Parliamentary debate: Haze, MDA – 9.5 million masks meant for healthcare workers?

By Leong Sze Hian

I went to Parliament this afternoon to listen to the proceedings on the haze and MDA regulations.

Greatest revelation of the debate:

The 9.5 million face masks in the stockpile were meant for healthcare workers, and not the general population.

We demonstrated great flexibility in crisis management by deciding to give 1 million masks free to 200,000 needy families and 3.15 million to the retailers to sell to the public – we decided to utilise the military for the distribution (mobilised the SAF) – we were lucky and grateful to the Peoples’ Association (PA) for getting the grassroots leaders to help to identify and distribute to the 200,000 needy families (decision to use PA was made on the spot).

So, does it mean that all the above were not planned?

Why did it take about 60 hours from the time the PSI hit 321 on 19 June 10 pm to the early morning of 22 June, to get sufficient stocks of masks to the retailers? No answer, but a clue perhaps – retailers encountered bottlenecks?

Most hilarious moment of the debate:

MP Lee Li Lian said something along the line of “Minister, I may have missed it, but I don’t think you have answered my second question – Why did it take 3 days after the PSI hit 321, for the Ministry of Health (MOH) to clarify to parents that the N95 masks were not suitable for children? Why was it not publicised earlier?”

Minister Gan Kim Yong replied by almost repeating what he had said earlier in answer to Lee Li Lian – That the best way to protect children was for them to stay at home, if they travel a very short distance and time like the school bus to school – they don’t really need to wear a mask, etc.

So, unless I missed it too – he never answered the question despite be asked a second time.

Most illogical part of the debate:

The decision to change to 24-hour PSI was based on the main consideration that we do not want to confuse Singaporeans (the primary consideration was that we publish accurate data – is the data giving enough advice to Singaporeans?). “No reason for us to give misleading data” “Need to be consistent”

So, the question may be – wasn’t changing to 24-hour at the peak of the crisis even more confusing to Singaporeans?

Most nonsensical part of the debate:

If the 24-hour PSI was the best practice in the world, like in the USA – Why did it take 19 years to decide all of a sudden to make the change at the hike of the crisis?

Most significant question ($64,000 question) that was not answered:

Was there or wasn’t there a national haze crisis plan (MP Chen Show Mao asked as to why the national haze crisis plan was not made public as it would have boosted public confidence?)

Inter-agency task force from 23 ministries and agencies first met on 29 May to prepare for the dry season?

Haze task force formed in 1994 is activated ahead of the dry season every year?

Have crisis management group since 1994?

Most unbelievable statistics of the debate:

Recent poll – 97 % said could find information on the haze?

80 % of residents polled were confident that we will get through the next haze threat, Government is doing its best?

Anti-climax of the debate:

The Speaker said that Parliament has a haze plan too – So does it mean that MPs don’t have to worry if the haze comes whilst they are in Parliament?

Best excuses of the debate:

Satellite pictures can’t see if have clouds, early warning is difficult, winds take a few hours to reach, PSI system in state of transition, needed to be updated, Government has been monitoring closely over many years and more closely last month, met Indonesians many times over the years, etc?

Best plan in the future:

By 2015, MEWR will have enhanced technologies for early warning – new satellite with greater resolution, greater spectral sensitivity, more wind sensors, more complicated computer model to predict how fast the haze will reach us, etc?

Most reassuring part of the debate:

MP Yen Jenn Jong asked the Minister to confirm that in 2006 – there was assurance that the Government had a haze action plan to protect and inform Singaporeans?

Best (or worse) advice of the debate:

Consumers who come across profiteering can report to CASE?

Funniest part of the debate:

Information and Communications Minister (in reply to MP Baey Yam Keng’s question as to whether the MDA regulations would affect Singapore’s reputation ) said that he was puzzled as to why the AIC (Asian Internet Coalition) and companies like Google and Facebook have expressed their concerns on the MDA regulation and we don’t think it will affect the reputation of Singapore – isn’t the fact that so many international organisations and companies have expressed their concerns already affected Singapore’s reputation?

Best “try” of the debate:

If they have problem with the $50,000 performance bond, we will be flexible – try to understand their circumstances, etc?

Best speech of the debate:

NCMP Mrs Lina Chiam who filed an adjournment motion on the MDA regulations (which allows her to speak for up to 20 minutes)

Selected extracts from her speech:

“More recently, five members of the Asia Internet Coalition – Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo and Salesforce – have called the new MDA rules “unwarranted and excessive”. These are the world’s major companies providing internet-related services. This issue is now affecting Singapore’s business-friendly image and reputation as a media hub.

The Government is trying to assure Singaporeans that they are not out to clamp down on internet freedom. The Acting Minister for Manpower, in speaking about these media regulations, said on television that Singaporeans can continue to air their views online. But what does that really mean? The Minister for Manpower also said that the regulations “do not encompass blogs” but may if “blogs evolve into news sites”. The definition of news sites under the regulations, as they stand, are so arbitrary, and can encompass any website posting at least one news-related article in a week.

This is not just about the ‘better communication’ of the new MDA rules, as the Minister for Communications and Information put it. There are legal issues that have not been addressed. Most of all, this issue had not even been put before this House for scrutiny and debate until today – a full 38 days after the regulations have already taken effect.

These assurances are vague and do not constitute a legal guarantee. Bloggers speak of the MDA regulations as the proverbial Sword of Damocles. It is the fear I strike in you if I hang an axe over your neck, even though I promise you I will never kill you.

In conclusion, we are reminded of what George Washington, the first President of the United States, said: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.”

 

Reference: Order paper for the day’s Parliamentary session