Haze response: Whose responsibility is it?

The haze is here to stay.

That was one of the messages that came through from the press conference with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday and subsequent briefings yesterday.

The authorities have emphasised the sheer scale of the problem and the difficulty in putting out the haze-causing fires in Sumatra.

With the prospect of clear skies anytime soon dissipating, the focus has now shifted to how Singaporeans can cope with the haze at home.

To that end, it is worthwhile considering a question about Singapore's response: Where does Government responsibility end and personal responsibility begin?

Just what do people expect from the Government in this situation?

Online, there has been no shortage of criticism on how the authorities have dealt with the smog. Some accuse the Government of a lack of leadership, others decry the fact that no stop-work order has been issued, while some have criticised the authorities for not issuing guidelines on everything from when to see the doctor to whether or not a mask is needed.

Among them are some valid points. The Government certainly has not acted as decisively nor communicated as effectively during this haze crisis as compared to the Sars outbreak in 2003.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who is now tasked to lead an inter-ministerial committee on haze said on Thursday that there are many more moving parts to keep track of here than in an outbreak.

Asked about possible school closures, he said: "Unlike infectious diseases, there is a great more variability and we will assess on an on-going basis when there is risk to the public at large before we make those decisions."

The concern, it seems, is that they did not want to over-react and be too disruptive if such an action was not required.

Yet, in taking a wait-and-see, reactive attitude, the Government loses an opportunity to score some leadership points.

At times of crisis, society looks to its leaders for concrete, salient action. If the authorities had rolled out its special medical scheme or mobilised volunteers to distribute the N95 face masks sooner - warranted or not - it might have helped soothe some of the underlying panic.

By the same token, while there are reasons for not wanting to pick a hard PSI number at which to issue a stop-work order , an advisory of all the indicators they look for would have at least helped send the message that everything was under control.

Yet, in a crisis, the response from the people is every bit as important as that from the Government. And on that score, our response also seems to have fallen a little short.

For sure there are those who should be praised for taking initiative: Companies have taken their own initiative to send workers home, people have been sharing masks with their friends and neighbours or going out to distribute masks to the elderly and needy.

But then, there are those who have chosen to be helpless, seemingly unable to do anything beyond coming up with things they want the Government to do or tell them.

It should not take Government guidelines for anyone to figure out if they should go to a doctor or not. Similarly, some level of personal judgment can be used to figure out if you need a mask or if you should cancel that tennis match you had planned for this weekend. Responsible employers should also be able to decide for themselves what steps to take to protect their employees.

For all that the authorities do, it how ordinary people react to crisis that will determine our national resilience.

Singaporeans have demonstrated during Sars that they can close ranks and pull together to deal with a national problem.

Regardless of what the Government does or doesn't do, surely we can do this again.