Singapore’s Unhealthy Obsession with Air Conditioning

When I moved to Singapore the most common question I was asked was how I managed to adapt to the weather. Singapore doesn’t have seasons and it is hot and humid all year round. However it was not the weather that I found hard to adapt to but rather Singapore’s unhealthy obsession with air conditioning.

In Singapore the public transport, shopping malls, office buildings and general indoor areas are highly air conditioned with temperatures set between 19-23°C. Singapore has the highest per capital installed rate of air conditioning among Asean countries. Air conditioning accounts for up to 40% of the average household electricity bill, suggesting a deeply rooted culture for chilling room temperatures.

Because of the very cool indoor temperatures, warm articles of clothing are readily available in shops despite the fact Singapore is a tropical country. Actually, office wear in Singapore is far more formal than in Europe or the USA. Male office workers wear undershirts as well as ties and blazers. Females sport long sleeved shirts and cardigans, or shawls worn over their dress.

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Singapore is a tropical country but the office workers wear long sleeves

The best way to illustrate the point is by looking at things from a child’s point of view. If you were to show a European child the below image of someone putting on a jacket, they will conclude the person is getting ready to go outside. However if you show a Singaporean child the same image, they will assume the person is about to go indoors.

How you interpret this photo of a child putting on a jacket is revealing

So what is the story behind this unhealthy obsession with air conditioning?

A sign of affluence

Singapore’s dirty little secret is that powerful air conditioning is a sign of affluence. The temperature of your preferred shop, where you work and even your home is interpreted as a marker of your financial security. You cannot avoid the facts. For instance, take a look at the shopping experience. The most expensive department stores and luxury retail brand outlets are all along Orchard Road and they have the coolest temperatures. You need to wear multiple layers in order to shop comfortably around Orchard and Somerset. Compare this to the cheaper although far more famous Mustafa shopping centre, which is notorious for its low prices as well as low level of air conditioning. In the food arena, the poshest supermarket is Cold Storage. The temperatures here are absolutely chilling compared to the local wet and dry markets which have no air conditioning at all. For office workers, if you are based in Raffles Place or Downtown you can expect to enjoy a luxuriously cool workday. However if you work in Bugis or even further out you may not fare so well.

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Shopping at Orchard is a freezing experience

For those of you who have read my past posts, you will already be aware that Singapore won the battle to be the capital and hub of Asia Pacific. And it goes without saying that Singapore is also the wealthiest country with air conditioning more prevalent compared to other neighbouring Asian countries!

Increased efficiency at a cost

The Singapore government discovered a correlation between air conditioning and worker efficiency. The founding father Lee Kuan Yew credited air conditioning as the secret to his country’s success. In an interview he gave for New Perspectives Quarterly he is quoted as saying:

“Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics. Without air conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency”.

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Lee Kuan Yew believed air conditioning helped Singapore to prosper

Mr Lee led a cool existence himself and he preferred his office to be at 23°C and his bedroom at 19°C. His views were also echoed by others in government. Lim Swee Say, former environment minister, told executives in 2001: ”Air conditioning plays a crucial role in our economy. Without it, many of our rank-and-file workers would probably be sitting under coconut trees to escape from the heat and humidity instead of working in high tech factories.”

It is true, air conditioning does increase productivity. A chilled office helps you to stay alert and awake. However such environments can also stifle creativity. According to Life Hacker, creative insights come when your brain is allowed to relax and thoughts can flow freely. Warm and ambient environments help people become more open minded and get the creative juices flowing.

There is also a concern that air conditioning can have a negative impact on your health. Air conditioning has a drying effect and symptoms of excessive air conditioning exposure include nasal congestion, breathing problems, headaches, fatigue, dry skin and sore throat. This is also known as sick building syndrome. A poorly maintained air conditioning unit can be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus leading to more serious contamination and health consequences. It is critical that air conditioning units are regularly serviced.

Japan refuses to compromise the environment

In complete contrast, Japan is taking extreme measures to reduce electricity consumption and carbon emissions by limiting the use of air conditioning. In the summer of 2005 the country introduced the Cool Biz campaign which mandated office temperatures of 28°C  between the summer months of June and September. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Cool Biz period was lengthened to occur between May and October.

During the Cool Biz months, office workers are encouraged to wear more relaxed office attired, which may include abandoning neckties and heavy blazers and wearing suits made from light fabrics. However Japan is a hierarchical country and many professionals feel a sense of shame to “dress down” at work, despite the hot weather and absence of air conditioning, especially if they are required to meet with clients.

To help keep the heat at bay during the hot summer months, uchimizu is performed in the cities whereby cold water is splashed on concrete shop fronts, buildings and asphalt roads to reduce the temperature.

Uchimizu is performed during Cool Biz

Cool Biz is considered to be one of the most successful environmental initiatives ever. In the first year alone, the Japanese Ministry of Environment estimated the campaign reduced carbon emissions by 460,000 tons.  By 2010, the amount of carbon emissions reduced by the initiative was estimated to have reached 1,690,000 tons, and in 2012 more than 2.2 million tons of carbon emissions were avoided. The campaign has been so successful that in 2016 the Japanese government introduced Warm Biz to the country.

However the campaign has not come without some strife. A new type of harassment has emerged in the Japanese workplace called “smell harassment” whereby individuals are criticised for having a bad smell or body odour, which could be caused by sweating. The Japan Times revealed the results of a 2017 survey in which 63% of respondents from Tokyo and Osaka ranked body odor as the number one thing they hated most about the Cool Biz initiative. To combat this, an increasing number of companies are asking their employees to attend “smell care” seminars.

To air con or not to air con?

Singapore is a fantastic and temperature controlled country. Are they are a little obsessive about air conditioning? Most definitely. Is it right or wrong? Well… it is not great for the environment or for the health of individuals. But as a very green country, Singapore is taking other measures to ensure an environmentally friendly and healthy way of life for its people. If you are moving to Singapore I recommend stocking up on some warm clothing to wear indoors otherwise you may freeze!


2 replies on “Singapore’s Unhealthy Obsession with Air Conditioning”

The air conditioning in Singapore is full on… but you need to experience Bangkok first. The air con temperatures there (especially on public transport) are really chilly!!

I can see how airconditioning can be a sign of affluence, imagine getting good airconditioning units and the electricity consumption of leaving the aircon on the whole day everyday! That’s a lot of money to burn. Working at good temperatures would definitely help with productivity so I understand how that’s their reasoning behind their love for airconditioning. To each their own I guess!

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