How to get rewarded for reporting litterbugs

From ‘Reward people who catch litterbugs in action, MP Lee Bee Wah proposes’, 12 Oct 15, article by Monica Kotwani, CNA

…Ms Lee said picking up litter is not enough. She is encouraging her residents to look out for those who litter habitually. She also suggested to the authorities to reward people who catch litterbugs in action. For example, after a resident takes a video of someone littering, he submits the evidence to NEA, and he gets to earn half of the summons.

She said: “In Taiwan, every resident is an enforcement officer. They can video, they can take photo of the litterbug and submit to their NEA. And if there is successful prosecution, their NEA will give the resident who reported it half of the summons collected.

…Said NEA chairman Liak Teng Lit: “I think the Government needs to think through what are the things we need to do. If you look at the equivalent of what is happening on the road, many people today have their in-vehicle cameras and not many people dare to make funny claims about accidents because there is a risk that whatever you say could be contradicting what’s on the camera in someone else’s vehicles.

“So certainly having neighbours watching over the environment and watching over each other will be very helpful. For the good citizens, there is nothing to worry about. In fact, people will be filming you doing good things and praising you rather than reprimanding you.”

The idea of a ‘litterbug vigilante’ is not a new one. In the face of weak enforcement, many have called upon concerned citizens of this ‘cleaned’ nation to rise to the occasion and publicly shame our fellow Singaporeans for their inconsiderate behaviour. NEA chairman Liak himself is the sort of guy who would tell people ‘nicely’ if they litter, citing statistics that 6 to 7  out of 20 litterbugs would give him a dirty look, while 1 out of 20 would yell at him to mind his own business. (Liak Teng Lit: 5 million, 70,000 cleaners, that is ridiculous! 16 Feb 2015, ST).

Mr Liak got one fundamental thing wrong about human psychology though; NO ONE will ever bother to take a video of you volunteering to clean someone else’s crap and give you a thumbs up. If you have followed STOMP long enough, you’ll realise that people are more interested in taking pictures of flaming cars, dead insects in food, catfights, exposed buttcracks, people washing boots in food court sinks, or if you’re lucky enough, someone shitting outside an MRT station.

Good Samaritans doing everyday niceties, without risking their lives or losing limbs saving strangers from total disaster, often go unnoticed. If you defend a helpless teenager from a crazy abusive angmo, you’re recognised as a hero. If you escort an old lady cross the road, you’ll be praised as an angel sent from heaven. If you, however, wag your finger and tut-tut at someone for leaving a mess in public, people will start asking: ‘What are you, Captain Planet?’ Which explains why now an MP is suggesting that we need to instill paranoia into litterbugs so that they think twice before launching that filthy booger out of the car window. And that by throwing money at you, hopefully that would encourage you to grow some spine and snitch on your fellow man.

Just last year, the NEA mooted the idea of recruiting volunteer enforcers to go around catching nuisance litterers. It’s a thankless job and no wonder we haven’t heard anything about this project since. It’s slightly worse than being one of those library attendants who go around shushing noisy children. As for filming someone red-handed, it’s practically impossible to whip out your phone and catch someone just at the instant they’re flicking their cigarette butt into the drain or throwing their Old Chang Kee fishball stick by the road. You’d have to start filming people secretly from behind a bush, and who has the time for such undercover stakeouts, half-summons cut or not? You’re more likely to be the one reported to the cops instead because of your suspicious loitering around trying to help the NEA raise their miserable KPIs.

Lee Bee Wah’s idea would probably work, provided you’re in the Old West looking for Billy the one-armed bandit, except that you’re armed with a crappy phone instead of a lasso to round up fugitives. It’s a sad state of affairs when the authorities need to pay amateur mercenaries to do the dirty work for them. Such a move is backward cowboy thinking and should be duly, well, trashed. Then do I have a better solution, you ask? Well, one word: Drones. Yes, flying surveillance machines designed to catch these no-good scum of the earth from way up high. It sure beats clumsy spywork and none of the scuffles or vendettas when things turn ugly. It’s like Robocop with wings.

We’re supposed to be a SMART nation now, MP Lee. Let’s live up to that, shall we.

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.


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