It is a bit strange to accuse others of causing panic when it is one’s own action (or lack of) and other circumstances which are the real cause.
When the Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) breached the 300-mark for the first time on Wednesday, 19 June, it was the worst reading in Singapore’s history. That level of pollutants in the air also brought S’pore’s air quality into the “hazardous” zone. The PSI was 321.
The next day, Thursday, 20 June, that record-high mark was again breached when the PSI rose to 371.
The Ministry of Health had to reassure the public that there was enough masks to go round. On the same day, the Government announced that it was setting up a Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee (HIMC), to be led by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.
The next day, Friday, 21 June, the air quality was a stunning PSI of 401.
The HIMC announced, at a press conference on the same day, that it would be distributing masks to lower-income households, and also to the retail outlets.
The TODAY newspaper reported, referring to Mr Ng:
“The Government, he said, is dealing with the situation “decisively”, and is pushing more masks to retail outlets. NTUC FairPrice, for instance, will receive the face masks early next week. The supermarket will cap the price of the mask, and limit the number of masks each person can buy.”
Emphasis mine. Note that the report said NTUC Fairprice will receive the face masks “early next week.” This is an important point which I will come back to later.
It was also on the same day, Friday, 21 June, that Ravi Philemon posted the following on his Facebook page:
“At 5pm, I went again to the polyclinic’s pharmacy to see if they now had N95 masks. No they still had no stock. The pharmacy’s manager though was very apologetic. He said that it is not that the government does not have enough stock of these masks. That they had stockpiled it during the H7N9 scare, worrying that it will hit Singapore. But that it’s plain bureaucracy that has prevented the masks from reaching those that need it in a timely manner, the pharmacy manager said.”
At this point in time, it is worth noting that rumours of a shortage of masks had already been making the rounds both online and offline, despite the government’s assurance that there were enough masks to go around and that it will be making millions of masks available to the public.
The experience on the ground was quite different as the stores continued to be short of the masks. Both the news and online postings, including on social media, were talking about this – the shortage of masks.
As blogger Andy Xian Wong wrote, describing the situation on the ground then:
“Many postings on social media lamented the fact that stores were either sold out or experiencing long queues. Speaking on CNA’s Talking Point on Thursday 20 June, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan reassured viewers that the government had adequate stockpiles and that a re-stocking had been performed that evening at all retail outlets.
“But despite this supposed re-stocking on Thursday, many retail outlets were still found to be sold out on Friday and Saturday.
“In response to this failure by the government to ensure adequate supplies were available for purchase, it was actually netizens who spontaneously organised to alleviate the problem, setting up the facebook group Places to get Face Masks in Singapore which crowd-sourced real-time information on where masks could actually be purchased and at what prices.
“Another area where netizens out performed the government response was in crowd sourcing information on air-conditioned spaces which could be used to offer respite from the haze to vulnerable citizens. This step was something which appeared to inspire the PAP to open up their air-conditioned RCs for public use over the weekend. But again, this government response does not appear to have been part of any planned or organised haze response. If it were, one wonders why it was activated so slowly – so slowly in fact that ordinary citizens had already organised to provide the same to vulnerable citizens. The observation that the government was responding reactively rather than activating an existing planned response is again hard to avoid.”
It was in this context that Ravi – on Saturday, 22 June – made another posting, the one referred to by two ministers, and for which he was accused of spreading rumours.
Ravi’s entire post was this [do note that Ravi was re-posting what a friend had told him, hence the quotation marks]:
A friend who prefers to remain anonymous just sent me this note:
“Yes the 9 million masks are coming into Singapore only on Monday. But none will be for the public, the entire batch will be under exclusive control by the G and all distributions of the masks will be under the tightest of scrutiny”.
This is acknowledged by all medical supplies distributors. Therefore we apologise that even though we retail the masks at around $40 for 20 pieces, we’re afraid due to the tight control implemented, no one will have stock circulating.
Besides, there are 5-6 million people in Singapore. Consuming 1 mask a day, 9 million masks only can last Singapore under 2 days.
(a mask lasts 4 hours before all porous micro-fabric is filled by the particles in the air http://www.ehow.com/about_5067974_mask-made.html; so: 6 million people need at least 2 masks a day, 12 million masks x 7 days = 84 million masks.)
Singapore needs about 100 million masks for 1 week with some safety buffer supply.
Anyone has an idea who the 9 million masks will go to first?”
You notice that Ravi did not add any comments of his own when he posted this note.
You should also note that the day before, Ravi had posted another note – the abovementioned one which said that it was “plain bureaucracy that has prevented the masks from reaching those that need it in a timely manner.”
This showed that Ravi was aware that the masks were in stock with the government.
His friend’s controversial remarks were made and Ravi posted them a day after the government announced that it was distributing the masks to the poor and the retail outlets.
While Mr Yaacob has now used this to show that Ravi was “spreading rumours” in disregarding the government announcement, the on-the-ground experience of the public was quite different.
Sentiments such as those of Ravi’s friends arose precisely because the masks were still unavailable even though the government had, the day before, announced that the masks would be made available to the retail outlets.
His friend’s comments that “none will be for the public”, referring to the masks held by the government, have to be seen in this light.
Indeed, his friend’s comments proved to be not entirely wrong or inaccurate when, on 9 July, Mr Ng Eng Hen confirmed – in fact and in Parliament – that the masks were for healthcare workers and “were not originally for the public”, as the Straits Times reported.
So, it is quite clear that the comments by Ravi’s friends were not without truth.
To accuse Ravi of causing “anxiety” and “spreading rumours during haze” is thus rather unfair.
The “anxiety” was caused by the fact that Singapore was experiencing its worst-ever haze situation, and the government’s ill-prepared response to it.
To now point the finger at others – who are reflecting ground sentiments – without acknowledging the context of the situation is to be mischievous or ignorant.
The government’s website “Factually” only posted a rebuttal to Ravi’s posting on the 24th of June.
Acting Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin, highlighted it on his Facebook page on the 25th of June.
It is important to note the words Mr Tan used in his Facebook post. He wrote:
“Some have decided to fabricate falsehoods in the midst of this situation. A case in point was an early post claiming that the PSI hit 393 but NEA changed the information. It was a lie. The photo was doctored. Or consider the claims that Tan Tock Seng Hospital was overcharging on masks. Or claims by a politician that none of the masks would be for the public etc.”
The word you should notice is “politician”.
Ravi responded to that post on Mr Tan’s Facebook page by posting his comment in that thread.
“Dear Minister, I assume your allegation ‘claims by a politician that none of the masks would be for the public’, is me. If so, that allegation is incorrect…”
Mr Tan did not respond or reply.
By using the word “politician”, it perhaps gives an idea of how Mr Tan sees the incident and the posting made on Ravi’s Facebook page about the masks. Mr Tan, arguably, saw Ravi’s action as political.
But one would ask: how is Ravi a “politician”? While he is a member of the National Solidarity Party (NSP), he is however not on its decision-making Central Executive Committee. Neither is Ravi on any of the party’s committees, nor has he taken part in any election under any of the political parties in S’pore, including the NSP.
Ravi is just an ordinary member of the NSP, in the same way any other Singaporean may be an ordinary member of the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Are such ordinary members considered “politicians”?
It would be quite a stretch to say they are.
Why then use such a word to describe a member of the public? What is the motive behind it?
To return to the matter at hand, nothing further happened apparently, until Parliament sat on the 9th of July – when Mr Yaacob used the occasion to launch an attack on Ravi, to partly justify the introduction of new Internet regulations imposed by his ministry.
Mr Yaacob’s action raised criticisms of him, among which was that it was unfair of him to single out an individual in Parliament for criticism, when that individual is not able to defend himself in the House.
Mr Yaacob explained, 2 days later, to the media that his action in singling out an individual was to “to be fair to [the] online community”, and not to broadbrush them together.
If Mr Yaacob had wanted to be “fair to the online community”, and indeed to Ravi himself, he should have ascertained the events and facts leading up to that posting and comments made by Ravi’s friend, and to also mention when speaking to the media that the comments were actually not by Ravi himself, but that they were made by his friend. That would have been a fair thing to do, one would think.
Without taking the context of that entire week into consideration, it is easy for the minister to be mistaken and unfairly accuse others of “spreading rumours”.
On 11 July, Ravi’s friend, who had told him that none of the masks is meant for the public, defended him. The friend, Victor Chen, said:
“This is still an actual word for word recount of a conversation my dad had with a medical supplier in an area where I stay. In fact all the pharmacies, medical suppliers and clinics my dad called had similar responses to him throughout Friday, 21 June 2013, about the availability of the N95 masks.
“No assertions of my own were made about masks not being intended for the public.
“That’s why this was labelled as ‘overheard’.
“This further heightened my concerns after the Government announced on Thursday (20 June 2013) that the N95 masks would be made available to the public immediately after that announcement, on Friday and throughout Friday (21 June 2013), when the PSI reached a hazardous 401, many people still had no masks, stocks were wiped out in many pharmacies or medical supplies distributors.”
What is apparent is that Mr Yaacob and Mr Tan perhaps were not aware of ground sentiments – sentiments which, indeed, include opinions and views that the masks were only for exclusive use for healthcare workers.
And in fact, the masks were originally intended to be so, as Mr Ng himself confirmed.
I think ministers too have responsibility to give accurate information.
So, really, what is the big hoo-ha about?
Is it about politics?
Now, let’s not spread rumours.
Here is the truth of it: