How Charles Chong “really” won back Punggol East

It is with great regret that I refer to the article entitled ‘How Charles Chong won back Punggol East’ in the online version of the Straits Times today. The article attempts to explain how Charles Chong gained the seat of Punggol East SMC back for the PAP at the 2015 General Election. The seat was won by Lee Li Lian in the by-election of January 2013 which was precipitated by the sudden resignation of then-Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer who had had an extramarital affair. Charles Chong managed to win 51.8% of valid votes while Lee Li Lian garnered 48.2%, with Chong winning a razor thin majority of 1159 votes in what was a very close fight. Insofar as the Straits Times article draws attention to the supposed merits of Chong’s own political persona and that of his campaign, it glosses over and omits certain realities that are too fundamental to ignore with regard to the manner in which his campaign was carried out and, consequently, the manner in which he won.

 

Allow me to declare, at this point, that I was very much involved in his opponent’s campaign team, including having served as her Counting Agent in that election. In doing so, I must hasten to add that the views contained herein should not be taken to be representative of any organisation, political or otherwise, of which I am a member. In any case, I have a vested interest in this issue as a constituent and elector of Punggol East SMC.

 

The article reports that Charles Chong’s Legislative Assistant (LA), Daniel Tan, highlighted two strategies undertaken by Chong and his team during the campaign – firstly, they focused on his “independence of mind”, which he presumably meant was a feature atypical of PAP MPs, and secondly, they toned down on the distinction between his seniority and the shorter time span during which Lee Li Lian had worked as a public servant in the capacity of Member of Parliament to avoid “exploiting his experience over a relatively inexperienced candidate.” While it would be unwise to underestimate the effect that the perception of this dichotomy had had on the eventual outcome, the article and Chong’s LA have made a stunning omission of the other tactics employed by the PAP that led to Chong’s win and Lee’s loss.

 

Indubitably and rather ostentatiously, the article, while at one point almost seemingly waxed lyrical about the stylistic elements of the posters the PAP campaign team put out, conveniently forgot to mention that another consequential tactic employed by Chong was to convey information to the media which misled Punggol East voters. The WP-run town council issued a media release on 8 September 2015 stating:

 

On 28 August 2015, the PAP candidate for Punggol East SMC, Mr Charles Chong, stated in LianHe ZaoBao:

“After the 2013 Punggol East By-election, Punggol East SMC was carved out of Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council and merged into Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.  At that time, the Town Council had approximately one million dollars of surplus (emphasis mine), and Aljunied Town Council in 2011 also had over $3 million dollars in surplus.  Today, the whole of AHPETC’s financial situation has deteriorated”.

We have seen no supporting evidence for Mr Chong’s claim that there was a surplus of $1 million in the accounts of Punggol East SMC at the point of merger into AHPETC (emphasis mine).

Till date, Charles Chong has remained unaccountable for this claim and has never issued a definitive clarification on what he meant when he issued such remarks to the media. No one but Charles Chong, himself, would know how he came to have the idea that a surplus of $1 million was handed over to the WP-run town council after the Punggol East by-election. Such an astounding claim which circulated in the media would have led to the shoring up of support for the PAP at the polls, because it would have perpetuated the idea that the WP had somehow mismanaged town council funds possibly with ill intent. The doubtful veracity of these claims, when contextualised with the difficulties faced by the WP in getting its own message out to the masses due to the uneven political playing field that is manifested through the nature of the mainstream media in Singapore today, points to how voters were misled into thinking that the WP and Lee Li Lian were incompetent. While this effort may be construed to be clever campaigning on the part of Chong and his PAP team, the fact remains that this tactic was premised upon allegations which Chong has, time and again, refused to acknowledge as baseless or decisively account for, since their publication and in the wake of his victory in Punggol East. To those of us who campaigned hard on the ground in Punggol East only to see our opponent make claims about our candidate that were highly doubtful but nonetheless contributed to his narrow victory, his silence is deafening.

 

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Charles Chong, in one of his campaign outreach materials to Punggol East electors, claimed that “The town council issue has been highlighted repeatedly and I understand that it can be confusing.” As much as he labelled the whole matter as “confusing”, he only added to the confusion and did very little to clarify the circumstances in which such confusion had arisen. Had he bothered to do so, more Punggol East residents would have been aware that the lack of accountability in the WP-run town council originally stemmed from the actions of the PAP’s affiliates themselves, due to the withdrawal of the software provided by the PAP company we have come to know as AIM to the old PAP-run Aljunied Town Council, which, data-wise, left the WP-run town council in the lurch. Charles Chong, for all his supposed “independence of mind” could have run a much cleaner campaign by highlighting the institutional challenges that Opposition-run town councils have faced with regard to procuring a non-PAP affiliated and unbiased managing agent who would be willing to work for them, and by championing the need to ensure that no matter who runs a town council in whichever part of Singapore, our laws and institutions should be reformed to never again inhibit any town council and elected MP to serve residents efficiently. Ultimately, when it came to the issue of town council management, Charles Chong put his political interests before that of Punggol East residents and our nation’s institutions for the long-term good of local governance in Singapore. Insofar as Charles Chong promised during the election to “sort out the town council accounts,” he himself has been unaccountable to the people for, in the first place, this campaign promise was based on a claim he himself did not bother to properly defend after his victory.

 

Charles Chong’s campaign material in Punggol East SMC, in which he promised that “Punggol East will be extracted from…uncertainty.”

 

Perhaps the one point which the Straits Times article was right about was its mention of the Prime Minister’s quip in which he praised PAP candidates in Opposition-held wards who have proved that “no opposition constituency can consider itself ‘safe’.” Indeed, such seats ought never to be considered safe in light of such tactics employed by PAP candidates in general elections.

 

In short, Charles Chong did not win merely by way of voters’ trust affixed to his supposed “independence of mind” and seniority, or by way of purposeful campaign materials and strategies. These factors might have lent themselves to gaining for him considerable support but what brought him over the edge, to win that thin majority of 1159 votes, were the fear and uncertainty his campaign helped to instill in Punggol East voters just before the polls.

 

So much for being touted as an atypical PAP MP with veritable “independence of mind”, Charles Chong has proven his prowess in subscribing to a longstanding electoral tactic of the PAP – to put rhetoric above reason if that’s what it takes to win.

 

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Crossed With The Cross Island Line – Where We Draw The Line

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The debate on the Cross Island Line has been progressing steadily since the release of the first phase of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). On the one hand, we have witnessed how proponents of the Cross Island Line’s currently planned route have continually supported the Land Transport Authority’s plan to encroach into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to construct a new MRT line. This is in spite of the environmental consequences that have been spelt out by the EIA. It has been found that these consequences cannot be mitigated in their entirety or even with a level of confidence high enough to guarantee minimal impact on our local biodiversity. On the other hand, we see a group of concerned Singaporeans, from geographers and scientists to environmentalists and ordinary citizens advocating for the proposed alternative route along Lornie Road. Even NParks’ former conservation manager of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has joined the chorus of voices against the current route. Much has been fairly said about the specific localised and generalised merits and drawbacks of each route.

 

Contrary to what some might assume, however, this debate is not just about pragmatism versus principle. It is not the usual kind of trade-off we have witnessed in the course of our nation’s development. This debate is one that will help shape environmental governance, land use planning and our notions of sustainable development as our nation matures.

 

Central to the arguments over the Cross Island Line is the type of sustainable development Singapore will show it is committed to, through its decision. What environmental groups like the Nature Society are arguing for, whilst focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity, stops short of deep green philosophy. By accepting the real need for better transport infrastructure, capacity and efficiency to support a growing population, these arguments are more in line with the kind of sustainable development that Singapore has been accustomed to than with what the typical pragmatic Singaporean may think of as mere idealistic drivel or bluster. The alternative route, while costlier, will prevent encroachment into the most pristine of our nature reserves while meeting the demands of a 6.9 million-strong population. Simply put, the economic loss brought about by building the alternative route today will be worth what we stand to gain from this decision in the future. It is crucial to note that not only do we stand to conserve our local biodiversity for future generations to learn about, our public transport operators will also benefit economically from having the chance to build one more station along the alternative route. Indeed, residents in Central Singapore will get to partake in the joy of being better connected to both Jurong and Changi like never before. We will all stand to gain from the alternative route of the Cross Island Line which is a project that boasts clear benefits for most of the suburbs that it will ply.

 

Too often, however, the end game of sustainable development in Singapore has involved environmental losses, in the pursuit of economic or social gain. We live in a country where greenery, no matter how man-made or manufactured, is viewed no differently from that which is natural. We relish in the number of neighbourhood parks we have access to, and in the image of the Garden City, nay – a City in a Garden. But we forget that even a garden no matter how well-manicured or maintained cannot truly conserve the biodiversity that is unique to our Central Catchment Nature Reserve. When we build an expressway through the rainforest, we build a bridge for animals to cross the gap and hail it as a unique solution to a necessary problem. Today, we are committed as a nation to even more land reclamation, drawn out in the 2030 Land Use Plan that will harm more coastal ecosystems in the name of development. Against the backdrop that this mentality provides, for all the merit our nature reserves hold, they are not valued as much as environmental resources upon which we depend more directly are. Interestingly, the water in MacRitchie Reservoir is valued more highly than the trees that surround it, than the soil through which it infiltrates, than the flora and fauna that depend on it as much as we do.

 

Granted, in the past, development necessitated many trade-offs. Even today, such trade-offs may very well be necessary. However, given not only our current level of development but also the need for us to become smarter and more innovative in addressing land use planning challenges that will only provide more strain with a rising population in the future, the current Singaporean style of sustainable development needs to be rethought.

 

Otherwise, it is worth questioning if the story of the Cross Island Line presents the new normal of environmental governance in Singapore. Where one government department develops a national biodiversity strategy and another ignores it? Where we change our tune on the environment depending on whom we are talking to? – It is interesting that on the one hand, we tell the world that we are committed to a new global environmental pact founded upon the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities insofar as climate change is concerned. But, on the other hand, we cannot even be committed to safeguarding the green lungs of our own backyard even though we can financially afford to via a potentially viable alternative? The issues of climate change and encroachment into our nature reserves may not be directly linked. But, the clearer picture that the Cross Island Line debate paints of our attitude about the environment suggests that we may not yet be as committed to a new Earth systems-based model of sustainable development as our well-executed dealings in COP 21 may have had begun to suggest.

 

What we stand to lose from the construction of the Cross Island Line’s current route, however, is much greater than the lost opportunity of increased transport efficiency and capacity. Our commitment to sustainable development is on the line. Today, it might be the Cross Island Line. In a few decades’ time, it might be a residential or industrial development. As most people would surely hope for, Singapore will be around for a long time. Shying away from making smarter decisions about land use planning today will only exacerbate our urban problems in the future in what shall certainly be a more complicated landscape.

 

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Why We Shouldn’t Have 2 Houses of Parliament

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1 Parliament with 2 Houses, or bicameralism, is an idea that is most intriguing. The Mother of Parliaments has the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The world’s oldest democracy has the House of Representatives and the Senate. The world’s largest democracy has the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Even our neighbours across the causeway have the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. While bicameralism may be a feature of the most well-known parliamentary systems in the world today, it would do little to further democracy and strengthen our existing institutions in Singapore.

 

The potential creation of an upper chamber was viewed by the Rendel Commission in the mid-1950s as the unnecessary stratification of Singapore’s political society – an upper class of the political elite in contrast to a lower class of elected representatives. An unelected upper chamber would be symbolic of a parliamentary feature that even our former colonial masters are trying to do away with today in their own country. Reform of the unelected House of Lords in the UK has been rendered as a common-sense cause tainted with political inertia to do anything about it. As recently as 1999, the UK moved to severely limit the hereditary peerage system, where the son of a Baron or Earl could inherit not only his father’s title but also his seat in the House of Lords by right of birth. Today, hereditary peers remain a vestigial component of the House of Lords. Nonetheless, the unelected Life Peers who replaced most of the hereditary ones may be of questionable quality themselves, in terms of what they have to offer. Why should we should have a wholly or partially unelected upper chamber of people deemed to be experts on policy or some other area of public interest appointed by a committee of other politicians (or worse, bureaucrats) rather than elected by the people themselves? What often happens is people who might ordinarily be unelectable because of other attributes get a free ticket into Parliament. For instance, renowned playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber who conceivably, being a celebrity, would not have had the interest or humility to put himself before the people in an election was given a peerage to sit as ‘the noble Lord Lloyd-Webber’ in the House of Lords and could then vote on a motion on government tax credit cuts for the poor when he had no professional expertise or experience, let alone the democratic mandate, to do so. Establishing an upper chamber with people similar to Justices of the Peace, Presidential Advisers, NMPs and other professionals would unnecessarily create an elite upper class who do not deserve to sit in Parliament without having to fight for their seats through a public debate of their values and policy platforms in what are known as general elections.

 

Proponents of an upper chamber also suggest that two chambers would be useful in allowing some parliamentarians to focus on grassroots work while others can be left to focus on political advocacy. The more pertinent issue therein is whether the vote means so little in Singapore as to suggest that its usefulness in electing policy makers pales in comparison to its importance in electing constituency managers or vice versa. MPs have always had to be competent in both policy making and the running of their town councils. In the same vein, ministers should also be experts in their own field whilst being expected to manage a constituency for they must be directly accountable to the people just as any other MP is, or arguably even more so as they are entrusted with greater responsibility than the ordinary backbencher MP. Indeed, ministers would be better off having first-hand knowledge of the experiences and grievances of their constituents.

 

We should also not underestimate the usefulness of the vote’s ability to lawfully depose ministers who lack the confidence of even their constituents let alone the nation. Suppose for a second that Dr. Manmohan Singh was truly unworthy of being the Prime Minister of India such that the people of the state of Assam would never have elected him to be their representative in a hypothetically elected Rajya Sabha – the Congress Party’s senior leadership would still have been able to keep him and other ministers with seats in the unelected Rajya Sabha in power for personal reasons rather than because these ministers had won the right to govern on their own merit through securing the confidence of the people via an election. In other words, elections have real value in establishing the merit of a politician by means of a popular vote; the will of the people should never be underestimated in a democracy to the extent that we begin to assume that technocrats must surely know best. Hence, an upper chamber might pose unseen threats to our democracy borne out of the whims of technocrats who cannot in any way be lawfully kicked out of power by the people for doing a bad job. This goes against the grain of the meritocratic pedestal that Singapore has been built on.

 

Moreover, in view of the reality that exists in the Parliament of Singapore today, an upper chamber would be practically unnecessary. One of the argued merits of an upper chamber is that its members would be able to scrutinise bills more thoroughly. To this end, upper chambers like the US Senate and the House of Lords, whether elected or not, do provide a greater scope and more time for debate on each bill that passes through these chambers. However, is there a need for this additional avenue of legislative scrutiny in Singapore when our Parliament already does so little to scrutinise bills? The Parliament of Singapore has certainly not exhausted its own means of scrutiny as far as bills are concerned and has a long way to go in improving its procedures to do so. It is extremely rare for a bill to be committed to an ad-hoc Select Committee of MPs for further deliberation, even though such calls for this to happen have been made before. Amendment motions on bills are unheard of. We have come to point where Parliament does not even need to sit as often as the UK’s House of Commons upon which it was based because bills in Singapore are rushed through the House. This is partially due to nature of the PAP supermajority as there is little political impetus for PAP MPs to publicly scrutinise Government bills in Select Committees or to seek to amend these bills even if they feel they cannot completely agree with pieces of legislation introduced by ministers while the few Opposition MPs lack the power or resources to do so. Hence, so long as the current Parliament of Singapore does not do all that it technically can to improve scrutiny, extend debates and raise more issues in the House, an upper chamber would be unneeded and would instead add nothing more than financial burden on the public purse with respect to its hypothetical members’ remuneration.

 

I recall a random afternoon in my secondary school library when I chanced upon a book on the 1953 Rendel Commission and its report which paved the way for the establishment of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. (The Assembly would later be reconstituted to Parliament after Independence in 1965.) The book outlined the Commission’s reasons for recommending a single chamber in a unicameral system rather than two chambers in a bicameral system which included the fear of political class stratification and the overall lack of any practical need for two chambers. The truth that Singapore’s politics lacks the space for an upper chamber remains as evident today as it was back then, during the time our forefathers were on the brink of self-government.

Is Aviation In Singapore Flying In The Right Direction?

Aviation F16s

Serving in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as a Flight Line Crew (FLC) and Dedicated Crew Chief (DCC), I have developed a fascination for aviation and in particular, military aviation. I had the opportunity to work on the Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 52 D+ fighter jet. Apart from getting myself acquainted with the ins and outs of the jet, refueling the jet encompassed a small albeit important part of my duties. Aviation is certainly an energy-intensive industry.

The sheer force with which an engine afterburner can provide sufficient thrust for flight coupled with the fact that the F16 travels at supersonic speeds to allow pilots to withstand forces as great as 9Gs, are a testament to the forces the F16 can both exert and withstand.

I started to wonder, however, just how energy-intensive is the aviation industry in general? Are there regulations in place to ensure energy efficiency in the industry? What progress has engineering made to allow the use of cleaner fuels by planes?

Singapore Airlines, our nation airline, has committed1 to undertaking energy-saving practices to “reduce fuel consumption and emissions include various initiatives such as flight operations enhancements, engineering performance and maintenance improvements, and weight saving measures.”

Legislation can also be enacted to ensure compliance on the part of transport operators. Airport service operators can be required to meet different minimum energy efficiency standards before being qualified as transport facility operators, for instance. In Singapore, the Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 20132 puts this to effect.

In 2006, the Ministry of Trade and Industry reported3 that Singapore, in spite of being an aviation hub, has “energy intensity is roughly on par for an economy of its level of development.”

Questions remain. I look forward to seeking these answers in the near future.

References:

[1] Singapore Airlines. (2012). Environmental Report 2011/2012. Singapore: Singapore Airlines. Retrieved from http://www.singaporeair.com/pdf/media-centre/report2012.pdf.

[2] Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 2013.

[3] Ministry of Trade and Industry. (2006). Economic Survey of Singapore 3rd Quarter 2006. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.mti.gov.sg/ResearchRoom/Documents/app.mti.gov.sg/data/article/5901/doc/ESS_2006Q3_EnergyIntensity.pdf.

Environmental Governance in Singapore – Questioning the Narrative, Questioning the Future

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The evolution of environmental policy in Singapore is a topic that has intrigued me for a quite a while now. Growing up, the narrative since primary school had always been that the foresight of our pioneering post-Independence leaders paved the way for the rise of the Garden City1 – the clean and green Singapore, as it we know it today. The city that we hold ourselves responsible to keep litter-free, the city with streets lined with trees methodically planted to splash shades of green upon the mundane grey of our pavements and roads.

At the same time, we learnt that the removal of the negative externalities harboured by the Singapore of the past was necessary to improve our environment so as to render our nation attractive for foreign investors1. A clean nation was not good for public health and the well-being of our own people; it had broader economic consequences that would make Singapore stand out against the rest of the developing Southeast Asian nations of the time.

Today, Singapore’s economic success has been, in part, hailed as one that was borne out of foresight in environmental governance1. However, not all is well with the environment in Singapore. What was seen as necessary development yesterday is today perceived to be the destruction of relics of the past. The changing landscape of Singapore foreshadowed the trade-offs2 we had to make in losing our natural heritage, built heritage and even cultural heritage for the sake of economic development. This is a reality Singaporeans today are all too well aware of and perhaps too complacent about.

Of course, the current government does not deserve all the blame for this. Indeed, one of the most consequential alterations made to our environment was carried out by our former colonial masters. The extensive deforestation of natural vegetation in Singapore provides us with the historical context to explain the existence of merely 0.04% of our natural forest cover that remains today3. To be fair, the government has also done a fair bit to preserve what they felt they could. Our historic cultural districts have always been a feature of our built heritage. Today, iconic suburbs are conferred the title of ‘Identity Node’ to celebrate their unique place in modern Singaporean history4.

Nevertheless, we are faced by challenges today that will require us to rethink environmental governance in Singapore. Steps have been taken in this direction – sustainability perhaps means more today in the context of Singapore’s environmental governance than it had in the past1; climate change is also being looked at by the government2. But is this enough of a shift in our approach or in our assessment of our desired ends? There are pertinent questions to be answered within the next 50 years. Are we ready for climate change? When will we pause for a second to realise there surely must be limits to the amount of land we can reclaim? Can we predict what our optimum population and the corresponding infrastructural requirements will ever be? Are we going to continue to trade our natural heritage for more development, more economic gains and more convenience?

There are questions to be answered. But first, enough of us need to ask them.

References:

[1] Tan, P.Y., Wang, J. & Sia, A. (2013). Perspectives on five decades of the urban greening of Singapore. Cities, 32, 24-32.

[2] Tan, F., Lean, H.H. & Khan, H. (2014). Growth and environmental quality in Singapore: Is there any trade-off? Ecological Indicators, 47, 149-155.

[3] Castelletta, M., Thiollay, J.M. & Sodhi, N.S. (2005). The effects of extreme forest fragmentation on the bird community of Singapore Island. Biological Conservation, 121, 135-155.

[4] Yuen, B. (2005). Searching for place identity in Singapore. Habitat International, 29, 197-214.

Quantifying Air Quality – The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI)

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Most Developed Countries (DCs) regulate environmental standards by putting caps on the emissions of criteria pollutants that empirical evidence has shown to be harmful to human health1. The PSI is one way to quantify air quality and has been adopted by Singapore to be the authoritative indicator of air quality in the country. Once quantified, it also aids in informing the public about the risks posed by different levels of air quality by affixing health advisories to each level.

Since 2013, every incident of transboundary haze brings with it a period during which the PSI becomes an oft-cited figure amongst ordinary Singaporeans in our daily lives. It seems as if when communicating about air quality with one another, merely saying that air quality is unfavourable would be unsatisfactory. A means by which we can put a number to air quality gives people a sense of scale as well as benchmarks for comparison as air quality usually varies as often as throughout the course of a day.

How is the PSI calculated?

The concentration of each criteria pollutant is compared to a standard index which is used to determine the sub-index assigned to the most recent recording of the concentration of the pollutant in question. The highest sub-index, whichever criteria pollutant that may represent, is taken as the PSI level2.

The PSI, as it was calculated before April 2014, took into account five criteria air pollutants. These were SO2, nitrous oxides, CO, PM10, and O3. The inclusion of PM2.5 occurred in 20142 when the National Environment Agency was of the opinion that a greater focus on PM2.5 was necessary to better reflect reality on the ground in the air as PM2.5 are finer particles that pose a higher threat to human respiratory health as compared to the more generalized pollutant known to us as PM10.

Was the inclusion of PM2.5 as a criteria pollutant in April 2014 necessary?

Velasco and Rastan (2015)3 of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the National University of Singapore respectively, certainly seem to think so. A paper published by the pair in 2015 noted that “the real hourly pollution levels” during the haze incident that year had still been unrecorded. This was in no small part attributable to the fact that before 2014, the only indication of PM2.5 in the atmosphere was the PM10 reading. This was in spite of the fact that during the episode, it was shown that the reported PM10 levels had been an under-representation of the significantly poor quality of air that existed in reality at the time. The methodology undertaken by Velasco and Rastan was to use newly collected information on PM2.5 concentrations since April 2014 and derive statistical models by which they could predict with an insignificant degree of uncertainty the actual hourly PM2.5 during the episode in mid-2013. Their findings indicate that these values could very well have been “twice the maximum 24-hour moving average reported by the authorities.”3

The findings of Velasco and Rastan seem to provide credence to the notion that incorporating PM2.5 as a new criteria pollutant measured by the PSI was a good move on the part of the local authorities. While it seems intuitive that more needs to be done to overcome the problem of the lag time in the official PSI readings published by NEA, refining the methods of measurement of the PSI seems to be a step in the right direction.

References:

[1] Hamilton, S.F. & Requate, T. (2012). Emissions standards and ambient environmental quality standards with stochastic environmental services. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 64, 377-389. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0095069612000538/1-s2.0-S0095069612000538-main.pdf?_tid=694d5626-7df9-11e5-ae0e-00000aacb35f&acdnat=1446094767_6ae8a0a14e35f289d579711c6397edb6.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2015). PSI. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/anti-pollution-radiation-protection/air-pollution-control/psi/psi.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S2210670715000463/1-s2.0-S2210670715000463-main.pdf?_tid=fd72d6f8-7dfb-11e5-b248-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1446095874_7c02d98301a4465fb7cb71472bc5fa0a.

Transboundary Haze – Care To Air Your Views?

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Dr Haridas
Ms Lee Li Lian
Beckham
Tirta

The haze affects different people in different ways. But there are things we can do to make life a bit better for those around us and ourselves as well.

My aunt, Dr Haridas, whilst keenly aware of the health hazards posed by the haze and that she has to look out for patients showing symptoms of haze-related health issues, also knows she has to exercise due diligence by not assuming that every patient who reports irritation to his or her eyes, for instance, is not suffering as such due to the haze alone.

Ms Lee Li Lian, using her voice and influence as my Member of Parliament, had tabled a Parliamentary Question in 2013 to ask the Minister for Health “(a) what effort has been made to make parents more aware of the advice that N95 masks are not designed for children; and (b) whether the Government intends to make available masks that are certified for children in public health emergencies.” 1Today, she continues her efforts to help the local community in various ways, having distributed masks to residents at a grassroots event recently.

My young friend and neighbour, Beckham plays his own part as well by reminding his secondary school friends on Facebook to wear masks when leaving the house.

And last but by no means least, my best friend Tirta whilst feeling sympathetic towards his fellow countrymen who have little choice but to bear the worst consequences of the haze, also recognises that this is a problem that not only doctors, politicians and those more vulnerable to the effects of the haze should be worried about – it is a problem that speaks to all of us, young or old, with urgency regardless of how seemingly helpless ordinary folk like us may perceive ourselves to be.

References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2013). Safeguarding Singaporeans’ Health During Occurrence of Haze. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 90, Sitting 19. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000151-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000151-WA_2%2Bid-43fcd59a-3ee3-45fa-a762-817fde5e1d55%2B4.

Photo Credits:

IMG: Ms Lee Li Lian – Punggol East Constituency Committee

IMG: Beckham – Beckham Song Ying

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act: What It Can and Cannot Do.

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The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was introduced to Parliament on 7th July 2014. It was debated by the House on 4th August 2014, committed to a Committee of the Whole House and passed after its Third Reading a day later on 5th August 20141. The Act came into effect on 25th September 20142.

The introduction of the Bill to the House came a year after Singapore suffered its worst incidence of air pollution caused by haze, with the highest recorded PSI levels the country had ever experienced3. In his opening speech to the House on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill4, then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, noted that the a legislative approach to Singapore’s response to the haze was necessitated not so much by Indonesia’s lack of environmental laws as by their lack of ability in enforcing these laws.

Part II of the Act sets out commercial or other entities’ liabilities for transboundary air pollution5. The provisions contained therein make it an offence for entities to be involved in causing haze. The law extends the scope of entities or companies covered under the Act to include those that may not be directly causing haze but are in some way involved in the management of another entity or company that owns land and contributes to causing haze from there. Furthermore, the legislation also specifies that it shall be a statutory duty of such companies to ensure compliance. Entities that have been found to have acted in contravention of the Act are also liable to provide compensation if there is evidence that the haze caused by them has affected any “person, property or the environment” in Singapore.

A key feature of the Act is the extraterritorial nature of the extent and reach of the legislation. The Act applies not only to companies based within Singapore but also to foreign-owned ones. Minister Balakrishnan assured the House that, “This exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction under this Bill is in line with international law, specifically the objective territorial principle.” However, the effectiveness of the extraterritoriality of the Act is questionable. Then Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers’ Party, rose to point out6 that Singapore has no extradition treaty with Indonesia and that, “If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore.”

Other practical constraints limit the effectiveness of the Act. In order to prosecute perpetrators, the Government of Singapore would have to be able to accurately identify them according to the lands on which forest fires were started and spread to. However, this can only be done if Indonesia agrees to share cartographic information with Singapore. Even if the Indonesian authorities agreed to do so, the prevailing complexity of forested land tenure issues in Indonesia would render it onerous to distinguish the rightful owners of the land in question from commercial perpetrators if indeed such distinctions can and ought to be made in the first place. This was a point raised by the then Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Faizah Jamal, who represented environmental interests in the House.

During the debate on the Bill, MPs from all sides of the House recognised that the key to solving the woes of transboundary haze lies beyond a legislative approach. Member of Parliament for Marine Parade, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef said, “Education must continue. Commitment must be inculcated. Mutual trust must continue to be strengthened.” Mr Yee of the Workers’ Party urged the Government to not only look at how forest fires can be prevented but to extend our diplomatic efforts to helping Indonesia develop “a more sustainable agro-industry.” The most sobering view, however, came from Ms Jamal, who proclaimed that the Government has to take the lead in changing our approach to the bigger picture of consumerism for the better. She said, “The ordinary citizen as consumers should be made aware that they have the power to change a business model that has thus far been more concerned about profits than about people or planet, provided citizens start by taking back responsibility for their own part in the problem. It is no use playing the blame game when there is no sense of personal responsibility for the consumer choices that we make individually and collectively as a country.” Today, with the greying of our skies once again, local companies took to improving their consumption practices with much support from the public.

Two things are certain. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it should not have to take a bad bout of haze for us to improve the way we use the environment. And, from a political and legal perspective, it will not take a single Act of Parliament alone to prevent these bouts from recurring to colour our skies grey once again.
References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Bills Introduced. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/bills-introduced.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2014). Parliament Statements. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/corporate-functions/newsroom/parliament.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[4] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 10. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006470-WA&currentPubID=00006417-WA&topicKey=00006417-WA.00006470-WA_2%2Bid-2242cb2e-c3e5-4597-9bfa-bbaa6c57a231%2B.

[5] Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 (Act 24 of 2014).

[6] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 11. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B.

Clearing the Air on the Haze – A Hazy New Year?

Haze

“As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.”

The Straits Times reported on October 19th 2015 that the haze could persist until 20161. A researcher from the Centre for International Forestry Research was quoted as saying that it might very well last until the final month of 2015 or the first month of next year. Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans might wonder why we are to bear the brunt of the haze for a longer period than our squeaky clean and ‘sterile’ respiratory airways are normally accustomed to. Amongst the reasons for the persistence of the haze are factors of a geographical nature.

The seasonal monsoons experienced in this part of the world that straddles the Equator are the main culprits. In June 2013, the worst haze in Singapore’s meteorological history was recorded. The southwest monsoon was the main cause of the haze as winds blowing from Sumatra to Singapore carried a comparatively higher concentration of particulate matter (PM) particles with them2. In March 2014, the haze was back again – but this time, the northeast monsoon was the primary cause of the public’s ire. Its northeasterly winds were retreating back northwards3, accompanying the gradually moving Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) with the approach of warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Now, in October 2015, however, one would expect a taming of the haze as the northeast monsoon comes to our rescue – to rid us of the prevailing southwesterly winds that have been carrying too many PM particles4 with frequencies greater than comfort ordinarily affords. However, in any given locality, the replacement of the southwest monsoon by the northeast monsoon during the inter-monsoon period is a gradual process5 that requires patience on the part of the people who would be expected to relish in this seasonal change.

SST

Diagram 1: Sea Surface Temperature anomalies across the tropical Pacific (22nd October 2015) enable us to visualise the temperature disparities across the Pacific Ocean that drive the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States.


This time, however, hope for clearer skies might be further afield than initially expected due to the current cycle of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) being experienced in our part of the world. The ENSO is brought about by cross-longitudinal changes in oceanic water circulation that results in a change in temperatures across oceans (Diagram 1). In the case of the eastern margins of the Pacific Ocean, warmer sea surface temperatures bring higher rainfall to South American countries such as Chile. The corollary to this is that Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia that lie along the western margins of the Pacific Ocean experience drier conditions brought about by easterly winds rid of moisture6. The ENSO occurs every few years and lasts for variable periods of time7. Drier conditions that may exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia due to the persistence of the ENSO are the reason cited by geographers and meteorologists as to why the haze might continue up until January 2016. It is worth noting that this is certainly not the first time the ENSO and Indonesian forest fires made for a fearsome combination. In 1997, the ENSO brought about forest fires in Kalimantan, Indonesia that emitted a thick aerosol plume, forcing the shutting down of airports in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

There might exist a commonly held misconception in the Singaporean psyche – that our country does not experience seasonal changes in weather patterns. We do. There is also perhaps a feeling amongst those who are uninitiated with the geography of weather and climate that compared to life in temperate countries, living in Singapore makes for a boring existence due to the high year-round temperatures and rainfall experienced here where snow can only be artificially manufactured in air-conditioned enclosures and where tomorrow’s weather must surely be as mundane as that of any other day in the year. On the contrary, our susceptibility to seasonal weather patterns has impacts on our daily lives that are more real than one might imagine, given the right conditions (in this case, an anthropogenic condition imposed upon us by our neighbours which is being heightened in its effect by physical conditions). As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.


References:

[1] The Straits Times. (2015). Hazy new year: South-east Asia set to suffer for months as Indonesia fails to douse fires. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/hazy-new-year-south-east-asia-set-to-suffer-for-months-as-indonesia-fails-to-douse.

[2] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[3] Meteorological Service Singapore. (2014). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for April 2014. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://wip.weather.gov.sg/wip/pp/ssops/reparch/apr14.pdf.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2015). Press Statement: Singapore Registers Haze Concerns with Indonesia. (2015, September 10). Retrieved from http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/jakarta/press_statements_speeches/2015/201509/Singapore_Registers_Haze_Concerns_With_Indonesia.html.

[5] ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre. (2015). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for September 2015. Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://asmc.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Sep15.pdf.

[6] Cane, M. (2005). The evolution of El Niño, past and future. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 230, 227-240.

[7] Chen, D. & Cane, M.A. (2008). El Niño prediction and predictability. Journal of Computation Physics, 227, 3625-3640.

GE 2015: The Politics of Our Environment – An Overview of Political Parties’ Environmental Policy Platforms

Manifesto

With the close of the General Election 2015 campaign period, much has been discussed regarding the outcome delivered by the electorate, the approaches taken by the political parties that contested the election as well as the background against which the polls were conducted. Unsurprisingly, these conversations have been of a political nature more so than they have been of a policy-oriented nature. Whilst elections in Singapore may not be won or lost entirely on the policies put forth by political parties in their manifestos, an overview of these policies would nonetheless be useful even after the polls.

As many would readily attest to, if ever Singaporeans cared about policy, party platforms and manifestos at the polls, environmental policy would probably not have been ranked highly amongst their primary concerns or considerations before marking their ballots. Indeed, this is more often than not the case in other developed countries as well.

However, what did the political parties put forth in their plans for the environment? Singapore is, after all, not without its share of environmental problems brought about by causes anthropogenic or otherwise. The last Parliament presided over the highest food waste rates our nation has ever faced, the worst Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels Singaporeans have ever had to contend with, during the haze of mid-2013, as well as problems such as anthropogenic climate change that continue to pose threats to our nation of islands that may very well materialise in time to come. So just what did the people running for the 13th Parliament have to say about these issues during the campaign?

Regrettably, several parties, such as the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), had no concrete plans for the environment to speak of.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) presented a series of policy papers which they published over the course of the last 5 years as well as in the run-up to the polls and whilst the party had no policy paper on the environment per se, their Shadow Budget 2013 and Town Council Management Plan contained within their pages traces of some form of environmental policy or other. These included their proposed troika of enterprise agencies that would explore industrial sectors related to “organic food, environmentally-friendly & eco-friendly products and eco-tourism”. They also pledged that their town councils would engage in “landscaping and other horticultural projects,” although the merits of such projects for the purpose of environmental policy analysis are easily questionable for surely any town council would have to carry out such projects possibly for purposes more aesthetic than of actual environmental value.

The Singapore People’s Party’s (SPP’s) manifesto did not explicitly mention environmental policies. However, their candidate for Mountbatten, Mrs Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss promised to raise awareness on animal welfare issues and to involve animal welfare agencies in her management of the constituency, as mentioned in her My Mountbatten Manifesto.

The Reform Party (RP) manifesto included five broad “Green and Environmental” policies revolving around the issues of solar energy, car sharing, green industry and becoming a regional leader in the areas of tightening greenhouse gas emissions and green technology.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) promised that they would implement policies to make Singapore more liveable, more green and more sustainable. Whilst it is not in their practice to publish manifestos with very specific plans, they included a pledge to improve infrastructure and connectivity through their Smart Nation initiatives as well as a short list of projects to rejuvenate the urban environment in Singapore including “the greater Southern Waterfront, the Rail Corridor, a 2nd CBD at the Jurong Lake District” as well as redevelopment works in Paya Lebar Air Base. The party also promised that Singaporeans will be able to live in an environment where they will be able to appreciate nature. After having formed the Government by the end of polling day, their commitments to sustainability and whether their redevelopment plans will incite greater debate on environmental management, as they have in the past, remain to be seen.

The Workers’ Party’s (WP’s) environmental policy proposals were the most extensive and detailed in nature amongst those of all the parties that contested the General Election. In a departure from the style adopted in previous manifestos of the party which each had a section specifically on the ‘Environment’, its 2015 manifesto grouped these policies under the umbrellas of “Promoting Green Towns” and “Protecting Natural and Cultural Heritage”. The former section outlined plans regarding renewable energy, recycling, environmentally-friendly forms of transport and food security whilst the latter section outlined pledges on mandatory environmental impact assessments and a Climate Change Risk Assessment. The manifesto also made a commitment to reserve 10% of land in Singapore for future generations as well as an Energy Efficiency Certification Scheme for SMEs.

The plethora of environmental issues outlined by all parties across the board is certainly more encouraging than it would have been in previous elections. This might be reflective of the increased relevance of environmental policy in a country where the trade-offs between environmental sustainability and economic development have received increased attention in the mass media certainly over the course of the existence of the last Parliament.

Nevertheless, the above outline of environmental policy proposals in General Election 2015 begs the question of whatever happened to food waste, the haze and other pertinent environmental problems of the day. 




References:

NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY. (2015) Factsheet on Food Waste Management. [Online]. Available from: http://www.nea.gov.sg/docs/default-source/corporate/COS-2015/cos-2015-media-factsheet—food-waste.pdf?sfvrsn=0. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

NATIONAL SOLIDARITY PARTY. (2015) NSP Election Manifesto 2015. [Online] Available from: http://nsp.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Manifesto-PDF-Final.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

PEOPLE’S ACTION PARTY. (2015) With You, For You, For Singapore. [Online] Available from: https://www.pap.org.sg/Upload/Manifesto/Manifesto2015.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC ALLIANCE. (2015) SDA’s General Election 2015 Manifesto. [Online] Available from: http://singaporedemocraticalliance.sg/sdas-general-election-2015-manifesto. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC PARTY. (2013) Shadow Budget 2013. [Online] Available from: http://yoursdp.org/_ld/0/9_Transforming_Ou.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC PARTY. (2015) The SDP Town Council Management Plan. [Online] Available from: http://yoursdp.org/_ld/0/15_SDP_TC_Manageme.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

SINGAPORE PEOPLE’S PARTY. (2015) My Mountbatten Manifesto. [Online] Available from: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1PbZlkVBGM2OXplTDlZRHFRalk/view. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

TAN, F., LEAN, H. H. AND KHAN, H. (2014) Growth and environmental quality in Singapore: Is there any trade-off? Ecological Indicators. 47. P. 149-155.

THE REFORM PARTY. (2015) Manifesto 2015. [Online] Available from: http://reform.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ReformPartyManifesto2015.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

THE WORKERS’ PARTY. (2015) Manifesto 2015. [Online] Available from: http://wpge2015.s3-ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/29111924/Manifesto-2015-Official-online-version.pdf. [Accessed: 9th October 2015].

VELASCO, E. AND RASTAN, S. (2015) Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society. 17. p. 122-131.