Coney Island developing $250 million OBS campus

From ‘Keep Outward Bound Singapore out of Coney Island’, 29 March 16, ST Forum

(Dr Aishworiya Ramkumar):The news that there is going to be a new Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) campus built on Coney Island (“$250m Outward Bound campus for Coney Island“; last Friday) is extremely disappointing.

I believe that I speak for many a resident in the area in describing the elation we felt when Coney Island was opened to the public last year. The island is rustic, untouched by development and, simply, nature at its best.

This is something that is rare in Singapore – understandably so, given our constant need for more space for man-made endeavours. Most of our parks already have numerous man-made touches which may make them more comfortable, but ironically, nature by itself does not always have comfortable and modern amenities.

OBS already has two campuses in Pulau Ubin, just across from Coney Island. Unlike Pulau Ubin, the latter is not big enough for one part to be built up into a campus and the other to remain truly untouched. So, perhaps expansion within Pulau Ubin could be considered instead.

Yes, students, and indeed all Singaporeans, need to experience and learn through the outdoor experience. But often, the crux of that lies in experiencing the true reality of untouched nature rather than through a built-up campus.

I truly hope that the authorities will leave Coney Island true to its natural self and not turn it into yet another “developed” nature spot. Alternative possibilities for the expansion of OBS should be considered.

Most Singaporean guys would have the opportunity to experience the ‘true reality of untouched nature’ at some point in their lives. They’ll get to brave the elements, piss behind bushes, dig their own shit holes, bash through vegetation and roll around in mud while fostering deep manly bonds. And all this without pumping in a fortune to build the Singaporean equivalent of summer camp. It’s called NS.

More bad news for the writer and the lone cow roaming the island: The non-park portion of Coney Island is already designated for housing development (Safeguard rustic appeal of Coney Island Nature Park, 13 Jan 16, ST). In fact, the very name ‘Coney Island‘ came about in the 50’s when a businessman opened a ‘health resort’ on the island mimicking its namesake in the US. In the seventies, the isle was already tainted by pollution from Punggol’s pig farms. On my recent trip garbage flanked the beach. So yeah, Coney Island is a far cry from an unmolested rustic paradise. There’s already a trail run cum carnival scheduled, so building an expensive, big ass adventure camp on the island shouldn’t come as any surprise. Not to mention that it’s TINY, less than half the size of Pulau Ubin, where the OBS flagship campus resides. Why the need for TWO offshore camps anyway? Is there so much wimpiness in the air that we need to man up this whole lot of spoilt buggers with mega-camps?

OBS is often touted as a character-shaping, confidence-building experience, allowing a generation of kids brought up on Survivor, Hunger Games and iPads to relive fish-out-of-water fantasies for a couple of days. How applicable all these outdoor skills turn out to be in real life remains to be seen. You may be the fastest knot-maker in the history of OBS, but that doesn’t save you from nasty office politicking where you’ll need to choose the right apples to polish. You could excel as a sailor though, because that’s precisely what OBS was originally designed for in the 1940s, a program borne out of an archaic concept that a boy must face his demons in the untamed wild like Leonardo De Caprio in the Revenant to become a MAN. But even surviving an attack from a beast, thriving on canned sardines or drinking your own piss doesn’t guarantee you’ll walk out of OBS with balls of steel. One teen blogger revealed that she had to ‘pee in the sea’, an act which her instructors told her was ‘life-changing‘.

There are other ways for mollycoddled Singaporeans to toughen up of course. Send them off to climb mountains, volunteer at an orphanage or apprentice at Ah Kong’s coffee shop. The question is whether you need to plow through Coney Island’s natural environment for $250 million to accomplish just that, only for these OBSers to go through the motions for the rest of their sterile existence, reminiscing about the sun, the sand, the sky and urinating in the goddamn sea.


Tesla electric car penalised with $15000 carbon surcharge

From ‘Electric car Tesla slapped with $15000 tax surcharge’, 5 March 2016, article by Christopher Tan, ST

An electric car which attracts tax breaks in several countries has been slapped with a tax surcharge in Singapore. The Model S – a sedan made by California-based Tesla Motors – is the first tailpipe emission-free car to be penalised this way here.

Mr Joe Nguyen, 44, registered a used Model S he sourced from Hong Kong just before Chinese New Year. He was shocked that the car – for which he paid close to $400,000 – was liable for a $15,000 carbon surcharge.

“Honestly, it’s stupid,” said the senior vice-president with an Internet research firm. “I went back to them (Land Transport Authority), and they cited a UN emission test regulation. They also factored in carbon emissions at the power station. We don’t apply a carbon penalty to people charging their iPhones, do we?”

According to LTA, the Tesla uses 444 watt/hr per km, equivalent to 222g/km of carbon. You will only get rebates if your carbon emission is below 136g/km. In comparison, if you use the ICAO carbon footprint calculator to determine the amount spewed from a round trip between Singapore and Bangkok, you get a figure that is roughly a 1000 fold increase – 240kg of carbon per passenger. That’s excluding the taxi ride to and fro the airport. In other words, you need to drive a Tesla for 1000km before you can clock the same amount chugged out over a short holiday. How much carbon did we emit over the SG50 long weekend last year, I wonder. Alas, policy decisions made on the basis of CO2 emissions are never simple. You could avoid taking the car out on the weekend but end up guzzling electricity at home Netflixing on your giant 48 inch Smart TV, snacking on smoked salmon flown all the way from Norway to your coffee table. Your very mundane existence is itself a strain on the carbon budget.

Before we saw carbon in a different light, beyond its presence in fizzy drinks and the fact that we excrete it out and trees suck it back in, electric cars were seen as the panacea to our oil dependence problem. If we’re not able to witness solar-powered flying cars in this lifetime, then electric seemed to be the way to go. We imagined these vehicles as sleek, Zen-quiet machines which naturally smell of fresh pine, guided along by a GPS equipped with the voice of Sir David Attenborough. It was the future of transportation, not MRT lines underneath Macritchie reservoir, not car-free days, not bicycles or hoverboards. Instead, our government bans electric scooters in parks, slaps penalties on supposedly ‘green’ cars that happen to be gluttons for electricity, and the public asks for zero emission bicycles to be regulated. No, we’re still not going to emulate the Jetsons in another 50 years.

But this isn’t the first time that anyone who tried to promote clean tech got into a tangle with the authorities. James Diebley couldn’t register his battery-operated three-wheeled Corbin Sparrow as a motorcycle as the LTA deemed it to be more ‘car-like’. Although the LTA explained that it would have granted the rebate , Diebley eventually gave up the EV, but only because being a solo vehicle, he couldn’t use it to send his kids to school. On one hand, we want to encourage families and pledge to cut emissions, on the other it seems that the prerequisites of driving a cool electric car around Singapore include being 1) bloody rich and 2) single. Yes, try picking up girls with a gadget that looks like a character out of Pixar’s Cars.

Somehow, people have this perception that being small and compact, Singapore would be ideal for an electric revolution. Yet at the same time we have one of the highest ownership of modified supercars in the region, despite the roads being notoriously race-unfriendly. Bureaucracy is often blamed as the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of us becoming a car-lite, low-carbon nation, but without the right mindset and behaviorial changes in all of us to ‘heal the world, make it a better place’, or we continue to have billionaires who can afford to be penalised even if their EV is a grid vampire, our future generations will still inherit the scum we leave behind, with or without electric cars and their rebates and charges.

Cross Island MRT line cutting under MacRitchie forest

From ‘Macritchie Route for MRT line an irreversible error’, 13 Feb 16, Voices, Today

(Joey Gan): I am writing in to express my concern about the planned Cross Island Line. I feel strongly that the line should be routed along Lornie Road, one of the two proposed alignments, to avoid it cutting under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (“Impact of Cross Island work on MacRitchie significant without LTA mitigation measures”; Feb 11).

Having worked in conservation previously, I have had the opportunity to conduct research in the forests of MacRitchie. It is a beautiful place that can only be harmed if works are carried out beneath the area. The impact of noise and smell on forest inhabitants cannot be fully understood or quantified even with an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Even with mitigation measures in place, it is likely to be near impossible to enforce these measures on a daily basis. Furthermore, works must be done around the clock, and this only exacerbates the situation.

The MacRitchie forest is home to one of the largest patches of primary rainforest and lowland swamp forest in Singapore. It is a national treasure.

I can appreciate that transport is a big concern, but in this situation there is a viable alternative. If this alternative is not taken, the consequences on our national natural heritage is irreversible.

We have already divided what was once the largest stretch of primary forest in Singapore into two fragments when we built the Bukit Timah Expressway through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. We then spent millions trying to connect the two via the Eco-Link@BKE. And now we are considering making a similar mistake at MacRitchie.

I implore the Minister of Transport and those involved this project to consider their decision carefully, for the sake of our forests and for Singapore.

Minister Khaw Boon Wan once pledged in a Facebook post that he would help ‘protect our Garden legacy’, whatever his portfolio. If there’s anyone would could sway the powers that be to scrap the Macritchie project, it would be this man. But he can’t do it alone. To paraphrase his thoughts on engineering, we need to make conservation ‘sexy’. We need to shake off our perception of nature crusaders as hipster tree-huggers. We can’t just plant a tree and think we’ve undone all the damage we’ve inflicted to become where we are today. We need to discuss such issues in Parliament instead of thrashing out town council accounts and duckweed (even though they’re green) NCMPs.

Concerned voices failed to stop the impending wipeout of Bukit Brown and, more recently, Bidadari. Mandai also looks set for a ‘moderate-impact’ makeover.   An Environmental Impact Assessment without considering the cumulation of all our past ‘achievements’ at the expense of nature doesn’t tell you much about the fate of our ecosystem, whether future generations will be spending most of their existence staring at screens, living in concrete, and their only concept of wilderness is a stroll though the UNESCO World Heritage Site Botanic Gardens. One also can’t help detecting the mixed messages coming from the authorities. On one hand, you’re talking about going ‘car-free’, the next you’re ripping an expressway right though the oldest damn cemetery in Singapore.

Environmentalists call for a zero-impact solution, but it’s likely that the Government will give zero shits. Occasionally, conservation warriors win the day. In 1992, the Nature Society managed to stop the development of an 18 hole golf course in Lower Peirce Reservoir. What’s more disturbing to me is the fact that the idea of building a golf course in the first place came from the PUB. What a national water agency is doing supporting an activity that actually wastes water is beyond me. We are thankful for Chek Jawa, Sungei Buloh and Kranji Marshes, but need to be wary that the Government doesn’t use these as excuses for further devastation. For every avid golfer there are probably a dozen motorists or commuters who wouldn’t mind a new road or MRT line if it means killing off some pesky wild boars. The Government will continue to use fuzzy words to placate us like ‘moderate’, ‘calibrate’ and ‘balanced’, and sneakily modify buzzwords like ‘Garden City’ to ‘City in a Garden’.

There wasn’t time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Ultimately, conservationists lost the battle for Marina South and Senoko. And there’s little done to stop the onslaught of less known nature enclaves right behind our doorstep. There may not be an endangered pangolin hiding in the bushes behind my estate, but if the town council decides to replace whatever wilderness we have left with a Gateball Court that nobody uses, it not only wastes resources and tax payers’ money but who knows what chronic deprivation of greenery and birdsong would do to our mental health and ‘spirit’. Not everyone has the time or energy to trek to Sungei Buloh for their dose of greenery. I could be struck with cancer staring out of a window in my terminal years and there’s not even a swaying branch in sight to sooth my dying soul.

A ‘Smart Nation’ should have the foresight and, I should say – audacity, to leave our forests, marshes, seas alone without scratching that itch for progress. Singaporeans are already one of the most stressed people in Asia, and with the Government doing whatever it can to make us produce babies, we need to establish a link between this metastatic urban growth and environmental degradation to our willingness to procreate, and ultimately, our very survival.  In other words, think of new ways to pitch the conservation message – that displaced creatures will run amok on the roads resulting in accidents, eat your mangoes, steal your grocery bags and charge at little children, that one less hectare of greenery increases the risk of dementia or depression, or even scare tactics like a docile mousedeer mutating into a novel virus-spreading, gnashing, man-eating beast over time because of tunneling works. Godzilla was Japan’s answer to the scourge of nuclear technology. We need our own Godzilla for Macritchie – Maczilla.

Whatever we’re doing, misguided economic benefits, shitty useless amenities or otherwise, let us be reminded that for what it’s worth, our trains, fancy buildings, expensive automobiles and all those projects that work out to be short-term gratifications in the grand scheme of things, nature always wins in the end, and chances are we won’t be around to witness Her victory parade.

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.