition WP, Lee and his cabinet colleagues left many observers puzzled by their decision to refer to a series of issues that are perceived variously to be old, irrelevant or resolved. That this political attack appears to have been prioritised at the cabinet level over a busy domestic agenda dominated by a stagnant economy, the fallout from the government’s hazardous haze response and an ongoing dengue epidemic was to many observers surprising, but in fact betrayed the desperate depths that the ruling party is willing to dredge in their oft-stated desire to fix political opponents.
The curtain rose on the drama in parliament’s Monday sitting, with Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan re-opening the debate over the cleaning of various hawker centres around Bedok, in spite of government-owned Channel NewsAsia and others having reported the dispute as “resolved” – citing NEA and Hawker Association sources in the process – over a month previously.
In case anyone thought the Minister had gone off message in dredging up a closed and petty dispute for political sparring, PM Lee himself removed any doubt – and in the process doubled down on the PAP’s dubious obsession with defamation suits – by stating that the Minister enjoyed the full support of the cabinet and was willing to be sued by his political opponents if they saw themselves as having been defamed by any of his utterings in the house. But how PM Lee could justify his Environment Minister – who should be busy responding to both the ongoing dengue and haze crises – devoting so much time to the politicisation of a resolved issue was a question left unanswered.
Beyond expressing the cabinet level support that Vivian Balakrishnan enjoyed for his partisan attack on the opposition, PM Lee further underscored how desperate his party is to score political points on irrelevant topics by revisiting both Pritam Singh’s alleged plagiarism of a blog posting in parliament and questions around the appointment of FMSS in WP controlled town council operations. The latter is particularly ironic since questions around FMSS were last given a public airing in an attempt to distract from awkward questions being asked in the aftermath of the AIM scandal – the role of FMSS as a political punching bag for the PAP is becoming increasingly obvious yet so far public opinion does not appear to have shifted in response to the PM’s pummeling. Furthermore, that the allegation of plagiarism against Mr Singh is now more than sixteen months old reinforces the perception that the government is clutching at straws in an effort to find issues to beat the opposition with. PM Lee is surely aware of but chooses to ignore the fact that Mr Singh pointed out long ago – and has again re-confirmed – that permission to cite the article in question was indeed sought and given.
PM Lee has spoken recently on the importance of having the “right politics” in Singapore, but in this week’s exchanges his party has revealed the usually unspoken but well recognised truth about politics in Singapore – that the PAP obsesses over the destruction of political opponents, obsesses over defamation suits in lieu of the court of public opinion and that the fear of a reversal in 2016 is forcing the ruling party into taking increasingly desperate measures to protect their power. We have seen this in recent attempts to crack down on critical voices online, and we see it in the ongoing political mudslinging over barely relevent issues that are clearly a desperate attempt to discredit the political opposition.
If PM Lee is as confident in his own rhetoric about good politics as he claims to be, perhaps he should step out of the comfort of his GRC and come to Hougang or some other SMC in 2016 and give the nation a lesson in good governance. If on the other hand he is more concerned with remaining in power for his own benefit rather than the good of the nation, one can expect much mud to be slung, many critics to be silenced and many cabinet ministers to contest GRCs in 2016. Time and the court of public opinion will indeed tell.
The internet smoulders today with the fallout from Foreign and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s alleged late night phone call to Remy Choo, wherein they apparently discussed the allegedly libellous nature of an article originally published in The Global Mail and shared widely amongst Singaporeans. The Minister appears to be in damage limitation mode – attempting to downplay the significance of the phone call which was first revealed by Kirsten Han, and secondly by seeking to clarify his historical business relationship with companies ultimately controlled by Indonesia’s Widjaja family that was raised in the article.
Like all good lawyers, Mr Shanmugam appears to have chosen his words carefully – very carefully. For this reason, a close look at what he said – and didn’t say – could be instructive.
Starting with the phone call to Remy Choo, the Minister admits that it took place. The minister does not deny that it was a late night phone call, or even a “midnight phone call” as stated by Kirsten Han. While the Minister seeks to downplay the significance of this phone call by emphasising the strength of his relationship with Remy, he never goes so far as to say that Remy Choo is his friend. Is it normal for the Minister to make unsolicited late night phone calls to people who are not his friends or family members? It seems unlikely. Furthermore, the Minister very clearly does not deny the key point – that the purpose of the call was to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [the article]”.
Mr Shanmugam is a very experienced and successful lawyer. Lawyers are trained to choose their words careful, and in this case he appears to have done so. He could have chosen to deny these facts, but he did not. For this reason, we should presume that the central premise as reported by Kirsten Han is, more likely than not, true.
Despite asserting that what Kirsten wrote is “quite untrue” and that the conversation had been “twisted”, the Minister chooses a very different tenor when addressing the points raised by foreign journalist Eric Ellis in the original article. Most importantly, at no point does the Minister appear to state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false or untrue. At no point does he accuse Mr Ellis of twisting anything. Since accusing someone of publishing lies is presumably libellous itself, neglecting to make this allegation may be the pragmatic approach to take. The relevant article was originally published by a media outlet from Australia, a country with a very different legal relationship between freedom of speech and defamation from Singapore. Perhaps the Minister has chosen not to make any statements alleging falsehoods in Mr Ellis’ article in case such statements would be considered “actionable” in Australia. Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that at no point does the Minister state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. Furthermore, the Minister provides no details whatsoever regarding what about the article causes him to find it actionable.
To re-iterate, Mr Shanmugam is an experienced lawyer, and we must assume he has chosen his words carefully. He does not assert that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. In fact he can point to nothing specific in the article which he finds libellous. If the Minister finds the article so troubling as to require him to make late night phone calls to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [it]” then he should come out and explain why. If such an explanation cannot be provided, many are likely to draw the inference that Mr Shanmugam’s assertion that the article is libelous is unsubstantiated.
What Mr Shanmugam says about his historical business relationship with Sinar Mas Group (SMG) is also noteworthy. Most importantly he admits his previous paid directorships of two companies ultimately owned by SMG. This admission is to be expected because it is a matter of fact on the public record. The question is whether there is a conflict of interest between the Minister’s historical business dealings with SMG and his current role as Foreign and Law Minister in Singapore. Singapore is currently embroiled in an dispute with Indonesia, that may or may not ultimately revolve around other (different) companies owned by SMG and may or may not lead to legal proceedings in Singapore against those companies. It could be argued that Mr Shanmugam’s historical relationship with SMG presents a conflict of interest. It is important to note that the existence or apparent existence of a conflict of interest is not indicative of corrupt, illegal or immoral behaviour. However, a conflict of interest must be carefully and transparently managed to ensure a fair outcome. Whether or not there even is a conflict of interest in this case is debatable, since Mr Shanmugam’s relationship with SMG ended many years ago. Regardless though, it is quite proper for Mr Ellis to raise the question and Mr Shanmugam should prioritise answering it over suing Singaporeans who share the article online.
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.
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.
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.