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Singapore: Air Pollution

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Chapter 11:  The Air Quality Factor

Urban air quality will determine the fortunes of major cities over the course of this century. As greater importance has already been placed on environment criteria in renowned international city rankings, cities around the world feel obligated to become more transparent regarding their local concentration levels of air pollutants. In an attempt to increase their appeal factor and to attract large numbers of global-minded and upwardly mobile urbanites (who increasingly pay attention to top-notch quality of living ratings), numerous cities have in recent years begun to put more effort into improving their air quality.

Since high levels of air pollution have been linked to posing serious health risks to humans, cities with good air quality are more likely to succeed in establishing themselves as outdoor sporting lifestyle hubs. Singapore, for instance, offers satisfactory environmental conditions for outdoor sports, thanks to its relatively low levels of air pollution (and, certainly, thanks to its warm temperatures all year round). In addition, the city’s running trails and outdoor sporting facilities – which are constructed in urban parks, residential areas and along water canals – are mostly located at a safe distance from main roads, reducing the levels of exposure to hazardous exhaust fumes that are largely produced by motorized private vehicles. And in comparison to many other notoriously polluted Asian cities, in Singapore joggers and cyclists rarely wear anti-pollution N95-masks (please read more on this topic in the report ‘The Han River Sporting Lifestyle in Seoul’).

The environmental movement, originating in the developed countries in the 1960s and 1970s, has had a long-lasting impact on Singapore. Having realized in its early city planning stages that Singapore’s good air quality is crucial to attracting foreign investment, multi-national companies, foreign experts and western tourists, the city-state’s government eventually began adopting standard environmental policies by introducing largely established measures to keep its man-made air pollution at tolerable levels. Over the last decade it has also stepped up efforts to inform Singaporeans about the local air quality by delivering trustworthy up-to-date levels of air pollutants associated with health hazards.

To monitor its air pollution Singapore has fairly recently created its own comprehensive air quality assessment method, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which offers daily updated guidance on the city’s air quality; it provides its residents with recommendations on the optimal duration and intensity of outdoor activities. In 2014, for instance, 97 per cent of days were within the PSI range that is defined as ‘good and moderate’ (merely 3 per cent reached the ‘unhealthy’ levels), according to the latest Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources report.


Annual mean concentration of PM2.5, a key air pollutant, in selected large cities worldwide. Compared to other Asian cities Singapore’s air quality is within acceptable levels.

Cities and countries around the world typically use their own distinctive air-quality assessment methods by selecting pollutants of their own interest and by applying various weighting techniques. Hence, there is no globally standardized air pollution index (Singapore’s PSI-index, for instance, comprises of six key pollutants: SO2, PM10, PM2.5, NO2, CO and O3). Yet a city-by-city concentration comparison of a single pollutant – such as the fine particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), which is known to have adverse cardio-respiratory effects on individuals due to its ability to deeply penetrate lungs – can offer a fairly reliable guide on Singapore’s global position regarding quality of air.

According to the national Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, in 2014 the average PM2.5 value in Singapore was recorded at 18 μg/m3. When compared with the latest available data gathered by the WHO, the World Health Organization, Singapore demonstrates the lowest annual PM2.5 figure of all large cities in Asia, bar the Japanese metropolitan areas. By comparison, with only 4 μg/m3 Vancouver, Canada, can take pride in being the city with the lowest PM 2.5 level, while the highest average value of staggering 153 μg/m3 was monitored in Delhi, India.

Overall, it is fair to say that Singapore has done a reasonably good job in managing its domestic air pollution. And the city’s commitment to improving air quality and quality of life continues to be very strong, enabling its residents to enjoy outdoor sporting activities without worrying much about health implications.

Yet despite all of the city’s well-meant efforts, its geography puts the city at a disadvantage. After all, there is one man-made condition that, to large extent, remains beyond Singapore’s control. For decades the city has been exposed to hazardous smoke haze originating from out-of-control fires that rage across the Indonesian archipelago – in particular, in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the two largest islands in Indonesia. This illegal practice of deliberately burning tropical forests (slash-and-burn land preparation) is a reoccurring annual event, which is caused by local farmers and firms in order to cheaply clear woodlands for lucrative palm oil and paper plantations.

Once the south-easterly trade winds start intensifying, heavy smoke frequently covers the entire city island of Singapore (and its neighbouring Malaysia), affecting the daily life and health of residents and undermining productivity of the local economy. The haze season in Singapore typically ranges from July to October and the levels of pollutants’ exposure vary greatly in intensity and duration during this long period; and the season only ceases thanks to the periodic southern shift of the ICZ, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which provided the much-needed tropical rain relief to the region, extinguishing large parts of the burning areas in Indonesia.


The 2015 Southeast Asian haze originated in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesia), smothering much of the region in a noxious smoke. Due to its proximity to Indonesia Singapore is susceptible to seasonal air pollution.

While short-term exposure to higher levels of haze can result in coughing, shortness of breath, nose and eye irritation, long-term haze exposure is associated with more serious medical complications, such as heart attacks or development of chronic respiratory conditions. During severe haze episodes in Singapore, health policy measures are usually put in place and access to some sporting facilities remains restricted as long as the air pollution reaches hazardous levels; in 2015, for instance, a number of popular running events even had to be cancelled due to the severity of the city’s air pollution.

Once the PSI-value exceeds the threshold of 200, defined as ‘very unhealthy’, the Singapore government decides to close all its outdoor and non-air-conditioned indoor sports facilities to the public. According to the National Environment Agency’s recommendations, healthy people are, under such circumstances, advised to avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion, while elderly, pregnant women, children and people with pre-existing chronic cardio-pulmonary conditions are instructed to minimise or avoid outdoor exercising altogether.

During the 2015 haze season, Singapore experienced one of its most severe periods of air pollution on record, possibly coming close to the levels observed during the 1997 Southeast Asian haze, according to Bloomberg News, a news agency. PSI-data published by the National Environment Agency reveal that in 2015 around 9 per cent of recorded days reached the ‘unhealthy’ air quality range – defined as PSI-values higher than 100. In 2014, by contrast, the percentage of days exceeding the PSI-level of 100 was merely 1 per cent (the values were monitored in the CBD at 7pm – the most preferable time of the day for outdoor sporting activities among Singaporeans).


During the long haze season in 2015 Singapore was exposed to almost unprecedented air pollution, affecting the daily sporting lifestyle of many residents.

This long lasting and unusually intensive smoke haze season in 2015 – which was intensified by the El Nino weather pattern – restricted local businesses, residents and large numbers of tourists in their activities. For as long as nearly 3 months sporting lifestyle enthusiasts, too, were constrained in their regular outdoor activities; as mentioned above, several local running events had to be postponed or cancelled altogether.

And still, it is almost certain that the reoccurring episodes of poor air quality in 2015 will have no potential long-term implications on the Singapore city brand. For unknown reasons, the international media coverage of this environment and health story of the year was, by all means, puzzlingly scant. Despite having greatly affected the South-East Asia region for more than two months, various media outlets had failed to give this unrestrained man-made deforestation the volume of reports it undoubtedly deserved – hundreds of megatons of extra CO2 emissions were released into the atmosphere during that period. This is all the more surprising, as many international journalists reporting on Asia are based in Singapore, which serves as the key gateway to Southeast Asia.

While Singapore was, by and large, spared any significant media reports on its reoccurring episodes of air pollution, in the much-anticipated annual international city rankings, on the other hand, its reputation and the city’s brand were slightly tarnished due to its poorer ecological data. In the recent 2016 Monocle survey on city liveability, for instance, Singapore dropped to rank 20, slipping 7 places within a year. Despite failing to provide quantitative data that could explain this sudden drop in the ranking, the annual Monocle survey does specify Singapore’s 2015 haze season as a downside, though. In other city rankings, however, Singapore did not slip from its previously strong positions. Most likely, the haze-related lower ratings in the environment criteria were compensated by strongly performing indicators of other criteria (city rankings usually assess the performance of cities by measuring indices consisting of various weighted indicators and categories).

>> READ next chapter “No choice – Sporting in tropical climate”


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This report was first published in July 2016; latest update in December 2017.

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