Raw fish dishes containing freshwater fish banned

From ‘Freshwater fish banned in ready-to-eat raw fish dishes’, 5 Dec 15, article in CNA

The Ministry of Health (MOH), National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Agri-Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) on Saturday (Dec 5) announced that the use of freshwater fish in all ready-to-eat raw fish dishes will be banned with immediate effect. 

NEA said tests by AVA and NEA showed that freshwater fish have “significantly higher” bacterial contamination than saltwater fish, and are likely to present higher risks of infection when consumed raw.

It added that effective immediately, all retail food establishments that wish to sell ready-to-eat raw fish dishes are to use only saltwater fish intended for raw consumption.

According to the authorities, such fish are usually bred or harvested from cleaner waters and stored and distributed according to “appropriate cold chain management practices”.  MOH, AVA and NEA said the ban is in place to help protect consumers and “give greater peace of mind” to the public, ahead of Chinese New Year.

Back in July 2015, MOH tried to give the public a ‘peace of mind’ by assuring us that there’s ‘no proven link between eating raw fish and GBS‘. An infectious disease expert argued that although GBS is not traditionally food-borne and does not affect healthy immune systems, food handlers may transmit the killer bacteria to food products.

The authorities have also not provided details on the tests which they conducted, i.e which stalls or country they were sourced from, storage, farming conditions etc. But until there’s a thorough investigation into the cause of the GBS outbreak, considered to be the first of its kind and the biggest IN THE WORLD (Recent GBS outbreak ‘biggest in the world’, 6 Dec 15, ST), this CNY we’ll have to settle for lo hei-ing with canned abalone or salmon (from reliable sources, of course).

Between July and the recent blanket ban, we’ve read horror stories of victims requiring BRAIN surgery, had limbs amputated, lapsing into 10 day comas, and one dying from the outbreak. But it wasn’t until Nov 28 this year when MOH confirmed the link between raw fish and the aggressive Type III ST283 GBS strain and hawkers were told to stop selling such dishes. One forum writer questioned the lag time between the health advisory and sales ban. We should also ask if ST283 is a recently evolved strain, since we’ve been generally having raw snakehead, toman and tilapia without any problems since the 30’s.

I wonder if things would have turned out differently if people hadn’t sent out warning messages initially, which, ironically, many dismissed as a prank, a hoax. Because, well, you’re supposed to take such viral messages with a pinch of salt. It’s SOCIAL MEDIA after all; a platform for inane jokes, political rumours and, soon to come, Christmas greeting spam.

This is one Whatsapp message in full, according to Reddit.

Hi all, I am sharing this because my boss is now warded in NUH because of painful right arm. He ate raw fish last Wed at Ayer Rajah mkt.

He wants me to share the following with as many people.

For the past few weeks the hospitals islandwide have been noticing a surge of young and old men who have been coming in sick with fevers and painful swollen joints.

There has been a particular strain of bacteria that has been isolated from the blood (Group B streptococcus) and this bacterium is usually very weak and mild, but we found this latest strain to be particularly virulent.

The common unifying factor behind this outbreak is that all the patients had consumed 鱼生 (the kind we like from hawker stalls, with a lot of sesame oil and pepper) within the past week.

Nationwide we are still collecting enough info to prove that it’s a particular farm that has been supplying these fish to the hawkers that have contaminated waters.

That’s why not on media yet.

So far places implicated are maxwell food centre, Alexandra village, to name a few.

For the sake of health just avoid 鱼生 for the next few weeks.

Wait until the official news is out where NEA manages to find the source of the contaminated fish.

Now that we know this ‘particularly virulent’ strain has been confirmed and people have suffered tremendously from it, does it mean that we shouldn’t call bullshit on such social media health scares outright? After all, even Dr Google at the time told you that GBS could not be transmitted through food, and only those with a hardcore passion for deadly vermin would know that ST283 was identified as a ‘novel sequence‘ in Hong Kong, according to a Journal of Clinical Microbiology paper (2006). For the rest of us, we either choose to ignore and go on with our lives, play it safe and abstain until official word is out, or fan the flames by bringing sashimi and cerviche into it, instilling panic to food lovers and retailers everywhere.

What if someone sent a mass Whatsapp about a lethal pathogen that had evolved to withstand boiling temperatures and may be associated with see-hum? How does the layman tell the difference between what is merely ‘improbable’ (this GBS outbreak) or what is ‘impossible’?

If anything, this GBS saga serves to remind us all not to take food hygiene and cooking methods for granted. In the meantime, you can continue to enjoy see-hum (cockles), despite its checkered history with Hepatitis A infection, and thank Neptune that we didn’t ban the shellfish back then, despite the fact that the creature, being a filter-feeder, has the ability to concentrate viruses from sewage-polluted waters. If you’re a diehard fan of yusheng and willing to bear the risk of amputation, however, you can still go up to Malaysia for your fix before vendors in JB raise their prices just to cater to deprived Singaporeans.

Vivian Balakrishnan wants you to save money

From ‘Minister calls on S’porereans to save money, not make sacrifices, on energy’, 5 Dec 15, article by Albert Wai, Today

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday (Dec 4) expressed confidence that Singapore will meet its pledge to reduce emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, adding that for many Singaporeans, this will mean having to be more conscious about saving energy on a daily basis.

Speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before leaving for Paris to attend talks on a post-2020 global climate change regime, the minister said “a concerted and deliberate long-term plan has been put in place to ensure that we can all save money, at the personal, national and industrial level”. “I’m not asking you to make sacrifices. I am asking you to save money. We all need to pay attention to the way we use (electricity) and, more importantly, go back to the age-old wisdom about not wasting.”

Yes, we should all tighten the purse strings, nevermind if Christmas is round the corner. Instead of popping the bubbly, let’s toast with goddamn NEWater. Christmas lights? Hell no. Free range organic turkey? Bah! In fact, let’s all have our meals in hawker centres instead of grand buffets.

This exchange between MP Lily Neo and Minister Vivian with regards to how much recipients under the Public Assistance scheme should be getting is worth reproducing in its entirety (2007).

Dr Lily Neo: Sir, I want to check with the Minister again when he said on the strict criteria on the entitlement for PA recipients. May I ask him what is his definition of “subsistence living”? Am I correct to say that, out of $260 per month for PA recipients, $100 goes to rental, power supply and S&C and leaving them with only $5 a day to live on? Am I correct to say that any basic meal in any hawker centre is already $2.50 to $3.00 per meal? Therefore, is it too much to ask for just three meals a day as an entitlement for the PA recipients?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?

Oh if only the entire government subscribed to Vivian’s thinking that urging Singaporeans from the very beginning to abide by ‘age-old’ values would be good enough to keep unnecessary spending in check. Then we wouldn’t have to wait till we’re 55 before the Government relinquishes our piggy bank, i.e. withdrawing part of our CPF.

It’s one thing to be told that you should save money by your stingy dad who refuses to throw holey singlets away. It’s another to be educated about money matters by a highly-paid minister, especially one who needs to justify how the YOG budget blew up to $387 million. Luckily he didn’t bring up sacrificing simple pleasures into the picture, like how ex Health Minister beseeched women to ‘save on a hairdo and go for breast screening’. If there’s one leader role model that one should look up to when it comes to frugal financing, it’s the late, jogging shorts-mending, underwear-washing LKY.

Talk is cheap, of course. If you want your citizens to take you seriously, get off the high chair and show that you mean business. Do your part to cut carbon emissions by cycling as part of your daily commute, like Britain’s ‘minister of cycling’ Robert Goodwill. Take the train not just to get a ‘ground feel’ of commuter suffering, but because you choose to do so over driving. Organise an ‘eco-Xmas’ party with your Holland residents, where Xmas trees are made out of recycled trash and the most expensive item on the dinner menu is Farmers’ market eggnog, not airflown Iranian caviar.

Nonetheless, our Minister would do well to be conscious of his own personal spending after making this statement, and keep his luxurious holidays, if any, thoroughly hidden from the public eye. Especially any that involve learning how to cook fancy French food over 5 weeks for $46000.

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.

ST_20140831_P1COLOUR31_623603e

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers