Singaporeans Leave City as Worst Fire Haze Sparks Health Worries

Record haze levels in Singapore as fires rage on the Indonesian island of Sumatra prompted some to leave the island-state for destinations with cleaner air.

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index reached a record 401 at noon yesterday, a level deemed hazardous, according to the National Environment Agency, or NEA. The haze also affected the Malaysia state of Johor, which borders Singapore.

Families sought to “escape the haze by booking a short trip away,” said Ewan Nicolson, a senior analyst at travel website Skyscanner, which experienced a 22 percent jump in flight searches this week. “Short-haul destinations have increased in popularity, with many families looking to depart this weekend.”

Local schools canceled all activities for the rest of the June school vacation, companies were urged to cut back on outdoor work and stores ran out of protective masks as the smoky haze enshrouded Singapore this week, causing a spat with Indonesia over responsibility. Some airlines are taking the opportunity to woo travelers seeking a brief getaway.

Muhammad Faizal, a 24-year-old Singaporean on his way to Phuket for a holiday, said he may consider delaying his return if the haze worsens.

“I might extend for another day or two,” Faizal said as he was waiting for his flight yesterday. “It’s getting from bad to worse. As long as the haze doesn’t delay the flight, it’s OK.”

Sold Out

Jetstar Asia, the budget airline unit of Qantas Airways Ltd., offered lower fares yesterday as part of its “Friday Fare Frenzy” promotion to people looking for fresher, cleaner air. All four flights to Bangkok from the city state today are sold out, according to its website.

Scoot, Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s long- and medium-haul low-fare unit, is also offering tickets to Taipei, Tianjin and six other destinations as part of its “WTF. What the Fog. Get outta here!” promotion until June 24.

Tiger Airways Holdings Ltd., the budget carrier partly owned by Singapore Air, is luring customers who are “thinking of escaping the haze,” according to its Facebook page. All of its flights to Bangkok from Singapore today were sold out, while it only had seats available on three flights out tomorrow, according to its website.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singaporeans could expect a higher incidence of respiratory diseases, offered medical financial assistance to the young and elderly, and urged people to stay indoors where possible.

‘Serious Concern’

Lee said June 20 he expressed “serious concern” in a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and requested evidence that Singaporean or Malaysian companies were responsible for the “illegal burning,” as suggested by some Indonesian officials.

Disputes over haze flare up regularly between the two neighbors, as well as Malaysia. The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east.

“Singapore should not be behaving like a child and making all this noise,” Agung Laksono, the minister coordinating Indonesia’s response to the haze, told reporters in Jakarta on June 20, according to the Jakarta Globe.

It’s not fruitful to respond to Laksono’s comments, Lee said. “We need to work on the problem rather than exchanging harsh words,” he said, repeating an offer to help Indonesia.

Lee said the fires were caused by errant companies and were not likely to just be smallholders slashing and burning. Singapore has provided satellite data to help identify the companies responsible for the fires.

Economic Cost

While diplomatic ties wobble at times over haze and other issues, Indonesia and Singapore have strong economic links. Singapore’s total trade with Indonesia was S$79.4 billion ($62.4 billion) in 2012, according to government trade promotion agency IE Singapore. Indonesia is Singapore’s fourth-largest trading partner.

The pollution will hit tourism-related industries in Singapore, which make up about 5 percent to 6 percent of the economy, as well as construction, Joey Chew, an economist at Barclays Plc, said in a June 20 note. A disruption for one week could cost the economy about $1 billion, Barclays economist Wai Ho Leong said in an e-mail on June 19.

“We are in uncharted territory and the magnitude of the increase in pollution to recent historical norms is stunning,” Daniel Wilson, an economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., said in a note yesterday. “One thing is certain, however - the impact will be negative.”

Airport Response

Lower visibility from the smog has prompted Singapore’s Changi Airport to increase the time between aircraft takeoffs and landings, the aviation authority said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg. The island’s secondary airport at Seletar in the northeast resumed flights at 2 p.m. yesterday after services were suspended at 11 a.m. the previous day due to “prolonged poor visibility,” Changi Airport said.

Ships were advised to navigate with caution, the port authority said in an e-mail. Singapore Flyer, which operates the city-state’s ferris wheel, suspended operations yesterday.

The Guardian pharmacy chain ran out of stock for masks at its stores in Singapore and didn’t know when it would be able to replenish them, the company said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg.

Hot Spots

Satellite images showed 60 fire hot spots in the Riau region of Sumatra, compared with 148 two days ago, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman at Indonesia’s disaster management agency, said yesterday in Jakarta. About 80 percent are located in plantation and farm areas and 20 percent in forests.

Major companies with palm oil plantations in Indonesia, such as Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd., Malaysia’s Sime Darby Bhd., the world’s biggest listed palm oil producer, and Cargill Inc., told Bloomberg they had a zero-burning policy.

Half of the fires detected between June 11 and June 18 were in areas that should have been protected by an Indonesian moratorium on clearing forest, according to environmental campaign group Greenpeace.

Indonesia has prepared seven planes and three helicopters for water bombing and making rain over Riau, Nugroho said. An inter-ministerial team is in the process of identifying owners of plantations in the affected areas, he said.

Still, for people like Shaun Tan, that won’t be enough to keep them from their travel plans or extending trips.

“I didn’t like the disgusting feeling of inhaling contaminated air,” said Tan, a Singapore-based shipbroker who left for Hong Kong on June 20 after making his booking two days earlier. “If things worsen, I might change my flight back and take more leave.”

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