Monday, April 8, 2013

Air-condition this nation

Apr 07, 2013
By Rachel Chang

On one particularly low moment during Easter Sunday, as I walked through a sheet of humidity that felt like unformed cement, I decided that Hell would have the same climate and weather patterns - "Humid, Wet, Humid-Wet-Humid, Hazy Humid" - as Singapore. But without the air-conditioning.

Over the weekend, with my nose running and eyes watering from the haze, and a constant sheen on my skin from the thick, wet air, I wondered how we've managed to get anything done in this country.

The answer is that we try to travel between air-conditioned space and air-conditioned space with minimal time spent in the open. But how did Singaporeans, before we had the time to air-condition the island, survive - not to mention build a country?

No wonder former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called air-conditioning humankind's greatest invention.

I know this type of weather can get worse in other equatorial countries. But we are locked in an existential battle with the climate that I'm convinced is the source of all our First World problems and the reason for our collective perennial bad mood.

I really don't think Singapore would otherwise have topped these international "emotionless" and "least positive" polls. If some guy sweating over a clipboard is making you answer questions about "the last time you laughed" in the blazing heat, while the sliding doors of your office building emits puffs of air-conditioned air in your direction, "emotionless" is going to be the best they will get.

The problem is this: While it is unfeasible to air-condition everything, we have managed to air-condition the previously unfeasible, thus making the yet uncooled spaces exponentially more vexing.

Take the Gardens by the Bay. The Cloud Forest is advertised as "replicating the cool, moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions between 1,000m and 3,000m above sea level".

Let's not kid ourselves. It began with some civil servant in a conference room asking: How can we air-condition the outdoors?

Sure, the Flower Dome might look a bit like the hotel lobby of a five-star hotel but it combines nature with artificial cooling, and that's no mean feat.

The problem with reaching these heights of air-conditioning excellence - and this is applicable as an analogy to every aspect of Singapore society - is that we are the kind of people who let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

On Good Friday, my entire family and I started to get cold in the Cloud Forest (another Singaporean trait: complaining that the good is too good).

Looking out towards the Super Trees and the undulating stretches of green around it, we decided that we should visit the real outdoors part of the Gardens (also known as the free part).

There, the real majesty of sprawling natural life would meet us. No hotel lobby flower arrangements here; we would feel appropriately small in the face of the universe, calmed by a silent world beyond human concern, one that existed before us and will continue long after.

We took two steps in the direction of the real outdoors before the wall of humidity came crashing down and reminded us why this country spent $2 billion air-conditioning the outdoors.

"We can always look at pictures of nature online," I suggested, as we beat a hasty retreat to the air-conditioned cars which would take us to air-conditioned restaurants.

"Why can't they air-condition that part also?" my brother-in-law joked.

Except it wasn't really a joke. If Singaporeans were told that there's some secret statutory board working on how to air- condition the whole country, I really think that revelation would be a vote- winner.

This is what I envision the solution to be, some sort of giant, climate-controlled dome lowered over the island.

The airport is outside the dome (see, I've thought this through) so that our aviation hub status is unaffected. From the airport, you can get through an underground network into the dome.

This thing can even function as some sort of missile shield to protect the whole country, because we all know that's going to be a problem sooner or later.

I know we can do it and I only hope it happens in my lifetime.

Even if not, I am happy for my descendents - who will look back on the days before they were born, when Singapore had managed to air-condition only one part of the outdoors, and with great sympathy wonder how on earth we got anything done.

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