Political climate control on high
Far Eastern Economic Review
March 22, 2001
By Chai Kim Wah

Singapore : The Air-Conditioned Nation. Cherian George. Landmark Books. NOV 2000. ISBN:981306546X. Paperback. S$ 19.90

TO THE EVOCATIVE EPITHETS applied to Singapore--nanny state, Disneyland with the death penalty--add another: Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. The title of a collection of essays on "the politics of comfort and control" by Singaporean journalist Cherian George, it was inspired, appropriately enough, by Lee Kuan Yew, who chose the air-conditioner as the invention of the millennium.

Just as the air-conditioner allows central control of temperature for optimum comfort, George writes, so the long-ruling People's Action Party maintains "total systems control" for the material comfort of citizens. "Observers frequently remark at the apparent contradiction between Singapore's high level of economic progress and its illiberal, centrally planned politics," he notes. "In an Air-conditioned Nation, however, there is no contradiction: comfort is achieved through control."

These 25 essays offer clear-eyed observation, independent-minded analysis and even-handed assessment of Singapore's politics in the decade since Lee handed over the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in late 1990.

In lucid and often witty prose, George appraises the Goh government's performance and political style, its election strategies and dealings with dissenters, its subordination of the media, co-opting of the intelligentsia, embrace of the business elite and advocacy of the "Asian way." He also discusses the stunting of Singapore's opposition parties, the blossoming of civil society in the PAP greenhouse, and the perennial debates over ethnicity and identity in a multiracial and highly Westernized society.

Under the new guard, Singapore has grown even more comfortable, calmly weathering the economic crisis, and winning its leadership respect at home and abroad, George notes. At the same time, the government has imposed more limits on political participation, banning political films and restricting Web sites. But despite "weak rights and protections against the coercive powers of a domineering state armed with catch-all laws," George predicts that Singaporean society will move "towards a more openly contentious form of public debate as a complexity in issues and interests replaces the hierarchical politics that the PAP has been accustomed to."

The tone of the essays is often sceptical, but never snide. The author's insights into the city-state's success, and the risks that success has bred, come from years on the inside: He worked for the establishment newspaper, The Straits Times, from 1990-99, and most of these essays are adapted from columns and articles he wrote.

But George is no apologist for the air-conditioned approach to life. While the essays don't dwell on the deficiencies (in democracy and individual liberty) that most vex Western critics, the essays elegantly dissect the issues that worry Singaporeans--perceived racial polarization, increasing immigration, rigid language policy--and catch the nuances perhaps discernible only to a native son or daughter, often questioning the status quo and arguing persuasively for alternatives.

George concludes that "the Air-conditioned Nation's balance of comfort and control has a built-in obsolescence." He says three factors make the current degree of control unsustainable: ". . . the government's diminishing capacity to manage information"; privatization and a more diffuse power structure; and Lee Kuan Yew's departure from government in this decade.

Perfectly controlled environments provide comfort but can chill the emotions. This book might not endear readers to Singapore, but it will help them to understand it better.

Chai Kim Wah is an assistant editor at the REVIEW