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Govt unveils slew of measures to tackle haze

SINGAPORE — As hazardous air levels continued to plague the Republic for the second consecutive day, the Government yesterday announced a raft of measures to combat the haze menace, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out his priorities to tide the country over the crisis.

Govt unveils slew of measures to tackle haze

Minister Ng Eng Hen, PM Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the haze situation press conference at Istana. Photo: Don Wong

SINGAPORE — As hazardous air levels continued to plague the Republic for the second consecutive day, the Government yesterday announced a raft of measures to combat the haze menace, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out his priorities to tide the country over the crisis.

Speaking at a press conference held at the Istana, Mr Lee announced that, starting yesterday, daily press briefings will be held where the authorities will issue the next day’s air quality outlook and health advisories for different groups of people.

The 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings and the 24-hour PM2.5 Concentration levels will also be published hourly, instead of the previous practice of publishing these at 8am, 12pm and 4pm.

Starting today, the Government will subsidise the needy, the young and the elderly on medical bills incurred at designated general practitioner clinics for respiratory problems and conjunctivitis. At the polyclinics, every Singaporean will enjoy the subsidy. Under this special scheme, most patients will pay S$10 or less per visit.

At the GP clinics, the Government will be subsidising S$30 of the bill for each visit by Singaporeans aged 18 and below and those above 65, as well as Community Health Assist Scheme, Public Assistance and Medical Fee Exemption card holders.

A Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee was also set up. Chaired by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, it will focus on protecting public health and safety and work with Indonesia to reduce the haze at source. On top of issuing clear guidelines on the protective measures at each PSI threshold, it will also review guidelines for protecting vulnerable groups and ensure that society and businesses, especially essential services, continue to operate.

A day after the three-hour PSI reading hit an unprecedented 321, Singapore suffered its worst ever air quality at about 1pm yesterday when the PSI reached 371.

Mr Lee reiterated that hazy conditions are expected “to persist for some time” as the wind and weather conditions will stay the same over the next few days. Flanked by Dr Ng and Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan at the press conference - which was attended by foreign media including the Financial Times and Reuters - Mr Lee called on Singaporeans to “remain calm and look out for one another”.

He said: “Our priority and my priority is to protect the health and safety of Singaporeans, especially for the vulnerable groups like the young and the elderly and those who have heart or lung diseases, for example, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Mr Lee assured that the healthcare infrastructure is ready to cope with an expected increase in the number of respiratory-related medical cases.

There is also an adequate supply of masks, with the Ministry of Health yesterday replenishing the pharmacies from its stockpile of about 9 million masks.

On the international front, Mr Lee said that he will be writing to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “to register our serious concerns and reiterate our offer to help”.

At an emergency meeting in Jakarta yesterday, Singapore – represented by National Environment Agency (NEA) Chief Executive Andrew Tan – repeated its commitment to work with Indonesia to tackle the haze. NEA said that the Indonesian government is considering Singapore’s offer of an assistance package which includes an aircraft for cloud-seeding operations, high-resolution satellite pictures and hotspot coordinates, which are similar to what Singapore provided in previous bouts of haze. Singapore requested for Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Agreement which Indonesia signed in 2002. The Indonesia government said that it would be seeking its Parliament’s approval on the matter.

In a Facebook post, Dr Balakrishnan said he will also be flying to Jakarta today to address the haze situation.

Putting into context the scale of the problem, Dr Ng pointed out that the source of Singapore’s problem is about 250 km away.

“The hotspots are scattered over Central Sumatra which is quite large... Dense haze has dispersed over a wide area measuring thousands of square kilometres with Singapore in the midst of it,” Dr Ng said.

He added: “Like it or not... we are dependent on the Indonesia government to take measures to address the source of this environmental disaster.”

But he stressed that Singapore “must not let the haze overwhelm us”. He said: “There are things that we can do to protect ourselves, get on with our lives and keep Singapore going.”

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that while “urgent and definitive action on the ground” needs to be taken, “we have to find a way to adapt and to take appropriate precautions so that life can go on”.

On whether the Indonesian government has given any indications as to which parties are responsible for the forest fires, Mr Lee said the Singapore Government has yet to receive any information.

While he noted that it was “very hard to tell” which specific companies were involved, he pointed out that from the satellite pictures, it was possible to tell - based on the topography and features on the ground - whether the areas on fire were “irregular patches” or areas with “regular grid lines” which would in turn indicate whether the land clearing was a big scale operation or a “small holder slashing and burning”.

Mr Lee pointed out: “On the scale of it, it’s unlikely to be just small scale holders just slashing & burning... need a lot of small holders for that.”

Responding to a Greenpeace report yesterday - which had named a subsidiary of Singapore-listed company First Resources as one of the errant companies owning a burning land via its subsidiary - Mr Lee reiterated that the matter will be taken up with the company “if there’s evidence involved”.

First Resources strenously denied Greenpeace’s allegation and clarified that it had long relinquished concession rights to the area in question.

On what action will be taken against errant companies, Mr Lee said that the Government was studying certain measures but “it depends on what we can do under the law and what practical”. He said: “In principle, our view is, you have to comply with Singapore laws and if you are doing something which is damaging to the environment in Singapore, then we have to take it very seriously.”

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