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Singapore Haze Hits Record High As Indonesia Forest Fires Worsen

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SINGAPORE - JUNE 20: The Singapore skyline is seen covered in smoke haze on June 20, 2013 in Singapore. The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) rose to the highest level on record reaching 371 at 1pm. The haze is created by deliberate slash-and-burn forest fires started by companies in neighbouring Sumatra. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images) | Getty

SINGAPORE — Singapore urged people to remain indoors because of record air pollution Thursday as a smoky haze wrought by forest fires in neighboring Indonesia worsened dramatically. Nearby Malaysia closed 200 schools and banned open burning in some areas.

The Pollutant Standards Index, Singapore's main measure of air pollution, surged to a record 371, breaching the "hazardous" classification that can aggravate respiratory ailments. The previous high before this week was in 1997, when the index reached 226.

The hazardous reading lasted three hours before easing to 253 in the evening, still "very unhealthy."

Smog fueled by raging Indonesian blazes has hit Singapore and Malaysia many times, often in the middle of the year, but the severity of this week's conditions has strained diplomatic ties. Officials in Singapore say Jakarta must do more to halt fires on Sumatra island started by plantation owners and farmers to clear land cheaply.

"This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced," Singapore Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan wrote on his Facebook page. "No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and wellbeing."

An Indonesian Cabinet minister criticized the public Singaporean statements, saying they should have been conveyed through diplomatic channels.

"Singapore should not act like children, making all that noise," Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono said.

The haze has shrouded the city-state's skyscrapers in a pall of noxious fumes and posed numerous inconveniences for Singaporeans, some of whom complained of coughs and covered their faces with handkerchiefs or masks while walking outdoors.

Flight controllers at Singapore's Changi Airport were instructed to take precautions because of lower visibility, while McDonald's said it was temporarily halting delivery service to protect its workers' health.

Some hospitals shut windows in wards with elderly patients to keep out the acrid odor of burning. Sports organizers canceled several football and sailing competitions this weekend.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised residents to stay indoors as much as possible, adding that "we will get through this together."

Lee told a news conference that the haze was expected to continue for a while because of wind and weather conditions. He said a government panel was being formed to protect public health and the city-state's economic resilience.

In neighboring Malaysia, air quality remained relatively unaffected in the country's biggest city, Kuala Lumpur, but a southern state that borders Singapore recorded "hazardous" pollution in one district, where 200 schools were ordered to close through at least Friday. The Department of Environment banned open burning and made it punishable by up to five years in prison in three states separated from Sumatra by the Malacca Strait.

Indonesian officials have defended their response to the haze, saying the government is educating farmers about alternatives to traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. Some Indonesian officials have also suggested that some fires might be blamed on Singaporean and Malaysian companies involved in Indonesia's plantation industry.

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