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80 Hours in the Air-Conditioned Nation


"What do Americans think of Singapore?"

Three different people, all government officials, asked me some variant of that question. And all three times, they eventually made it clear that they were wondering how often "caning" came up in discussions of the country.

I had to tell them: Pretty much every time.

Singapore is a nation coming to terms with its own identity. The habit of many of the people I conversed with was to speak of Singapore as a developing country. But, at least in terms of infrastructure and commerce, Singapore is clearly an industrial -- or, really, post-industrial -- nation. Singapore is the quintessential leapfrog society: from the mass transit to the information grid, from the sparkling malls to the global cuisine, it could easily stand as a full citizen of the first world. But that shift, from a tiny, scrappy "spot" in the heart of Southeast Asia to world-class city/state, has been a bit jarring. Practices that they saw as appropriate for the former -- like caning -- now seem vaguely embarrassing.

The "air-conditioned nation" label in the title of this piece comes from a book of the same name, by Singapore journalist and essayist Cherian George. It's more than appropriate: Being a mere two degrees off the equator, Singapore's weather defines humid. As a lifelong California boy, the heat didn't bother me, but I reeled from the moisture in the air. While the residents clearly tolerate it better than I could, a shift is underway that adds to the identity crisis.

Over the past couple of decades, according to the locals I spoke to, Singapore has started to put air conditioning everywhere. Head down a sidewalk, and every open business doorway offers an arctic blast. I started to expect to see micro-storms emerge as the warm, moist air from the outside runs into the cold, dry air in the stores.

As a result of the increasing ubiquity of "aircon," complaints by locals about the humidity are on the rise, as well. More than one person I spoke to described Singapore, sheepishly, as a "nation of whiners." I didn't see that, myself, but that's hardly the point: It's how they see themselves.

But there's one last twist to the evolving identity of the country. Singapore was, originally, a near-barren island off the tip of Malaysia, with little in the way of population. The country's populace is entirely a result of colonialism, as people from a variety of nearby nations came in to work and trade with the British rulers. After post-British rule by Japan and then Malaysia, Singapore gained independence in 1965. The architecture of the city is a lovely mix of ultra-modern and century-old buildings, and many of the streets carry the names of colonial-era British personalities.

Walking back to my hotel last night, after wandering the riverfront -- where boats that once carried small trade cargo now carry tourists, and where colonial government office buildings now hold restaurants and shopping centers -- it struck me: Singapore has turned its colonial past into an amusement park.

Underlying this evolution, however, is a stark sense of insecurity. I was invited here to talk about risks and uncertainty, and nearly every group I spoke to asked about terrorism and technological threats. Environmentally, Singapore is utterly dependent upon its neighbors and global trade for its resources. If there ever was a country vulnerable to open source warfare and system disruption, Singapore is it.

So on the minds of many Singaporean government officials, and likely many citizens as well, is a troubling dilemma: Who are we -- and how much longer will we even be around to ask that question?


While Singapore has elements of a Fascist state operated by the Disney corporation, there's a heck of a lot to admire about the Singhs. They play in the international arena with the same level of excellence that Tiger Woods does on the golf course.

Have to think that their intel service (SID) is the class of Asia, if not the world, given how little we hear about it.

It's interesting these officials focused on terrorism and system disruption, one has only to ride the MRT and watch the lurid warnings of terrorist action on the carriage TVs to see that it's on their mind ...

It is also interesting that as an island on the equator, with a highest point of 164 metres, they are not foregrounding climate change. What was your impression? Is it a risk seen as under control, because SG is rich enough to build dykes, and already has a lot of, for lack of a better word, eco-fascist policies in place? (Eg having to buy a an expensive license for permission to buy a car.)

((Before anyone gets heckles up, I actually have a lot of affection for the Pristine Republic, but am also curious about its future.))

Pictures are great. I'm definitely going to have to get down there sometime.

I think that the level of curiosity about the opinion of their nation abroad is a healthy sign of course; I can think of a country or two that I wish had more of that going on (cough).

Interesting observations on how they think of themselves.

For whatever faults it may have, Singapore exudes pragmatism and competence, two traits any nation would be proud to be known for and live in their creed.

Every time I came across the teens fulfilling their national service reqs, they offered a professionalism and seriousness I wished their civilian American counterparts could come close to matching.

Concerns... sure. Issues... yes. Problems... not so much.

Any mention of this:

"Semaku was created in 1999, and it’s 8 kilometers off Singapore’s coast. Right now, it’s primarily used as an ash depository from the incinerators around the country. Though the details have yet to emerge, the purpose of the new eco park will be to foster research and development of renewable energy technology, and to investigate new applications for clean energy."



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