SINGAPORE - As haze levels soared to a record high on Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to focus on protecting vulnerable Singaporeans, working with the Indonesians to stem the problem and keeping the country going.
He outlined his approach during a press conference at the Istana, as Singapore endured yet another day where air quality reached the hazardous range.
At one point, it hit 371 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), making Thursday the most hazy day in the country's history. To carry out those priorities, the Prime Minister has asked Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen to head a Haze Inter-ministerial Committee.
It will review guidelines for protecting vulnerable groups, make sure society and businesses continue to operate, and issue clear guidance on the protective measures at each PSI threshold, said Mr Lee.
His comments were an apparent signal that the haze response would involve action at home, not just engagement with Indonesia.
Mr Lee warned that it was hard to tell how the haze situation would develop. It could last for a few weeks, or even until Sumatra's dry season ends in September.
He said: "We will need to adapt our response to suit the changing situation, and protect ourselves in practical and sustainable ways."
For example, the Health Ministry will introduce a scheme allowing Singaporeans who suffer haze-related respiratory problems to see a general practitioner at certain clinics for just $10 if they are 18 or below, 65 or above, or are on public assistance.
The Government will also hold daily briefings to keep the public up to date.
Companies have been taking measures to protect their staff, such as giving out face masks, letting them work from home or, in some cases, sending workers home. But there is no magic PSI number that will trigger a work restriction order from the authorities, said the Prime Minister.
Instead, the approach will be to assess the haze situation on a daily basis and give guidelines to individuals, schools and companies.
"So, I don't think there is any hard line where we say everything comes to a stop, and indeed, it is not possible for everything to come to a stop, because life must still go on," said Mr Lee.
He also stressed the importance of collaborating with the Indonesians to solve the problem, instead of taking an antagonistic stance.
For instance, Singapore has been promoting sustainable agricultural practices in Jambi, South Sumatra, so farmers and plantation owners do not need to clear their land by burning.
The pact is up for renewal, and Singapore is looking forward to continuing the partnership, said Mr Lee.
But he added that there are no levers that Singapore can pull to compel Indonesia to put a stop to the illegal burning as it is a sovereign country, just like Singapore.
"You can influence, you can encourage, you can persuade, you can request, but finally, it is within each country's authority and responsibility to deal with the problems within their own country."
Despite this, Singapore will take action against local firms - or foreign ones operating here - if they are guilty of contributing to the haze, said Mr Lee.
He urged Singaporeans to stay calm and to look out for one another: "I am quite confident that we can manage this problem, and we can go through it if we stay together and work on it together."
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, who was also at the press conference, said he was hoping to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his trip to Indonesia today.
PM Lee has also written to Dr Yudhoyono.
On Thursday, Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency said that Dr Yudhoyono has instructed its chief Syamsul Maarif to immediately use all national resources available to extinguish the forest fires raging in Riau.
Personnel, equipment and cloud-seeding material to induce rain have already been sent to Pekanbaru, it added. The agency also said the Indonesian leader had ordered it to control the haze as soon as possible.
National Environment Agency chief Andrew Tan, who was in Indonesia for emergency talks, also urged Jakarta to take more decisive action.