For years, Singaporeans had been urged to be better prepared for natural and man-made emergencies.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a people, we Singaporeans have
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.
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?