Saturday, June 29, 2013

Weaknesses unmasked: Singapore's Psychological Defences weather challenges as haze pushes air pollution into uncharted territory

State of neglect: The poor condition of this Civil Defence banner urging Singaporeans to get their homes "CD Ready" is an apt reflection of the level of emergency preparedness in Singaporean homes.

For years, Singaporeans had been urged to be better prepared for natural and man-made emergencies.

How many of us actually listened?

In comes one puff of smoke from Sumatra which sends the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to a historic high and all of a sudden, Singaporeans scramble to respond to the mother of all hazes.

Knee-jerk responses by Singaporeans heeding that wake-up call when a known irritant (the haze) moved us into unknown territory (PSI at hazardous levels) brought out the best of the kiasu ("afraid to lose" in Hokkien dialect) and kiasee (afraid to die) Singaporeans.

N95 face masks were so scarce that retailers who tripled the price of such flyweight masks found no problem finding buyers when the haze thickened. Ounce for ounce, N95 masks sold at $10 apiece at the height of the haze were probably worth their weight in gold.
Hot sellers: Singaporeans sucked out stocks of air purifiers to guard against the haze. If you visited a home electronics store in Singapore over the 22-23 June weekend, you did not need directional signs to the air purifiers. Just head to the largest group of shoppers in the store and that would get you there. 

Air purifiers disappeared from home electronics stores islandwide. Some consumers were so desperate, even display sets were snapped up at the height of the haze from 19 to 22 June. The lucky few who snatched the last boxes off the shelf clung on tightly to their precious air purifiers with both hands, looking for all the world like they were clinging on to the last life jacket on a sinking ship.

Singaporeans tracked the PSI Index more closely than stock market indices, diligently refreshing computer screens hourly for the latest indictor of air quality (or lack thereof).

Psychological defences tested

Through all this, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) got a resounding answer to its community relations watchword: Is Your Home CD Ready?

We are not.

Indeed, the Lion City's psychological defences have not seen a more severe test since the SARS crisis 10 years ago.

Granted, nobody has died because of the haze. And official guidance on how we should interpret 24-hour PSI data shows that air pollution is not as dire as netizens make it out to be – never mind the dramatic before/after pictures of city sights when the PSI shot to Hazardous levels.

But it is precisely how this island nation reacted to this haze that reveals telling signs of how we as a country might behave when we are jolted out of our comfort zone.

The prognosis isn’t pretty. With our weaknesses unmasked, Singaporean watchers know that our psychological defences need to be made more resilient if we are to weather future shocks better.

Top of the bucket list of improvements is crisis communications.

Crisis comms during the haze

While the haze in something Singaporeans have lived with before - at least since around 1997 when PSI readings last touched record levels - the situation a week ago ushered Singaporeans into unfamiliar territory as our city-state had never before seen three-hour PSI readings shoot past 300 points.

This explains why clear, timely and credible communications are of utmost importance during the haze. It was a Known-Unknown situation during which people would naturally look to their country's leadership for guidance, support and understanding.

It was a golden opportune to regain build trust and win hearts and minds.
To be sure, the job of projecting one's messages across various platforms in the real world and in cyberspace was made more challenging by the fact that the haze crisis situation is the Singov's first big test of its haze drawer plan since the 2011 General Election. Why does it matter? It makes a difference as the ground today is less sweet and Singaporeans tend to be more circumspect.

So spokespersons for officialdom had to work much harder to help their public relations (PR) messages sink home as they faced a larger audience of sceptics and a more vociferous crowd of netizens. They really earned their pay this month.
Singaporeans may not be able to control the origin of the haze. We are, however, certainly in control of how we choose to react to the haze situation.

What triggered Singaporeans to suck up supplies of N95 masks around 20/21 June when three-hour PSI readings soared?

It is probably because people believed two things:
First, that their lives were in danger from bad air.
Second, that the peril could be mitigated with N95 masks or air purifiers.

This desire to live on, to take control of one's fate by protecting oneself against air pollution is a silver lining amid the gloom brought on by the haze.

It would be infinitely more worrying if Singaporeans didn't care anymore because it reflects that we as a nation have lost all hope for our collective future and the will to fight on.

The resourcefulness and drive with which Singaporeans sought out haze protection (N95 masks, air cleaners, last minute holidays abroad under clear skies) are indications that Singaporeans are more resilient than people give them credit for.

Spin doctors who had their ear to the ground should have calibrated official responses to take into account the innate tendency of Singaporeans - of all races, we would like to emphasize - tend to err on the side of caution, no thanks to the kiasu instinct inherent in this country. This is the default behavioural response of most Singaporeans in the absence of credible assurance.

Crisis comms could have done better.

Table of precedence: Air quality tracked by Singapore's three-hour PSI deteriorated to the Hazardous level on Thursday 20, Friday 21 and Saturday 22 June, triggering calls for the public to be kept better informed. 

The great PSI debate

It is regrettable that official efforts to paint a stoic, business-as-usual picture ended up hurting the feelings of a number of Singaporeans at a time when all people wanted was a clear, no BS indication of air quality through the PSI readings.

With the advantage of 20:20 hindsight, it is all too easy to dismiss calls by the public for more responsive, spot PSI data as unnecessary, even alarmist. Afterall, the bad air did not last long.

But what if it did? What if the PSI remained persistently high?

The call to look at the 24-hour PSI reading ignores the fact that most people do want to continue living their lives as normally as can be. With visibility dropping fast especially on Thursday 20 June and Friday morning on 21 June, do you not think Singaporeans need - indeed deserve - to know if they should stay indoors at that point in time rather then venture outside to do everyday things (buy lunch, visit clients, fetch kid from school, bring parents to market etc etc)?

Except for the net savvy who are plugged perpetually into cyberspace through tablet PCs, mobile devices or PCs at home/office, many Singaporeans were left to fend for themselves and had to rely on their survival instinct and common sense to figure things out.

Remember that this isn't disaster country where people grow up experiencing PSI 300 as occasional inconveniences from their youth.

When even our senior citizens gasp at the haze situation, officialdom should have stepped in decisively with clear, unambiguous advice - when to take cover, when to sound the all-clear when pollution dips.

Disconnect with reality

Instead, there was a palpable disconnect between those three-hour PSI readings and the situation outside our windows.

Granted, Singaporeans should wean themselves off the nanny state mentality where we need our nation's leaders to tell us when we can venture outside and when not to do so. But there's a first time for everything and the crisis comms standby plan - one assumes they DO have one - should have public communicatons and responses tiered to kick in at various PSI levels, especially when the PSI hit the Hazardous zone for the first time.

Left to fend for ourselves when we most needed guidance, can you expect Singaporeans not to feel disappointed, letdown by a system which their tax dollars pays for?

What is all that technology for weather monitoring if we do not use it astutely?

Value of PSI readings

PSI readings are quantifiable. Impressions and perceptions aren't.

PSI readings can be validated. This part of weather analysis isn't voodoo science. Impressions, on the other hand, can be subjective and paint a picture totally out of sync with reality.

In a worst-case scenario of spiraling public doubt and dwindling public confidence, poor impressions can hurt Singapore's global standing by fuelling impressions that the value of business at all costs supercedes the well-being of her citizens.[Note: Elections in other countries have been lost over reasons more trivial than this.]

This negative impression could cloud future investment prospects especially when foreign companies who put a premium on talent development and quality of life issues read Singapore's reaction to the Big H the wrong way.

This disconnect was palpable on the morning of Friday 21 June, when the three-hour PSI reading for 8am registered 158 while the smoked out view told a different story. If there was a turning point during the haze when the National Environment Agency's (NEA) PSI lost its fan club, this was it.

Measured, disciplined, rational approach to haze response

Such negativity could have been arrested by a measured, disciplined, rational and calibrated approach to our haze response.

We had that chance when the three-hour PSI entered the Hazardous zone last Thursday and Friday.

We could have shown how our compact city-state leverages on technology to issue timely alerts for people to yes, stop work and stay indoors till the situation cleared as the PSI indicated the air quality was hazardous.

Yes, spot PSI readings fluctuate wildly because the air quality in realtime fluctuates wildly. Explain that to Singaporeans and you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that even the most strident noises in the real world and cyber world are not as unreasonable as you think.

One should have confidence that such hard, realtime data will help calm the public rather than having people rely on guesstimates which may prompt them to view the situation with more negativity than it deserves.

Singaporeans deserve to know how high the PSI readings actually reached during that fateful Friday when the three-hour reading touched a record 401 points. There are rumours, totally unsubstantiated and unproven but spread with utmost seriousness, that the PSI that morning was far higher than the average. Dare NEA tell us what the upper limit was?

What's noteworthy is this: After all the hot air ventilated by Singaporeans, the PSI debate has been left unresolved. The compromise is having BOTH the three-hour PSI and 24-hour PSI readings on local channels, with Singaporeans left to decide their own fate.

Counting on national resilience

As a people, we Singaporeans have endured tolerated weathered many Singov measures that foreigners might recoil in horror against if similar measures were executed in their respective countries.

* We lived through Home Quarantine Orders imposed during SARS, a situation which foreigners might regard as akin to home detention.

* Contact tracing done during SARS went without a hitch in Singapore. Elsewhere, people may feel this is a gross violation of privacy.

* Singaporeans have accepted compulsory National Service (NS) as a fact of life, even at the cost of training deaths of young Singaporeans which broke the hearts of more than 100 families across our island since 1967.

If Singaporeans' confidence will collapse because of a high realtime PSI reading, then we might as well pack up and close shop as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) won't save us when the enemy is at the gates (as total pandemonium would have broken out).

To suspect that Singaporeans cannot deal with spot PSI readings is to reveal one's disconnect with ground sentiments - a worrying trend when it comes to crisis communications because it shows one doesn't know the audience.

Strategic advantage

Pairing spot PSI data with a public alert can be done today. Infrastructure for a nation-wide alert already exists in the form of the SCDF Public Warning System that can broadcast the tone urging people to tune in for an emergency broadcast. We are the only country in ASEAN and one of the few in the world where every corner of mainland Singapore can hear PWS alerts.

This is a strategic advantage that ought to have swung into action during bad air periods to underline Singapore's measured, rational and disciplined approach to dealing with the status quo.

It is true that our small size puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to a call for workers to down tools. In larger countries, the national economy can continue to hum along even after one (or several?) cities are taken offline.

In the Lion City, taking Singapore offline means shutting down the national economy. It is, admittedly, a tough judgment call to make. Life must go on. We cannot expect food to drop from the sky. We have to justify our existence in this world.

Leaving it to the discretion of companies to decide when and under which conditions to stop work risks unbalanced responses from industry as manpower planners look over the fenceline to see what their neighbours/competitors are doing.

As the world grows more green conscious, what sort of signal are we sending potential foreign investors?

Noise from the internet cannot be wished away or dismissed with platitudes.

And just as the national response should be calibrated carefully, PR statements should be crafted to build confidence and not sow seeds of doubt.

The statement that Singapore had 9 million N95 masks stockpiled, for example, is unfortunate. It came at a time when there was a fierce selloff of N95s island-wide and most people we unable to get hold of a single one. Instead of calming nerves by showing we have all the N95s we need, that 9,000,000 figure did not resonate with heartlanders as they shuttled from one pharmacy to another in their vain search for those elusive N95s.[Note: This was before NTUC's haze response plan creaked into motion.]

Related publicity showing all hands on deck, with volunteers helping the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) made a perfect photo opportunity. Volunteers and SAF personnel formed a human chain to unload boxes of N95 masks one box at a time. This one picture says a lot about how our haze response plan could have been better executed.

Foreign defence professionals who study the picture (above) may conclude (wrongly?) that the mighty Third Generation SAF has some way to go before all that integration and tri-Service cooperation works as advertised.

Is this the message we want to send, that in the entire technologically advanced 3G SAF, we have to break bulk when a forklift or hand pallet truck could have done the job in mere minutes, leaving the volunteers time and energy to focus on value-added stuff?

One would imagine that the haze response drawer plan would have mapped out drop-off locations across Singapore, indicating the number of N95s needed and the population density around the drop-off point.

Commonsense would make you pick places with loading bays at the same height of truck cargo beds to make unloading easier, or perhaps choose a truck with a mechanised tailgate.(Stand at the unloading bay of a supermarket to watch how commercial operators do it.)

For a country which pushes the Total Defence message regularly, the haze response was an ideal PR platform to showcase civil resources in action. But ask yourself if we could have handled the situation better.

New normal 

If there's any good news from the haze, it's the fact that Singaporean homes have never been better stocked with N95 masks and air purifiers.

The haze has done more than any SCDF publicity campaign to get Singaporeans to make their homes "CD Ready". We as a country are now better prepared should we need to mask up for a flu pandemic, because this country is crammed to the gills with N95s.

If the severity of the haze is a new normal, our island nation needs to better prepared for the next big one.  

The tools are there.

There's no shortage of manpower in the SAF or SCDF. And we had all the leadtime to prepare and practice as the last bad haze was back in 1997 - 16 years ago.   

What did we do in the interim?


sgcynic said...

Allow me to reorganise your paras to put forth a point.

"State of neglect: The poor condition of this Civil Defence banner urging Singaporeans to get their homes "CD Ready" is an apt reflection of the level of emergency preparedness in Singaporean homes."

Nay. The poor condition of the banner shows the state (pun intended) of neglect by this government in Total Defence. Only hype and then things are left to fallow.

"And we had all the leadtime to prepare and practice as the last bad haze was back in 1997 - 16 years ago.

What did we do in the interim?"

Indeed. The damn driver took his eyes off the road, only had and still having his sights on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

With leadership like this, indeed it is left to the individual resilience of the foot soldiers.

Anonymous said...

Total Defence has taken a back seat ever since the government occupied itself with "foreign talent".

Anonymous said...

How cum our civil defence do not have a haze-action plan? What is the chief of civil defence forces doing all these years huh?

Can or will our bomb shelters be used during such crisis in future? Aren't these bomb shelters adequately stock up with anti air-pollution masks etc?

Anonymous said...

Any revelations about the setting up of Cyber Defence Operations Hub?

Anonymous said...

i believe there are dooms day preppers among Singaporeans, whom will take the initiative and commit own resources to invest in emergency-survival items.

Short of buying guns and explosive devices, i wish the state allow Singaporeans to purchase survival related items from the internet and not banning them from importation.

The family were contemplating purchasing gas mask (for civilian and children models) but later learnt that these are banned in Singapore. Admit that such equipment is an overkill for situation like the haze but hey, you never know what may come... with the south china sea potential flashpoint... i don't know. But i am willing to spend my own hard earn money to prepare my family and myself from worst case calamity whether nature or man made.

Side note: Do you think there is a market for survivalist equipment marketing in Singapore? A healthy GDP increasing activity better than casinos, opps my apologise David (haha ;-)

David Boey said...

re: Cyber Defence Operations Hub. Capability announcement without details. Not even the commander's name.

re: Market for survivalist equipment. The rentals here would kill the business, IMHO. And you can't beat online stores price-wise for permissable items.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Has anyone found yesterday's weather forecast useful? The only people who finds it useful are probably researchers who need to collect statistics for analysis. In this case, yes, 24-hr PSI provides enough fidelity.
But for the man on the street who has to make STOP/GO decision, what they need is real-time measurement and forecast.
What is the point of saying 'all studies use 24-hr PSI' when we are not using it for study and analysis?
So what if yesterday's PSI was good but I look out and can't see more than 400m and the air smells bad? Do I go for my outdoor activity based on 24-hr PSI or use my common sense?

Anonymous said...

" Market for survivalist equipment. The rentals here would kill the business, IMHO. And you can't beat online stores price-wise for permissable items...."

agree ;-)

Not unless you are a big player with some monopoly supplying SAF... you know haha.

Anonymous said...

Who cares about Psychological defense when you can't even provide for physical defense.

The people have every right to be concerned with their health if the government/institutions have been sitting on their hands all this while.

This is not a new danger. A lot of questions should be asked about the state of Civil Defense but sadly, the opposition has no inkling how to and the government won't allow it.

What to do? Bo Pian. Singaporeans just suffer and count on individual kiasuism.

Chew Ting Blanks said...

1)Lease of aerial firefighting assets is not a difficult thing to do. It will give Indonesia less room to wiggle out of its International responsibility.

2) Provision of gas mask (considering the low cost when ordering in bulk) should be in the onus of the SCDF. Curious to know exactly how developed our bomb shelter program really is or is it just wayang.

3)Legal warfare also important. Considering this has been a lingering issue (haze/slash and burn by conglomerates many based in Singapore/Malaysia), not sure what MFA has been doing or if there is adequete coordination across ministries to tackle the problem.

In most other (accountable) governments, there would be a through investigation. Not sure if we will likely see something similar however in our current set up. Cover up thicker than the haze likely (and if anything equally hazardous)

Anonymous said...

Indonesia don't want to put out the fire. they need the palm oil or you want Singapore to supply them free cooking oil?

you cant sue another country for burning forest. just look at north korea, even America, japan and south korea can do little about KIM.

our previous FM got voted out of office in exchange for 5 extra flower pots in parliament.

gas mask and N95 are not suitable for all people, note the death warnings on the N95 if you don't know what I mean.

HAZE action plan- buy over all the land in Sumatra, chase all the indoneisan citizen out of sumatra and turn it into our backyard.

Anonymous said...

^ Pappie dog above.

Mask not suitable for all people, so we don't deserve a better haze response.

Haze cannot be stopped, so we cannot encourage our companies and economic mechanisms to be better prepared for a stop work order.

Cannot please everybody, so we should not even try.

Anonymous said...

dear pot carrier, I don't see your empty pots do anything about the haze?

why not exercise "your" voice?

or perhaps your voice fail to reach your "pots"?

David Boey said...

The Civil Defence banner in the top most picture has been removed. :-/

Best regards,