Cherian George’s “Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics” (Book Club, July 2021)

Dakota train station

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the July 2021 book club, when we discussed Cherian George’s “Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics” (

1. The Singapore model: How do you evaluate the “air-conditioned nation” metaphor (“comfort is achieved through control”) and what were your first impressions of the collection of essays?

  • Comfort is achieved not just through just control, but technical control more specifically with a deep level of (micro)management. It could be and has been perceived as a good form of governance, but the metaphor may be inadequate at times because the political philosophy of the ruling PAP is also premised upon ideology in addition to technocracy or being responsive to the needs of the electorate.
  • Answers to “why Singapore is successful” cannot necessarily be distilled into a number of obvious factors, for the country’s success could be premised upon factors beyond the control of the government or the state.
  • The metaphor works in some instances, such as when focusing on economics and “bread-and-butter issues” and de-emphasising “politics”.
  • The PAP could be staving off challenges or making policy changes through half-measures, for instance having the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park in response to demands for greater freedom of expression.

2. Palace intrigues: Two policy innovations by the founding prime minister were characterised as still costly for the ruling party: The elected presidency and the ministerial pay formula. To what extent do you agree? Or were there other costly mistakes which persist?

  • The ministerial pay formula will always hang over the PAP no matter future changes or tweaks. As long as politicians and ministers are drawing the million-dollar salaries – including the recent controversy over mayoral salaries – it will always be disadvantageous to the ruling party. Moreover, the party is also having difficulties attracting candidates (e.g. from the private sector) even with the salaries and they have thus drawn themselves into a corner with the policy.
  • A proposed arrangement could be pegging their salaries to their last drawn ones outside of parliament or the government, perhaps up to a cap. The make-up pay scheme was mentioned. Singaporeans are discerning to an extent, believing that the salaries should be commensurate to the roles and responsibilities of politicians. They are especially critical of non-performing or low attendance parliamentarians.
  • CMIO, racial categories, racism, and the immigration policies have been particularly difficult in recent years (e.g. the 2013 Population White Paper).
  • The PAP also paid a high-political cost for the “reserved” presidency, further speaking to the perceived lack of transparency and making the work of the current president very difficult, despite her very good work.
  • These policies oftentimes come back to haunt or bite the ruling party.

3. Electoral politics: Perhaps focusing on the opposition, what surprised you most or stood out to you in the reporting of the opposition parties?

  • The PAP has a powerful role in drawing and defining out-of-bound markers.
  • It also sets the agenda and the terms of engagement. Hyper-focused media reporting can sometimes zoom into technocratic or economic details but neglect ideological disagreements (e.g. poverty, the minimum wage, and the Progressive Wage Model).

4. Upgrading the PAP: Singapore is unlikely to be over-politicised, it is argued. Instead, the risk is “a weak, undeveloped political culture that is unable to meet the challenges of democratic citizenship”. How accurate is the claim that political sterility stymies the ruling party’s (or any party’s) ability to attract enough able Singaporeans to stand as candidates?

  • Contrasting Singaporean and Malaysian politics: While not wishing to romanticise the messiness and chaos, there has been strong evidence of political, civic, and religious engagement across the Causeway. Youths and folks have a say in building culture and there is long-term pay-off with them championing causes.
  • In Singapore, we leave socio-political discourse to the political masters and parliament. This could be due to a “chilling effect” and the populace imbibing the notion that politics should be left to the politicians.
  • However, the lack of civic and political engagement may not be unique to Singapore, given attempts at depoliticisation in the United States.
  • The government also likes to move into civic spaces when it feels that it cannot control the discourse (e.g. the death penalty, migrant workers, climate change). The terrain is especially difficult for folks involved in advocacy. The government may also try to co-opt civil society activists.
  • It might benefit the state to be less thin-skinned and to hear criticisms once in a while and to allow for more discussions.

5. Controlling the message: Thinking about SPH’s announcement in May 2021 that its media business would be restructured into a non-profit entity, what do you think it portends for state-media and society-media relations?

  • It may be possible for newspapers and media agencies to be profitable (e.g. The New York Times). There are also growing news and media platforms in Singapore.
  • What are the standards for quality reporting and journalism? And where are the sources of investigative journalism? Media outlets could do more substantive reporting.
  • The local newspapers do not give adequate coverage to the Asian or South East Asian region.
  • The Singapore does not lack good journalists for many of them are now reporting for and/or leading other global outlets.
  • There is some pessimism that the SPH/ST restructuring would not result in significant changes. Control may be seen to be unequally applied.

6. National identity: What does it mean to be a Singaporean? And in the context of race relations and the recent discourse on racism and Chinese privilege, what are the next steps for Singapore as a diverse immigrant city?

  • Zaobao has been especially defensive about the concept of Chinese privilege and the disadvantages (historically) faced by Chinese Singaporeans.
  • It feeds back into the “air-conditioned nation” metaphor and notion of control.

[Question was not fully addressed due to a lack of time.]

7. Discipling dissent: Participation right now is seen as “a kind of national suggestion scheme or quality control circle, managed through proper channels”. However, “democratic life is something that is learnt by doing”. The question is, how? And through what channels or platforms or movements should that happen?

  • Through REACH and government-sanctioned platforms, the government has sought to engender greater participation. National conversations and representations can have symbolic value.
  • Volunteerism on the ground can be critical and are potential gateways to advocacy. Advocacy work should be central, even if it can be exhausting. Charity and advocacy work are political work, though there are apprehensions among some that the work can be “too political”.
  • Because of the sterility fostered, mobilising civil society can be difficult in times of crisis.
  • More spaces for discourse should be fostered. In addition, the government and civil society groups should reach out to a wider group of individuals.

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