Top image: Singapore Stock Photos/Unsplash
“See that huge fan behind me? With no air conditioner, that’s the only thing cooling me down for the past 22 years,” engineer Tan Jian Zhen gestures to his rickety, old-school fan clicking over his shoulder. “Actually, I might need to oil it. That thing is getting really noisy now,” he laughs over our Zoom call.
With each whirl of his fan (almost mockingly, might I add), we embark on a spirited, almost comical banter on the many practical ways he has tried to one-up the perennially warm and uncomfortably humid weather in Singapore—sans a precious air conditioner.
Unfortunately, in the battle of engineer versus harsh climate, Jian Zhen finds himself, predictably, on the losing end.
Like those we spoke to for this story, Jian Zhen has grown up without an air conditioner, enduring endless days, nights, sunsets, and sunrises engulfed in hot and sticky perpetuity with no cool comfort in sight.
Aircon-less in Singapore
For Jian Zhen, who has never basked in the comfort of an air conditioner at home, surviving Singapore’s heat is akin to a game of hide-and-seek. Except it’s less fun, and the prize is an unproductive day at work.
He recalls a particularly sweltering afternoon where temperatures felt like 40 degrees Celsius: “I couldn’t do anything except hide around the house,” recounts Jian Zhen. “I took refuge anywhere there was shade. As long as I don’t hit direct sunlight, I’ll be fine,” he convinces himself.
While Jian Zhen is busy dodging the sun’s rays, somewhere across the island, advertising strategist Zhang Weitian likens the heat to a stuffy version of Groundhog Day.
“Each time I step out of the bathroom, it feels as if I just took a shower again in sweat,” she exclaims.
Being in a state of constant stickiness and sweatiness is perhaps a reminder of how close Singapore is to the equator. It is no surprise then that Singapore has the highest installation of air conditioners per capita in Southeast Asia.
On top of that, 99 percent of condominiums and nearly all private homes come equipped with not just one but multiple air conditioners.
According to the House Expenditure Survey of 2017/18, 79.7 percent of all households in Singapore own an air conditioner, an increase from the 76.1 percent from the 2012/13 survey. Air conditioner retailers also reported a meteoric rise in sales and air conditioner maintenance services, given the hot weather we had in April and May.
Clearly, our love for cool comfort knows little bounds. Throngs of new homeowners flock from one Gain City to another Best Denki in the hot pursuit of a cold rush like XMMs coveting for yet another cup of Bubble Tea—zero percent sugar, less ice, sil vous plait.
Hot, Muggy, and Irritated
Back in Weitian’s home, the floor plan has been segregated into go and no-go zones with the precision of a military operation.
“The sun is unbearable on the weekends,” Weitian continues. “We don’t venture out to the last bit of the living room because that’s where all the windows are. In the daytime, that’s a no-go zone.”
For 20-year-old Nur Shima Shahira, all it takes is a slight turn of the head for her to break into a sweat—almost as effortlessly as breathing.
“It’s very uncomfortable. I can get sweaty just doing my makeup, you know—it ruins the look,” she laments as beads of sweat begin forming on her forehead.
Besides adding insult to injury, the heat also can bring about a sense of defeatism. “It just feels like nothing is getting better. I’m just going to be sweaty the whole day, and no matter how much I try to bathe or switch on the fan, it doesn’t work,” says Shima.
Fellow 20-year-old Gen Z, Rachel Lin, remembers how tensions rose in her household along with the temperatures during the Circuit Breaker, when everyone needed to stay at home. “We fought more and got more irritated than usual,” she says.
“With Circuit Breaker, you have lesser means of cooling yourself down,” explains Rachel. “And because you can’t get out the house the heat definitely makes an impact.”
When temperatures rise, it exacerbates Rachel’s sisters who suffer from eczema and they start to scratch and when they start to scratch, they get even more anxious, Rachel tells me, which inevitably can cause them to be even more irritable.
Crafty Solutions To Cool Down
Living without an air conditioner does challenge you in some way—it pushes you to be creative about beating the heat.
“I think the refrigerator is a great place to put your hand,” chuckles Rachel when I asked for her favourite heat-management strategy. The same tactic is employed by my editor, Zat, in his younger days. Except he stuffs his whole head in, he tells me.
Besides looking for a library or cafe to stave off the heat, Rachel and her sisters have taken to scheduling time to work from home at places in the house with the most ventilation.
“We share common spaces, so we have to take turns using the space with the fan,” says Rachel.
Weitian recalls a much more crafty time with her sister when the heat was a little too much to bear. Besides downing glasses of ice-cold water, Weitian and her sister also took to folding paper fans.
With her study desk unfortunately situated firmly in the “no-go zone” of her house, Weitian had to strategically plan her study sessions during her secondary school and polytechnic days.
“It was really difficult to study during the daytime, so I would study at night until the wee hours of the morning. That area is really cooling; I don’t have to switch on the fan at all because it is so windy.”
Keeping Cool For Dummies (and Engineers)
When it comes to the art of staying cool in the Singaporean heat, ventilation and a touch of creativity is the name of the game.
As Jian Zhen shares with me, the idea is to encourage airflow since his room gets the brunt of the morning and evening sun—the perils of living in an East-West facing home. Armed with a dehumidifier (in the hopes that it would turn the thick, stuffy air into a dry, balmy one), he takes his wins whenever he can get them.
In an attempt to outmanoeuvre the interior designers of HDB with some clever feng shui-like adjustments and engineering smarts, Jian Zhen hatched a plan with his friend.
They would set up his room such that there was a single flow of air from his room to his brother’s.
The idea was that with this slick new channel breezing across his house, the lingering heat wouldn’t stay long. In theory, that is.
“My windows are parallel to my brother’s window. So what we did was open all the windows and doors to our room. Then, we set up three fans: one in my room, one in my brother’s room and one in the middle of the walkway,” says Jian Zhen.
“The air circulation was amazing, but it did not help cool the rooms one bit,” he guffaws.
Night time is no better. When the sun sets, all that searing heat from the day has to go somewhere. In Singapore, the poetic ‘cool and crisp night air’ is nearly non-existent.
“I often wake up in the middle of the night because it gets too hot,” says Rachel. Her solution to the heat is, in a word, genius. “Since my bed frames are metal and are colder, I would hang my body on my bed frame to cool myself down,” she says, grinning sheepishly.
The City of Aircons That Never Sleeps
“Coming to Singapore is like a weird culture shock. I never knew that in Singapore, everyone had aircon,” recalls Jian Zhen, who moved to Singapore from Malaysia when he was eight. “I just have to go downstairs, look up at all the HDB flats, and you can see all those air conditioning units.”
“Something’s off,” he ruminates doubtfully.
Walking into an air-conditioned living room feels surreal, but it also feels like how it should be, according to Jian Zhen.
“It’s the same feeling as wearing glasses after tripping over stuff all the time,” he describes.
Shima shares similar sentiments—the first time she went to a friend’s house with air conditioning, it felt like a whole new world.
“I mean, wow, it was really a nice experience. As it happened, that day was also scorching, and she had the air conditioner switched on at home,” says Shima.
“I was just thinking to myself: this is what it feels like to have an aircon at home. It’s so convenient. You can just stay in your room and, you know, not worry about things like, should I bathe again? Or will I be able to concentrate later?”
Unlike the rest, Weitian had experience with air conditioners at home when she was living with her family. But they were reserved for select occasions, making each time it was switched on especially precious and treasured. Much like my mum’s favourite China and tea cups, “they’re for guests,” she would insist.
“The funny thing is that we had an aircon in each room, but they were rarely turned on. I can count with my fingers how often it was turned on,” recalls Weitian. “When I was younger, it was like less than five times a year. We only use it on special occasions like Chinese New Year when relatives are over or Christmas.”
“Those times feel like you just received a golden ticket from Willy Wonka himself—they were special moments,” Weitian tells me.
“I remember my sister and I would just be really fucking happy. We would both be wishing the night wouldn’t end so the aircon could be turned on for longer. We even hoped the guests wouldn’t leave—even though the aunties and uncles can be so annoying.”
The Cost of Cool Air: PTSD
“So get an air conditioner then!” empathy-less folks would decry. If only it were that simple. It comes as no surprise that for most, the cost is the main hindrance.
A quick browse online reveals that the price for the air conditioner ranges from a relatively affordable S$700 for a Mitsubishi Electric Electric Starmex System 1 Inverter System and an exorbitant S$3,058 for the Daikin Smile Series System 4.
This excludes servicing and regular maintenance costs, which start at an average of S$60 to S$80 for three air conditioner units. Plus, they need to be serviced every three months for them to be in good working order.
Besides the obvious monetary trappings of an air conditioner, other elements come into play when purchasing an air conditioner, as Shima explains.
“My brother and I were pushing our family to buy an air conditioner. But when we discussed it with my mom, she’s always like: ‘For what?'”
Getting an air conditioner is not merely a purchase for Shima, but it often comes with a few big questions whenever the topic bubbles up.
Shima and her family would have to consider the ‘why’ they should get an air conditioner, especially with how payment would be spilt between them. Then comes the ‘where’, seeing as her house is pretty small, getting an air conditioner might mean a stressful game of Tetris with the furniture.
For her, the additional mental load that comes with purchasing an air conditioner makes the whole thing even more burdensome than it already is.
With inflation and sky-rocketing electricity bills, perhaps getting an air conditioner now might not make the most financial sense. But then again, with electricity costs constantly in flux, is there ever a right time?
“I saw firsthand the drastic difference in my electricity bills when I used the aircon and when I didn’t,” says Weitian, who now lives in a rental unit with an air conditioner while her flat is being renovated.
“Without the government subsidies, such as the U-save voucher and such, I’d be paying close to S$200 a month for electrical bills. That’s ridiculous. I can use that money for more important and urgent expenses,” she adds.
Even as Weitian has a home of her own now with an air-conditioning system, the frugal habits of her air-conditioned-less youth have stayed with her.
“For some strange reason, I still feel uncomfortable switching on the aircon. Maybe it is like PTSD or something for air cons, but whenever I turn on the air con, I feel a pang of guilt,” says Weitian.
Is Keeping Cool a Necessity?
PTSD with aircon? That was a direction I didn’t expect this story to head towards. Still, for a select group of highly tolerant Singaporeans, cool air symbolises more than just comfort.
For them, each crisp, invigorating 22-degree breeze of the air conditioner is accompanied by the silent jingle of coins and fluttering of dollar bills. For others, it’s the difference between a good day and a bad one.
It seems unfathomable that a singular electrical appliance could have such a profound impact on one’s life. But it can, and the air conditioner has.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew has famously remarked how the air conditioner is one of the greatest inventions for Singapore. He credits the invention as the “key to public efficiency”. In fact, his first act as Prime Minister was to install air conditioners in the buildings where the civil service worked.
Still, Singapore cannot change how close it is to the equator. And with the forces of climate change fast approaching, the weather is only set to get more unpredictable and difficult to manage.
This calls for a more concerted effort to effectively cool the country down without the inordinate cost to both people and the environment—the centralised cooling system at Tengah households is a great start.
“I think the air conditioner has been a luxury for a while,” observes Jian Zhen, “but lately it’s becoming more and more of a necessity because the weather starts interfering with your life where you can’t leave the bed.”
“That’s not a good thing anymore, right?”