NEA not providing the public with hourly PSI readings

From ‘Hourly PSI readings would allow for better decision-making’, 28 Sep 15, Voices, Today

(Tan Zhi Rui): Amid the annual haze, I would like to again strongly make the case for the National Environment Agency (NEA) to provide hourly Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings instead of three-hour averages.

Singapore is a small country and a slight shift in prevailing winds can cause sudden significant changes in air quality. With a three-hour-average PSI, lower PSI levels for the earlier two hours can lower the reading when the haze has already reached a hazardous level in the third hour.

The NEA’s FAQs on PSI webpage states that its health advisory is based on the 24-hour PSI as it is a “better reflection of the total exposure”, and health effects have been mostly studied based on this measure. In comparison, the three-hour PSI is only “an indicative measure” that the public may use “to make adjustments to their daily activities if they wish to do so”.

I understand that public health planning is more effectively done on a daily, 24-hour basis. However, logically and given a choice, most people would refer to a shorter time frame to avoid exposure to the worst hours of the haze.

While the use of three-hour averages may moderate PSI readings and prevent undue panic, it is irresponsible not to provide a more accurate hourly measure for Singaporeans to protect themselves, especially when the NEA has the data.

This is particularly incongruous given that the hourly PM2.5 readings are available on the NEA website, which are equally “highly variable when the wind drives smoke haze from place to place” as stated by the NEA.

In NEA director Fong Peng Keong’s response, he cited ‘insufficient evidence’ from recent studies of sub-daily or shorter PM2.5 exposure for the ‘development of a 1-hour PSI based on exposure to PM2.5 for a 1 hour period’. In 2013, Minister Grace Fu urged the public  to pay more attention to the 24 hour reading instead of the fluctuating 3-hourly average. Ng Eng Hen said giving 3 separate readings would ‘confuse’ the public. You’re talking about people who’re accustomed to dealing with all sorts of national health coverage schemes. So nope, we won’t be ‘confused’. We’re a smart nation. We voted the PAP back into power, for God’s sake.

The Government’s argument is that 24 hour readings are ‘backed by long-term epidemiological studies’, and are internationally accepted methods of assessing the health impact of air quality, but doesn’t explain whether these studies take into account tiny nations like ours when the 3 hour average can fluctuate from low 200’s in the afternoon and drop to 80 by late evening (like yesterday 3 Oct 2015, for example).

There was a time in 2006 when the NEA didn’t even promote 3 hourly readings, citing ‘unnecessary alarm‘ if these were published instead of the 24 hour readings. These days, you don’t even need to check the actual PSI to get ‘alarmed’ by the haze. Simply looking out of the window and taking a sniff would do (though the NEA later clarified that low visibility may not mean a high PSI). Or you could check out this ‘no bullshit PSI readings’ website if you really want to know what the one-hourly PSI is. But honestly, aside from statisticians and academics, how many of us actually care about the 24-hour PSI? Since 2006, we’ve complained that it has no practical use, and only serves as ‘post-mortem’ data for the good folks at NEA to crunch before the next haze comes around. It’s probably as useful a gauge as today’s weather if you’re wondering whether to bring the brolly out tomorrow. Even if you had exposed yourself to what’s considered a ‘very unhealthy’ 24 hour PSI for just one day, nobody will be able to tell you for certain your risk of getting lung or heart disease in 5 years.

There’s no reason why our top scientists in NEA would not be able to derive one-hour PSIs on the back of a napkin. So my guess is that they’re afraid of people overreacting to spot PSI levels and neglecting the supposedly more trustworthy 24 hour ones. Which means panic buying of N95 masks, people suddenly taking an interest in library books (to hide from the haze), conspiracy theories about cloud-seeding or hoaxers sending mass SMSes about fake holidays and office shutdowns. Oh wait, all that’s already happened, hourly PSI or not.

NEA making rain to wash off the haze just for F1

From ‘Cloud seeding rumours are false, malicious: MEWR Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’, 17 Sep 15, article in CNA

Rumours that cloud seeding is taking place to induce rain ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix are false, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said.

Addressing a WhatsApp message that has been making the rounds in Singapore, Dr Balakrishnan posted on Facebook on Thursday (Sep 17): “The National Environment Agency does not engage in cloud seeding and has no plans to do so. Singapore is so small that even if anybody tried to do it, the rain would almost certainly fall outside Singapore.”

He added: “Singaporeans should beware of malicious people spreading false rumours during a period when anxieties are heightened.”

The original WhatsApp message called for people to be wary of what it claimed were “chemically-induced rain showers”, purportedly meant to reduce haze levels in light of the coming Formula 1 race, which will be held on roads in Singapore’s Civic District from Sep 18 to 20.

In 2006, the NEA did in fact conduct a feasibility study on cloud-seeding to combat the annual haze scourge (S’pore may make own rain to beat the haze, 17 Nov 2006, ST). If you go further back to 1963 when the country was drought-hit, we embarked on the first ever rain-making attempt by sending a Royal Australian Air Force DC-3 up into the air. It is not known if that crew was actually successful, or the lack of suitable clouds to fertilise put a damper on their efforts. That probably works on the parched Outback, but not on our little pinprick of an island. Alternatively, you could try to pray for 4 hours, like what our Sikh community did that same year. I wonder what precipitated out of that. So, yeah, the possibility of us ‘playing God’ and dabbling in rainmaking is not as outright incredulous as the MEWR minister makes it seem.

Rumours of using this expensive technique, the science behind which is still rather ‘hazy’, to bring on the showers aren’t new to Singaporeans. We hear of it being done to deplete the clouds of their load so that the National Day Parade would be rain-free. But why hire a pilot and an aircraft full of silver iodide when you could do something far cheaper, and simpler, a method even endorsed by our PM himself: Making an offering chillies and onions to the rain deities.

Conspiracy theorists may recall how the US War machine supposedly weaponised the weather using aggressive cloud seeding over Vietnam. Code named Operation Popeye, the mission was to ‘reduce trafficability’ along infiltration routes. A war euphemism for torrential rain, floods and landslides. Apparently not everyone dreams of making it rain meatballs.

Cloud seeding by our neighbouring countries has also been linked with hailstones, a speculation that was firmly debunked by NEA for the reason that rain clouds formed by such seeding cannot travel such long distances to reach us. Till today, there remains no clear explanation for the freak weather we had post-haze in 2013. Not everyone complains about this ‘raining like ice cubes’, though.

Grass patches becoming bald because of football

From ‘Grass patch not a suitable place to play football’. 28 July 15, ST Forum

(Cheng Ming Kang): I am a resident in Redhill and, unlike Mr Simon Owen Khoo Kim San (“Let kids have a place to play football”; last Thursday), I am relieved that football is no longer being played on the grass patch downstairs.

Playing football at that green patch poses two problems for nearby residents. First, as the area is not meant for playing football, the grass patch has become bald in parts after many months and looks unsightly among the surrounding greenery.

Second, as the grass patch is not a proper area for football, there are no barriers to prevent the ball from hitting residents who are in the vicinity.

In fact, I have observed multiple occasions where there were near misses. There are proper places where football can be played safely for both the players and residents.

Sports Singapore has opened up football fields in schools for public use, and there are two schools in our neighbourhood.

We’re no longer living in kampung days when you can kick a ball around in any open space and not worry about your neighbours complaining. They may even join you in a round of spontaneous frivolity. The Fandi Ahmad tribute video titled ‘Ordinary’ is a throwback to the organic, dusty age of village soccer. The legends we know today did not fall in love with the the sport inside gated school football fields under the watchful eye of PE teachers; they challenged strangers in their backyard, they used slippers as goalposts, they didn’t have useless offside rules, and when they’re done they got a trouncing from their moms for messing up their shirts. Cue Fab commercial.

Today, with grassy patches becoming ever scarcer that you have to fight for space with picnicking foreign workers or dog-walkers with their bags of poo, most ‘street soccer’ as we know it has ended up on basketball courts. Which partly explains why Singapore sucks in both sports; you can’t play a full court match of either game without having to give way when the other party tries to score a basket, or a goal, on either end. These days, you’re more likely to see people playing cricket on a Sunday in an open patch by the MRT station. Sometimes there’s this lone guy sitting on a grass patch all by himself and no one wants to enter the field in case they interrupt his quest for nirvana.

Playing in void decks remains illegal, you can’t kick around in your own home without the neighbours complaining, and that open field you used to tumble about in has become barricaded for development of yet another carpark or fitness corner which ends up as an outdoor clothes rack. Lack of open spaces aside, our boys and girls are simply not interested in the ‘beautiful game’ anymore, which you can lay the blame square on parents for believing there’s ‘no future’ in the sport, and forcing you to go for tuition instead of roughing it out and getting dirty with your kakis. Or you could blame the internet for us being ranked below bloody Barbados in the FIFA standings.

When you do eventually find a spot for footie, you get residents like the writer above telling you off because your running about is marring the natural landscape, or they’re scared shitless about suffering concussions from careening balls. Such fears are not unfounded of course, though it’s just as likely that you’ll get felled by killer litter when you’re walking around your block,  knocked down by someone on a bicycle or electric scooter, or get your eye impaled by a smashed shuttlecock gone awry. I’m always wary of being hit in the face by someone’s flying shoe when I’m in the vicinity of a sepak takraw match.

Lawrence Wong would love to see kids playing soccer in random places, of course, despite all the ominous ‘State Land’ signs that tell us to stay the hell away. Unless some wealthy philanthropist with a passion for local soccer decides to open up his backyard to public, we’ll remain a space-starved nation with more people wearing wannabe club jerseys than those actually owning, or playing with an actual football.

Color Run powder and the risk of cardiac arrest

From ‘Any danger if it is inhaled?’, 4 July 2015, ST Forum

(Ace Kindredzen Cheong): I am relieved that the powder used for the Colour Run in Singapore is different from that used in Taiwan, which caused a fire that has left at least two dead and hundreds injured (“Colour Run to continue in S’pore”; Thursday).

However, I wonder if the powder used in Singapore will trigger allergies and irritate the eyes and skin. Worse yet, will it cause cardiac arrest if inhaled?

Already, there have been cases of sudden deaths due to cardiac arrest during running events in Singapore. Will the powder increase this risk? The event organisers, police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force should ensure that such powders are safe for use, other than being non-flammable.

While Chinese cities like Shenyang have cancelled the event under direction from ‘government agencies’, it seems like we’re going ahead with the ‘Happiest 5k on the Planet’.  The inaugural 16,000-strong race went without a hitch in 2013, and close to 20,000 participants graced the 2014 event. Other than tens of thousands of stained white shirts being sent to the incinerators, there appeared to be little bodily harm that came out a festival inspired by the Hindu ‘Holi’. During the same period, a man died while running a powder-less, ‘normal’ marathon. No one has asked for 42 km marathons to be cancelled over the risk of unexplained death.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t minimise the use of potentially hazardous materials if you can help it. The organisers have assured us that the powder has been tested for inflammability and successfully passed ‘the required EU standards’. On their Facebook page, they tell us that smoking is prohibited during the race, and that they use no electrical devices to douse runners with the stuff, though that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a freak ignition happening if a rainbow dust cloud gets zapped by a stray bolt of lightning. I doubt the EU can put such a scenario to the test. The fun people at Color Run encourage you to run in the rain, though.

As with all foreign particles, including baby talcum powder, coloured powder may well irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and most Material Safety Data Sheets about seemingly harmless corn starch that I browsed through online do alert users about its irritating nature. So you may complete the run teary-eyed, slightly coughing, or take the next day off because of a dye-induced facial rash, but otherwise happy as a lark, which makes running the tiny risk of ‘high pressure corn starch inhalation’ – a life-threatening accident, mind you – worth it. After all, there are considerably more dangerous recreational activities out there that involve jogging; you could break your ankle stumbling over a stone in Macritchie Reservoir for example.

The Color Run’s track record of no exploding-powder casualties speaks for itself, but what we lack information in is its impact not on human health or happiness, but the environment. Where does all the dye go after being washed off, for instance? In a cruel twist of irony, it was the Taiwanese EPA (Environmental Protection Administration) that had a legitimate concern about Color Runs contaminating the soil, groundwater and rivers in 2013. Maybe NEA would want to look into what happens during the clean-up process, lest we all end up drinking chendol-coloured Newater.

Not sure about sudden cardiac arrest, but you may not come out of the Happiest 5K smiling from ear to ear after your phone dies from exposure to green dust.


Kopitiam staff sacked for washing shoes in sink

From ‘NEA to take action against Kopitiam after employee was caught washing shoes in sink’, 23 June 2015, article by Lee Min Kok, ST

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said it will take action against food court operator Kopitiam after one of its employees was caught on camera washing her shoes in a sink at an outlet in the National University Hospital (NUH). The employee has been sacked after the incident was highlighted on social media.

The clip, which lasts almost two minutes, shows the woman scrubbing both her shoes with a brush under a running tap within the cold desserts section of the food court. She then appeared to return the brush to a container which held other kitchen utensils.

…Kopitiam, known for its chain of food courts in Singapore, has since apologised for the incident. In a post on Facebook on Tuesday morning, it assured customers that the washing equipment used by the employee had been replaced and the sink disinfected.

You may not be a frequent visitor to NUH Kopitiam, but patients from the wards are. Imagine if you were hospitalised for a severe bout of food poisoning and you decide to give yourself an icy treat near recovery, only to spend another few nights retching away because your Ice Kachang comes with ‘extra toppings’: Someone’s inner sole leather shavings.

Food courts in hospitals should be held to a more stringent hygiene standard than the ones in your average shopping mall. For an environment already teeming with bugs, the last thing you need is someone introducing ‘foot-borne’ ones into your meal. Rival food chain Koufu was once flanked by an army of cockroaches, and a kid lost his life after eating tainted Nasi Padang in Northpoint’s Kopitiam branch.  Yet, despite all these horrific lapses in hygiene, Singaporeans still flock to these places because they’re willing to eat mediocre, sometimes atrocious, food as long as there’s air-con and staff discounts.

The rest of us with more discerning stomachs but on an equally tight lunch budget often turn a blind eye to the filthy practices at hawker centres, nor do we stand by and film elderly cleaners using the same piece of cloth to wipe tables, plates and trays and cost them their jobs after posting videos on Stomp.

There are worse things than giving your shoes a rinse-over in the sink, though. Here are some real-life tummy-churners:

1) Cleaners washing glasses in a pail of dirty water.

2) Washing raw food with rainwater from the roof.
4) Putting raw chicken on the floor.
5) Smoking while flipping prata.

Seriously, most of us are too hungry to scrutinise a hawker’s fingernails, how he handles our money, where he wipes his sweat, or how the dishwashing is done behind the scenes. Let this be a wake-up call not just for kopitiam vendors, but anyone with a licence to sell food, that whenever public health is compromised by a gross act of negligence, someone will be watching, complaining and NEA will step in and not hesitate to give the offender, well, the BOOT.

Burning joss paper leading to lung cancer

From ‘Restrict incense burning to places of worship’, 15 June 2015, ST Forum

(Madam Wah Yan Chan): I AGREE with Mr Mckeena Neo (“Common corridors not the place for burning incense paper”; June 2). While our forefathers may have burnt joss paper and incense sticks as a sign of devotion, they probably did so without knowing that such burning produces a cocktail of harmful carcinogens that may cause conditions such as asthma and, in the long term, can lead to life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer.

Causing inconvenience and harm to others should never be justified on the bases of religion and tradition. Surely Singapore should have a law prohibiting the burning of incense and joss paper in common areas and restricting the practice to designated places of worship.

There are regulations in the Environmental Public Health Act that stipulate how many joss sticks and candles with specific dimensions may be burnt in premises such as an ‘enclosed space’ or a temple. When burning cancerous joss paper, however, the public is merely advised to use burning pits and containers provided by town councils and clean up their mess after satisfying the gods, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it just outside your HDB flat. The writer above is clearly convinced that burning joss paper increases one’s risk of cancer and should be banned from public areas. The problem is she’s somehow OK with people getting cancer in ‘designated places of worship’.

Whether or not joss paper has the same risk as cigarette smoke is up for debate, since I believe no one has done extensive epidemiological studies on joss paper as we have for tobacco. What is certain, however, is joss paper is a potential fire hazard, especially if people are appeasing their ancestors near a PETROL STATION. Even burning them in bins as recommended by the authorities may lead to explosions in your FACE if there’s a stray aerosol can lying within. In 1976, a blaze ripped through a Jalan Ubi village, rendering 16 locals homeless. It started when burning joss paper flew into a mattress factory. If only the Fire department had SPRUNG into action faster then.

You may think we’re relatively safe because we don’t live in attap houses anymore, but God help you if a stray hot ash lands on your curtain.  You could say a lit cigarette may cause hell on Earth as well, but the trajectory of burning ash in the wind is more unpredictable, and it’s harder to catch the culprit because it could have blown in from anywhere. It could be a little girl behind it following her parents’ instructions to send money to Grandma’s account in the Netherworld. Do we, then, need to wait for someone to perish from a freak joss paper fire, not to mention asthma or lung cancer, before we do something?

Curbing a religious practice may have, well, inflammatory repercussions, and may explain why the authorities are slow to crack down on joss paper burning, even doing little to stop worshippers from aggravating the haze and pissing off asthmatics some years back. Interestingly, one of the stories behind how joss paper was invented involves a con-job by a paper inventor Cai Lun, who tried to boost paper sales by faking his own death and getting his wife to bribe the King of Hell to return his soul through joss offerings. Today, it has morphed into a custom of filial piety and endearing superstition, though one incompatible with our bid for a ‘clean and green’ future. Then again, we’re still seeing ever more cars on the road, trees being cut down to be replaced by condos and people continuing to smoke like chimneys because the government has banned all ‘smokeless’ tobacco products. At least the burning of joss paper, for all its environmental damage, is a small price to pay if it stops ghosts, demons and the evil dead from popping out of hell portals in what’s left of Bukit Brown and haunting the shit out of us all.

I forsee the practice dying out by the next generation anyway, provided we all don’t die of joss-induced cancer, asthma or in a fiery inferno anytime soon.

LKY being lionised into an ubermensch

From ‘Recognise imperfections without diminishing stature’, 28 March 2015, ST Forum

(Ng Qi Siang): I AM greatly saddened by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death. He was a great leader and deserves our respect for making Singapore the great country it is today.  However, I am concerned that many Singaporeans have been accused of being “disrespectful” of Mr Lee by mentioning some of his mistakes or policies they disagree with. Mr Chia Boon Teck has even called for such speech to be punished with punitive action (“Take the disrespectful to task”; Forum Online, yesterday).

…Moreover, by deeming the discussion of Mr Lee’s faults taboo, we lionise him excessively and present an inaccurate picture of the man to future generations. For all his great deeds, Mr Lee also made mistakes. Some of his policies, such as the “Stop at Two” policy, led to undesirable outcomes like an ageing population. His strict governing style has also been the subject of much controversy.

In order to give Mr Lee an honest assessment, we should recognise these imperfections without diminishing his stature, as historians do with other great figures, from Winston Churchill to Thomas Jefferson.  This will allow future generations to better relate to him as it gives his legacy a human touch. It also allows them to learn from both his errors as well as his successes.

However, by lionising him to the point of ignoring his weaknesses, we risk mythologising him into an “ubermensch” that future Singaporeans cannot relate to. By glossing over his mistakes, they may be deprived of important lessons that may help them avert the mistakes of their forebears.

Mr Lee himself has acknowledged that he is not perfect. As a man who did not take to heart how others perceived him, he would not want the value of his legacy to be lost for the sake of universal laudation. Free debate will allow for a more meaningful discussion of Mr Lee’s place in history.

When Low Thia Khiang mentioned that LKY was considered a ‘controversial figure’ because ‘many Singaporeans’ were sacrificed and had to pay the price for his one-party rule during a solemn parliamentary tribute, he was swiftly rebuked for being insensitive in light of his passing. The Catholic Church’s Archbishop William Goh said that Lee would not be canonised because although he achieved a lot of Singapore, he had his FLAWS, in particular the crackdown on parishioners during the 1987 Marxist conspiracy (Time to move on from Marxist conspiracy, 28 March 15, ST), a dark period under LKY’s rule that is conveniently omitted from the memorial biographies. I doubt anyone would accuse the Archbishop of disrespecting the dead man, unlike the brickbats tossed at the leader of the Workers’ Party.

Some critics go for the jugular, and become the target of a witch hunt as you would expect given this emotional period. Playwright Alfian Sa’at condemns the ‘fishing village myth’ and how the week of mourning was also a ‘history revisionism free-for-all’ (Playwright Alfian Sa’at questions LKY legacy, 27 March 2015, ST). Loudmouth Youtuber Amos Yee posted a video titled ‘Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead’, calling LKY a ‘dictator’ and comparing the adulation to that for Jesus Christ. Yes this is the same kid who thinks CNY is bullshit. Once talent spotted by Jack Neo, now facing 15 police reports at time of writing.

To be sure, LKY was no saint, as much as we have to be thankful for his glorious work. The glossing over the ‘controversial’ aspects of his leadership is inevitable as Singaporeans, having no king, emperor, saints or superhero to revere since our founding, finally have the chance to mourn a strong father-leader figure, many to the extent of messianic idolatry. After all, rational behaviour is hardly expected when a nation is bereaved, if the 10 hour Padang queues are anything to go by. Respect the phenomenal heroics of the man, but also remember him as a mortal with hopes, dreams, loves, quirks, habits, and yes, the occasional mistake. Aspiration, not divination. And of course, it pays to get your facts right.

Tribute in India

If the exaggerated mythologising of the man is not kept in check, we’ll have our children believing that LKY descended onto our little pitiless island on a flying giant unicorn, threw rainbow confetti across the land which magically spring forth HDB blocks and skyscrapers over mudflats, his sweat and tears transforming into the clean drinking water that we all take for granted today. In fact, on the day of his funeral itself, one already remembered for the torrential, incidental ‘tears from heaven’ that accompanied it,  someone reported a full rainbow appearing over MBS (which turned out to be an image from 2010). Also, the birds were singing Somewhere Also the Rainbow while flying in formation over the travelling cortege. OK, the last one is made up. I stand corrected.

The devil, as they say, is in the details, and we risk slaying it if we overdo this rose-tinted tribute to LKY’s legacy, the gushing sentiment leading to a mass selective amnesia. We want to celebrate the man and his people without whom all this would not be possible, not the myth.

The ubermensch is German for ‘Superman’ or ‘Overman’, and we hear of mourners calling out to Lee as their ‘superhero’, ‘idol’ or bizarrely ‘Papa’, unaware that the man himself was known to eschew a personality cult, and was always reluctant to have buildings named after him. Since his death, we have petitions to rename Changi Airport to LKY airport, people changing their Facebook banners and profile pics to LKY and black ribbon decals with his face on cars. He was ultra-pragmatic both in life and would want his death to be likewise, without the wailing grandiosity and postmortem epithets such as ‘Architect of Modern Singapore’ and ‘Chief Gardener of Singapore’. I can imagine him shaking his head from above, telling Singaporeans to go home to their families, get back to work and stop screwing up the Padang, doing injustice to his life’s work as the creator of the ‘Clean and Green’ movement. Life goes on, as what as he had designed in the Singapore ‘DNA’ all along, for us to carry on without him.

If there’s anyone disrespecting our late leader, it’s the grievers leaving behind a sad mess for others to pick up after them while deifying the man, not the critics trying to make him sound more like us;  a fallible, emotional, stubborn human being, warts and all.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 2

While it is heartwarming to see genuine acts of compassion from ordinary people on the ground, it would be nice to see such kindness being displayed on an everyday basis. Yes, even in Hello Kitty queues.

When interviewed by the ST (Critical battles: Letting go of past, but not forgetting it, 29 March 2015, Sunday Times), Otto Fong, son of banished Fong Swee Huan, alleged instigator of the Hock Lee Bus Riots, said:

..As I looked at everyone queuing up, I wondered how many of them would do the same thing for their loved ones while they were still alive. There’s a difference between forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving is about letting go, forgetting is not healthy for history.

Yes, you probably wouldn’t give your own flesh and blood a Black Knight farewell when they pass on, but if there’s one lesson to take home from the week’s events, it’s to cherish your loved ones while they’re still around. The Old Man, God bless his soul, would agree.


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