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Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited

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"Think of Singapore instead as the Air-Conditioned Nation—a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability."

Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited is an anthology of essays on Singapore politics by Cherian George. It draws upon his influential collection Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), on the country's politics of comfort and control, and from Singapore, Incomplete (2017), on its underdeveloped democracy. Updated for the impending transition to a new generation of leaders, this 20th anniversary edition of Air-Conditioned Nation offers critical reflections on continuity and change in Singapore’s unique political culture.

320 pages, Paperback

First published March 22, 2020

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About the author

Cherian George

16 books44 followers
Cherian George, born in Singapore in 1965, is a journalist-turned-academic who has written on Singapore politics for 30 years. After studying social and political sciences at Cambridge and journalism at Columbia, he spent the 1990s working at the Straits Times. He received his PhD in communication at Stanford in 2003 and is currently a professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 92 reviews
Profile Image for ash | spaceyreads.
346 reviews204 followers
April 21, 2020
This is the first time I'm reading Cherian George and I must say I really enjoyed his writing. He displays such intelligence and clear expertise and scholarship through his essays. His writing is concise and relatable - for an academic writing on his life's work, his writing never came across as lofty or lecturing, rather, his passion for the subject and love for his country really shone through and sets a foundation for his sharp observations and critical analyses. George also has a dry humor which I thoroughly enjoyed. Here's one passage from Chapter 25: The Web's Missing Link (which is tongue-in-cheek):

"Singaporeans may fancy ourselves as citizens of the most envied nation in the region, but there are some things across the Causeway that make us wide-eyed with wonder. Why is it, for example, that the average Malaysian roti canai beats even our best prata in taste and texture? How did Malaysia build the region's most charismatic budget airline when we're supposed to be the transport hub of Asia?"

The Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited features 37 essays from George from the past 2 decades, commenting on democracy, the history of prime ministers, the opposition parties, social issues, the government's relationship with journalism and media in Singapore, national identity, and the government's way of dealing with dissent.

Easily one of my favourite pieces is the title piece and first chapter The Air-Conditioned Nation, which is a great introductory essay that sets the tone for the rest of the book. George likens Singapore to air-conditioner, which our very own Lee Kuan Yew professed to be his pick for the most-influential invention of the millennium. It's a very easy analogy for the reader to understand our relationship with comfort and 'central control' and how it ties into our politics.

Unlike other essay collections I have read, this is a very well-curated collection of a wide variety of issues, topics, and events. You won't find repeated or similar pieces here. It also shows the impressive range that George has in his writing.

My other favourite pieces are:

1. Chapter 14: Chee's Collision Course. Interesting and well researched piece on Chee Soon Juan - the motivations of the government and its considerations when ‘dealing’ or ‘fighting’ with the activist/opposition party figure. I liked the analysis on how Chee's tactics were strategic to garner foreign srutiny of Singapore’s policies on free speech and the one-party dominance.
2. Chapter 19: The PAP I Can Get Behind. George laid out his wishlist for a better PAP which includes fairness, the ability to acknowledge mistakes and respond to them, and a more directed approach to ensure equality for everyone.
3. Chapter 21: The Dogma Behind Pofma. An in-depth and well-reasoned analysis on the history of the government's policies around censorship and the criticism of Pofma.

I really appreciate that this book set out to inform the average Singaporean about politics believing that every one of us should be able to make informed choices, gently but firmly pushing against a nontransparent government and our restrictions on free speech, in the way George knows how after 30 years of doing that. A must read for residents of Singapore looking to be able to think critically about our politics and making informed voting choices. I'll leave you with this quote from Chapter 16: The Spectre of Freak Elections that warmed my cold, dead, heart:

"On the whole, I credit Singaporeans with more sophistication and common sense that elite rhetoric grants them. There is simply no evidence that the Singapore electorate is prone to impulsive, flighty, or fickle behaviour. Look at the way it votes and you'll see an impressively level-headed public that knows what it wants."

Thanks to Ethos Books for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Profile Image for David Mah.
81 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2020
I wish more Singaporeans gave a bit of their time and effort to ponder the system, how it came to be, and how it could be. Idealistic yet sobering, Cherian articulates the troubled feelings I have but could not describe. Discourse in his book ranges from problems in education, censorship, government coercion, and political capital.

One quote which I feel encapsulates the reason for the high levels of apathy amongst my social circles is this:
"Singapore's tragedy is not the total absence of idealism, but that it systematically rewards the individualistic majority and discourages the social conscious minority"

Humorous and overall enjoyable, Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited lives up to the hype, and was worth the 4-week waitlist at NLB.
"I don't subscribe to the populist tendency to reward relatability over ability. I have enough friends to share a prata with; I don’t need government leaders to fill that role. "
50 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2021
Witty, informative and well-compiled series of essays. Definitely a succinct account of Singapore’s history, politics and where we are heading. Probably a staple for every GP student / good Singaporean.
Profile Image for Basil Chong.
45 reviews35 followers
April 23, 2020
Essays from 2000, 2015, 2017, and 2020 make up this thought-provoking collection. The fact that a little under half (16 out of 37) of these essays were written 20 years ago does not mean that this book is irrelevant or outdated. In fact, as Cherian himself states in the preface:

Twenty years seems a long time in the life of a fast-changing city-state. In that time, the number of people in Singapore rose by 45 per cent. The nation got richer, and more developed. Singaporeans are more connected, and live longer... The political system, though, has remained exceptionally stable.

It is this stability that animates the book. By what means, fair or foul, has the PAP maintained its performance and dominance? What opportunities (and dangers) does this longevity present to the political party, and to the nation (intertwined, for better or for worse)?

Cherian is intelligent, thoughtful, and freely admits an inability to be "objective", as he is invested in Singapore. Recommended for Singaporeans and Singapore-fans who are looking for well-researched, thoughtful criticism of the Singapore model.

Readers who enjoyed chapter 22 (Freedom From The Press) should read the book with the same title, which still provides insights to the media scene in Singapore 8 years after publication.
Profile Image for Guan Jie.
60 reviews1 follower
October 28, 2021
I have heard of the phrase "Air Conditioned Nation" before. I thought this was Singapore's nickname purely because we survive on air-conditioning. Everyone knows of the feeling about sweating in the sweltering heat outdoors (the mask makes things worse) only to be saved by the rush of cool air on the bus/MRT/mall. While true, I learned that the nickname was coined because Singapore is a:

a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability.

Hence, Air-Conditioned Nation.

Overall, it's a great start to learning more about Singapore's recent political and politically-affiliated history. It's a collection of essays published over the past 25 years or so from the author. The essays are well reasoned and it doesn't bash the government for no reason at all. It offers an alternative perspective.

I saved a lot of quotes from this collection of essays, here's one more.

Only those who have forgotten the pangs of hunger will think of consoling the hungry by telling them that they should be free before they can eat. Our experience is that economic growth is the necessary foundation of any system that claims to advance human dignity, and that order and stability are essential for development. - Wong Kan Seng, Foreign Minister 1993
5 reviews1 follower
April 19, 2020
This book is an anthology of essays from Cherian George’s two works on Singapore politics—Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000) and Singapore, Incomplete (2017); both collections of essays themselves. It also includes a few of his latest essays, published in 2020. That being said, the lack of new content (less than a handful of essays) does leave the reader wanting for more, especially those who are already familiar with the author’s works (for me, I had already read Singapore, Incomplete).

Each essay (chapter) is a standalone, usually ranging from 5 to 8 page apiece, and along with the author’s journalistic background and clear prose, makes for good quick reading while commuting, waiting for appointments, during meals or before bedtime.

The chapters are organised into 7 themes:
First, “The Singapore Model” sets the tone for what the book is about—the paternalistic, controlled, “air-conditioned” nature of Singapore politics. Of particular interest are Chapters 2 (Defending the “Asian” Way) and 4 (An Allergy to Democracy), explaining that the PAP’s knee-jerk reaction against Western liberal ideals is due in part to a disproportionate need to defend and preserve “Asian values” against growing Western global influence since the 1990s. The fact that the two essays were written 17 years apart demonstrates the continuity of the PAP’s attitudes. Indeed, by combining essays from his two old books, Cherian George allows us to easily view changes and continuities in his own attitudes and the issues he writes about.
Next, “Palace Intrigues” explores the policymaking of the PAP, including the issue of the elected Presidency and reserved Presidency. Again, we see how some issues persist of are mirrored from 2000 to 2017: the elected Presidency (its controversies unresolved over the decades, and now with the added complication of the reserved Presidency), leadership transition (2G in the 1990s, 4G today) and post-LKY politics (first when he stepped down in the 1990s, then again when he passed on in 2015).
“Electoral Politics” explores how the PAP maintains electoral dominance, including two chapters focusing on the infighting of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), while “Upgrading the PAP” is about how the PAP could/should reform some of its attitudes.
“Controlling the message” explains the government’s policies towards the media—and why it continuously “fails to impress” those hoping for more press freedom and dissent. As a former Straits Times journalist, the author offers interesting insights—sometimes first-hand—about how the local media is constantly kept in check, directly or indirectly.
“National Identity”, as expected, is about such issues as race and citizenship. Finally, “Disciplining Dissent” explains the PAP’s “soft authoritarian” methods. Cherian George’s background as a “dissenter” or “troublemaker” provides juicy anecdotes for what is perhaps the most interesting essay of all: Chapter 35 (Experiential Learning), about how his political views likely prevented him from gaining tenure as an academic at NTU (he now teaches in Hong Kong).

By the author’s own admission, his own writings from 2000 may be a bit “cringeworthy”. But, as mentioned above, that is also precisely what makes the book fascinating, when placed in contrast with his more recent (2017) articles from Singapore, Incomplete–did certain hopes and expectations turn out correct, wrong or naïve? What were the changes and continuities? Did his views change over time? Furthermore, for those too young to remember first-hand anything before 2000, the older articles also offer a crash course on more antique political events.

As alluded earlier, the author’s journalist background makes his work succinct, entertaining and accessible—but that also means those hoping for an in-depth, sustained academic/technical work on Singapore politics will be disappointed. For those seeking such content, it’d be better to redirect your attention to Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed, Bilveer Singh’s Is the People’s Action Party Here to Stay?, Donald Low’s Hard Choices, and Terence Lee and Kevin Tan’s Voting in Change (2011) and Change in Voting (2016) (both also published by Ethos Books!).
Instead, The Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited is more in the style of Chua Mui Hoong’s Singapore, Disrupted and Han Fook Kwang’s Singapore in Transition. The book should appeal more to a general audience, or those preferring something less academic (though no less insightful). Indeed, despite not being a political scientist (his professorship is in media studies), Cherian George demonstrates excellent mastery (and ability to effectively and clearly communicate) technical insight, especially in his discussion on elections (in particular, that of a “freak election”) and on POFMA (namely, how it concentrates too much power on the executive branch, strengthens dogmatism and setting the tone for state-society relations). Quality, in his works, is not sacrificed for more digestible quantity.

Throughout, Cherian George remains fair, analytical, even-handed and professional—this is not the work of an angry, outcasted dissenter; it is the informed opinion of a Singaporean journalist-turned-academic. If it at times seems imbalanced, it is only because of the subject nature of the book—it is about the deficiencies and dysfunctionalities of Singapore politics, and how to understand—and, within reality’s constraints—also hopefully address them.

One may not agree entirely with the author’s views, but it is hard to deny that they are well-thought-out, well-researched, thought-provoking, insightful, original and, most importantly, well-intentioned. Rather than an overly dry academic piece, or pro-government “propaganda”, or mindless cynicism, Cherian George throws a rope to any citizen with an interest in Singapore politics and who think that, while we should be grateful for what we have and give the PAP credit where credit is due, our country can still do better—that in the air-conditioned island nation, it is sometimes sensible to turn the heat up just a little.
Profile Image for Jo.
537 reviews10 followers
March 29, 2020
I enjoy reading Cherian George. Whether or not you agree with every point he makes, he comes across as intelligent and principled, and passionate about his country. In this collection of essays he explores the meaning of democracy and freedom, and asks difficult questions about how things are done in Singapore. You know that old song, ‘It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’? That’s what kept playing in my head as I read. The book reads not as a complaint about government competence, integrity or achievement, which are not in question, but more as a heartfelt cry for a free and energised civic society; for an investment in the messy creativity of difference; for a new trust in the ability of citizens, with the right kind of nurture, to think clearly and contribute fearlessly to the political life of this extraordinary nation.

If you have already read Cherian George’s ‘Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation’ (2000) and ‘Singapore Incomplete’ (2017) then this book will feel like a revisit. The Preface is new, and there are two useful brand new chapters (2020) reflecting on the 4G leadership and POFMA (the new online falsehoods law). The rest is previously published material grappling with the politics of comfort and control, and whether the future can be imagined differently. I hope it will be widely read, and that this 'revisiting' 20 years on will encourage a whole new generation to engage with its questions.

Thank you to Ethos Books for giving me a pre-publication copy to review.
Profile Image for sha.
109 reviews
April 15, 2020
we don’t talk about politics enough in singapore. not in the way that it needs to be talked about: without it warranting the question of whether you’re an ungrateful citizen, the fear of judgement or fear of state retribution (this is specifically covered in one of the essays).

this book informed me (hard), checked my biases and confirmed suspicions, and will definitely open up more discussions that we ought to always have now, and in the future. resist the compulsion to be apathetic.
Profile Image for Lester Tan.
56 reviews2 followers
October 28, 2020
In a 2017 New Yorker article Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds, authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach shared: "As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding."

It is relevant because we, at some points in our lives, would've encountered that vocal cabby who tore the leading government into pieces with his words; or that father-in-law who swore at a political party while throwing up his fist to show where his heart lies. Their behaviour was said to be justified—backed with all kinds of "conspiracy theories", hearsays, one-off struggles, and whatnot relating to the country’s politics.

You'd surely think: are they for real? Is this confirmation biases?

Cherian George and his latest book proves whatever people like them says are, more often than not, true. Although strong feelings are present, they have a deep (and clear) understanding of politics. The unfortunate thing is, the majority of us do too. However, the bigger majority are—as what George highlighted—afraid to admit it.

Such passiveness could be attributed to how well the country's been running for 50-plus years. (Let's give credit where credit is due.) Inevitably, some get blinded; others give trust. So then we ignore The Model's flaw, accept whatever’s given, and allow ourselves to be dictated any way they see fit. We keep quiet. We move on. From The Model, to electoral processes, to national identity, to media, George has presented a slew of examples that reiterate it’s high-time we push hard for change.

From this book, you could tell George’s stressing that the country as a whole hasn't changed much. Even if she did, it's almost insignificant. I’d think this is why he decided to revisit Air-Conditioned Nation (2000). The points he made back then are still very much relevant twenty years later. And this is telling. This is probably why George also ended the book with 'Singapore, Incomplete'. Because, one way or another, she still is today.
Profile Image for Aquila Michiryu.
123 reviews9 followers
April 3, 2020
Politics isn’t really my cup of tea. However, when I got hold of Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give Singapore politics a read (for once😂). I’m glad I did.

Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited is an anthology of essays on Singapore politics written by Cherian George, a journalist-turned-academic who has written on Singapore politics for 30 years.

Cherian George shows his astute observations about Singapore politics through his thought-provoking essays laden with fresh political perspectives. While reading his essays, I learnt a lot about the history and development of politics in Singapore, stuff I didn’t really get to learn about during History and Social Studies lessons in school.

Besides being mentally-stimulating, his essays don’t shy away from strong and sensitive political ideas that are highly contentious. His essays inarguably provide renewed imagination for the monotonous political scene in Singapore and impel readers to think more analytically.

I particularly like the metaphor that Singapore is an Air-Conditioned Nation—“a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability”.

Cherian George writes about an uninteresting topic (at least to me) in interesting ways, which I greatly appreciate. An insightful and provocative read that I recommend to anyone, regardless of whether you’re into politics or not.
Profile Image for Sophia.
15 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2020
This was clear-eyed, intelligent and balanced, rendering Cherian’s ‘cancellation’ by the government even more baffling and terrifying. A huge loss for the NTU journalism school.
Profile Image for Diana.
Author 3 books61 followers
May 21, 2020
"Singapore's tragedy is not the total absence of idealism, but that it systematically rewards the individualistic majority & discourages the socially conscious minority."

This book collects 20 years worth of writing on politics in Singapore, stretching back to when I was still a toddler until now, as an adult! Sadly, a lot of what he talks about 20 years ago remain relevant, & in fact, I think it's good for younger ones to read this to get a sense of the political landscape 20 years ago & the policies taken by the government such as the Newspaper & Printing Presses Act in 1974 that gave the govt power to name newspaper companies' director and a say in appointing editors & setting the editorial direction of every newspaper.

I didn't know also that a handful of government people have actually joined the opposition! Tan Jee Say for example was the former principal private secretary to Goh Chok Tong. Devan Nair was the most obvious dissenter having been a president who later wrote damning critiques about LKY trying to establish one-man rule.

This is an illuminating read because Cherian George explained all of these events from the past 20 years sharply, & in typical journalist fashion, very accessibly. As a book, I recommend this to people who love the PAP or who wants an accessible read to politics in Singapore.

Some choice quotes:

On POFMA only being able to be triggered by ministers: "the lies of rulers are generally more harmful to society than the lies of the ruled. So it's reasonable to expect any law against falsehoods to apply to all sides"

On how the Govt talks abt racial relations: "The overriding ideological message is not 'we're diverse, let's celebrate'; it's 'we're diverse, so beware'"

On using "Asian Values" as ideological protectionism: "The habit of framing issues in terms of Asian and Western values did distort Singapore's view of its own challenges"

On our authoritarianism: "The government still uses authoritarian methods, but to a degree that most Singaporeans seem happy to live with."

On the limits of internal reforms: "But the problem with putting faith in internal reforms is that we may end up compromising our dreams, settling for token change instead of holding out for meaningful transformation"

I don't know if it's because I was born into a time when the PAP is even more entrenched in its power but I found myself disagreeing at times with this belief Cherian George has that the PAP's terrible behaviour were "mishandlings" or "misgivings". For me, their pattern of behaviour till today, & even now, shows a dedication to arrogance & treating citizens as incapable of deciding for ourselves what we want. It shows a dedication to controlling the narrative, to bludgeoning activists & critics with the full weight of the state apparatus, lack of accountability for their past errors & human rights violations, & infuriating disregard for welfare under an outdated concept of meritocracy.
Profile Image for Khin WT.
68 reviews12 followers
December 21, 2021
In this book, Cherian George presents us with a model with which to study the socio-political development of Singapore. In his opening essay, he writes “think of Singapore instead as the Air-Conditioned Nation—a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability.” Rejecting the spectrum between authoritarianism and democracy, Singapore’s political model is one that allows the nation to remain largely functional in an increasingly capitalist and pragmatic world, maintaining a comfortable stasis that may be becoming irrelevant.

In the 2015 elections, I’ll admit I didn’t care for the political scene because 1) we all knew the incumbent party would be staying in power and 2) as a non-citizen, I couldn’t vote anyway. Maybe having friends around me sharing their opinions on policies and political discourse helped me feel more involved when the 2020 elections approached, regardless of whether or not I could cast my vote. The point was that conversation was ongoing, and i wanted to be a part of it. This is something that the central control of the Air-Conditioned Nation doesn’t like too much: its power and the way it runs things being questioned.

This book isn’t a collection of essays criticising the way things are; not completely. George acknowledges where the incumbent party has done well in the past, where it continues to do well, but also points out (without being scathing) where it could improve, when it goes overboard, where it is getting outdated and needs to revise its model, because the air-conditioning system is not for everyone, and central control has become a bubble in itself that sees any outside voice with an alternative viewpoint as a sign of dissent. Especially in recent years, I’ve seen the younger people push back; people on social media are calling out things like smear campaigns against a strong candidate on the opposition’s team, the new law barring singles from buying HDB flats even after hitting 35 years of age (contrary to the government stating it would be “supportive” of its queer citizens lmao), sweeping discussions about race under the rug because it could “upset” our “racial harmony”, the list goes on. It’s amazing how relevant even some of his older essays (the first edition of this book was published in 2000) are still chillingly relevant today, how we are seeing history probably repeat itself. I guess my conclusion is: if you’re living in Singapore or a Singapore citizen, you HAVE to read this. Cherian George might be an academic, but his essay collection is largely accessible.
Profile Image for Zhi.
95 reviews7 followers
July 4, 2020
What better book to read as GE2020 rounds the corner other than Cherian George’s anthology of essays on politics in Singapore? This was my first foray into Cherian George’s writing - and, if I must admit, into any writing about politics in Singapore, period. Cherian George’s writing is compulsively readable, engaging, and easy to follow. While the perspectives he offers may not be entirely “fresh” or “exciting” for readers who have been “up-to-date” (so to speak) on the state of Singapore’s politics, what he does offer is depth of insight, shaped by his clearly extensive understanding of Singapore’s politics. I truly appreciated his keen analyses of the PAP, the Opposition Parties, the Singapore citizenry, and the role of the media.

Favourite chapters: Everything from the first three sections (‘The Singapore Model’, ‘Palace Intrigues’, and ‘Electoral Politics’) and the chapters under ‘National Identity’. ‘Clearing the fog of fear’ was also a thought-provoking read, especially reflecting on my career and what I might do/ NOT do when faced with certain difficult decisions.
(I will also add that I did feel more connected to the essays that were written more recently at times, but honestly date was not a matter - many things that Cherian George wrote in 2000 still persist/ exist in some form of other even today.)

If anything, I would strongly recommend this book to everyone who’d like an easily digestible, occasionally snarky, but most importantly, insightful glimpse into politics in Singapore that still remains uncynical (and in fact, hopeful) despite everything. A five-star read, truly.
Profile Image for Celeste.
450 reviews
November 13, 2020
I didn’t finish the last section but wanted to review this as it’s fresh in my mind, and finish it when I’m back in Singapore next year.

The book started out strong for the first 50%. The metaphor of the air condition for the politics of comfort and control in Singapore, the ingenuity of Lee Kwan Yew and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, and the analysis of the 4th Gen of PAP leaders was incisively written and a nice peek under the curtains.

However the latter chapters were unremarkable and forgettable for me. The POFMA analysis was very obvious, and his 2017 essays on the weakness of Singapore society didn’t age well — I felt like the 2020 elections and the rise of online newsletters like We the Citizens and Rice Media all go against his observations that the media has failed to live up to its expectations. And the topic of race... on one hand we see how the government‘s handling of Preetipls and Raeesah Khan falls exactly into his observations that we still can’t talk about race in Singapore without the government overreacting about how it threatens our hard earned “racial harmony”, I just think other hurdles to integration and identity exist; in this age, it’s about socio economic disparity. In this case I felt that This is what Inequality in Singapore looks like and Navigating Differences did a better job of covering it.

Basically I don’t think Air Conditioned Nation revisited did much for me. His ‘97/2000 essays were much stronger.
Profile Image for JoAnn.
159 reviews30 followers
June 15, 2020
Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited is an anthology of 37 essays written by Cherian George over the past 20 years. Flitting between 2000 and 2017, we see how the political landscape and people of Singapore have changed over time, with George succinctly covering each issue with grace and expertise.

While a lot of his essays are littered with his own subjective opinions, he introduces the elements to the issues and various viewpoints to the reader as well, allowing us to formulate our own grasp of the topic of discussion (something I really appreciated). Additionally, reading this has also led me to discover sides of Singapore politics and history I'd never been exposed to back in school, which resulted in lots of googling in between chapters!

It's an extremely educational, yet easy-going read that encourages Singaporeans to think more deeply about Singapore as a whole, and I'd highly recommend everyone (especially political noobs like me) to take their time and read through this slowly.

Also some chapters that I really liked for my own future reference:
1. Chapter 19: The PAP I can get behind
2. Chapter 20: Future-proofing the PAP
3. Chapter 30: Justice and equality
4. Chapter 36: Voices of conscience
Profile Image for Magdalene Lim.
272 reviews12 followers
May 23, 2020
Air-conditioning strikes a cord as most of us are working from home, away from our air-conditioned offices, this Circuit Breaker/Lockdown period. Is it enjoyable to work without the air-conditioning? Probably not. Some claim to not be able to work if they don't have air-con. But can we live without it? Probably but it's not ideal.

I am surprised that this book got published and republished, but am glad that it did. It opened my eyes and would give anyone (especially the politically apathetic) the background to our history from a slightly different light. CG writes really well and I loved the analogy of the air-conditioned nation - something I relate to more than nanny state.

Enjoyed the read though it got progressively heavier. It was definitely more meaningful reading this than the other chicklit I've been devouring. However, as with most non-fiction books, the question is, what will I take away from it? What will I do with the information that I've read? I'm curious about you who has read the book too. :)
24 reviews1 follower
November 25, 2020
With sharp critiques and a plethora of probing anecdotes - air conditioned nation revisited allows us to revisit our conceptions of what Singapore is and what it ought to be. A great introduction to Singaporean politics and an incisive way to measure our progress as a country. The essays from 2000 for better or worse still provide an insightful questioning of whether the truths we hold to be self-evident are indeed self-evident.
1 review1 follower
June 18, 2020
amazing read! it got me thinking on many things that i've never really think about before - why we behave the way we behave as Singaporeans. the system, the media, the nation. and many of the incidents happened when i was growing up and not bothered about politics etc. we're a truly air-conditioned nation.
Profile Image for Ying Xuan .
38 reviews11 followers
December 24, 2020
I first picked up this book during the General Elections earlier this year - where I picked essays to better understand the past events which formed our electoral landscape today. The rest of the book took me a few months of nibbling, digesting and internalising. And I'm sure it would be a book that I will want to be sitting on my shelf, and to revisit occasionally.

I appreciated Cherian George's analogies, which are mostly relatable and unforgettable. (be it the air-con, semiconductor cleanroom, merlion, soccer). I am also quite certain that he is a Marvel fan! I also enjoyed his candour and snarky remarks - which were pretty much on point.

I particularly enjoyed his essays on National Identity, especially Ch 27: Neglected Nationhood & Ch 28: the marooned merlion.

Some excerpts:

"..PAP adopts an interventionist approach to ethnicity, where Singapore's traditional Asian cultures are subject to regulation and remaking, rather than allowed their natural expression and evolution."
"... (by applying) stark categories that cariature people's ethnic heritage, and equat(ing) ethnicity with both and language, (we) fail to reflect the cultural diversity and richness on the ground"

"this race=culture=language approach appears to be a step backwards, both for dealing with change and cosmopolitanism as well as for inter-ethnic relations and individual identity."

The points George raised on civil society and political engagement also stood out to me. My favourites include: Ch 18:revising the people sector and Ch36: voice of conscience

Some excerpts

"... democratic life is something that is learnt by doing. Only through active participation can people learn about the diverse interests that inhabit their society, and about the need for negotiation and compromise among them"

"circular reasoning that traps SG civil society: activists are denied freedom to bring the public over to their POV, and are then disparaged for not being representative"

"when the govt treats electoral politics as the only authorised space for debating highly contentious issues, the effect is to delegitimise civil society as a venue for deep political participation"

"In an air-conditioned nation, it is certainly more tempting to just sit back and enjoy the comforts of life. But others have this overriding impulse to get involved in things larger than themselves. ... They are not oblivious to the controls, but are willing to sacrifice their own comfort for what they believe. "
Profile Image for Jill.
749 reviews31 followers
May 24, 2020
Air Conditioned Nation Revisited combines Cherian George's essays from The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000) and Singapore Incomplete (2017), with a couple of essays from 2020. In the preface, George confesses he was long loathe to re-open The Air-Conditioned Nation, wary of the "potential embarrassment". But 20 years after its publication, he muses that perhaps these essay now have "some archeological value, at the very least".

I read The Air-Conditioned Nation in 2002, before Goodreads was launched, and Singapore, Incomplete in 2018. In 2002, I found the metaphor of Singapore as an Air-Conditioned Nation - "designed, first and foremost, for the comfort of its inhabitants…[dependent] on effective insulation, to ensure that the wealth gradient is not flattened by the socialist impulse to equalise outcomes….[and dependant] on central control" - absolutely brilliant. Some 20 years later, the metaphor still resonates. As do the bulk of the essays from The Air-Conditioned Nation, which touch on various aspects of the political landscape, from the role and standing of the opposition in Singapore (sidenote: Zuraidah Ibrahim - George's wife - has a wonderful SCMP op-ed from Jan 2020 on "Singapore election: the PAP's order and stability will win out, but how will the opposition shape up"), to government-civil society relations, government-media relations, the potential implications of the internet on the space for public debate and discussion, national identity and OB markers, to name a few.

George's modest hopes for including his 2000 essays in this collection are that they will provide "some archeological value, at the very least". But, what struck me, re-reading these essays, in particular those from 2000, was how current and relevant they still felt. They did not feel like quaint, outdated readings of Singapore's political landscape, or succinct historical narratives. It was somewhat depressing, truth be told, that so little about our political landscape has changed in the past two decades, even as our urban landscape, leisure and consumption patterns and how we connect and engage with others have radically transformed.

The essays from Singapore, Incomplete (2017) spoke to the different manifestations of the "culture of fear" in Singapore. From the government's fear of of “inconvenient truths” and narratives that challenge its own, fear of the conflict and protests that might arise should the status quo shift, and above all, fear of outcomes that the PAP cannot control and that might be detrimental to its interests.

There are two 2020 additions to the collection - one on the challenges facing the 4G leadership and another on Pofma. I found these two essays to be slightly blunter in tone compared to the 2000 and 2017 pieces. In the Pofma piece for instance:

"First, Pofma signifies an entrenching of the principle of executive dominance…since independence, PAP ideology has been contemptuous of liberal democratic checks and balances that impede the important work of cabinet…Aside from ideology, the PAP's sheer longevity in office has strengthened its hegemony."

If you've never read George's earlier collections, I would say Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited is a must read. Even if you have read The Air-Conditioned Nation and Singapore, Incomplete, if it's been a while (like in my case), it's worth re-reading these essays; George's keen observations and pithy writing are a joy to read and like I said, much of what he wrote on 2000 is still relevant today. The organisation of the essays into 7 themes - The Singapore Model, Palace Intrigues (on personality dynamics and politics within the government), Electoral Politics, Upgrading the PAP, Controlling the Message, National Identity and Disciplining Dissent - also provide new lenses and frames with which to examine George's earlier writings.
108 reviews
October 8, 2020
An excellent collection of essays around the intricacies of the state of Singapore’s government and civil society. Each chapter is concisely written, organised by themes. I appreciated the update in this new edition with some stories from 2017, the year when I had just arrived and was only barely aware of the general situation. 3 years later, I think have some additional background, and this book filled in the gaps.

As explained in the book, the title is a brilliant subversion of the original comment made by Lee Kuan Yew about the invention of Air Con being the single most important for the nation. This has turned into a nation unconcerned with the externalities of material comfort. The way politics is conducted here is unique in the world and leads to some pretty interesting situations: market forces running rampant alongside heavy handed interventionism has resulting in a booming tech penetration and reliable business context, a press beholden to the party while not just a mouthpiece, university staff being pushed out when perceived to be inconvenient (the authors own experience), support for the death penalty hinging on its almost total secrecy among other counter intuitive realities.

I found particularly interesting how these phenomenons coalesce to give an impression of the perfect place, that is so seductive for the expat gang who marvel at the ease of settling in here and the sense of security it affords. This book is for those interested to have a closer look.

Sharing some excerpts here which are models of clarity and memorably put:

Think of Singapore as the Air-Conditioned Nation - a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability.

“Only those who have forgotten the pangs of hunger will think of consoling the hungry by telling them that they should be free before they can eat. Our experience is that *economic growth* is the necessary foundation of any system that claims to advance human dignity, and that order and stability are essential for development.” - Wong Kang Seng, 1993 (* mine)

The Asian Way theory was used in aid of a kind of ideological protectionism. Ideas regarded as politically inconvenient, such as for greater civil liberties or more press freedom, were labelled as Western and inappropriate for import, thus shielding the system from healthy competition.

Calibrated coercion strengthens the ideological pillars of PAP dominance. The rarity of open conflict and brutal repression creates a sense that Singapore’s stability is due to a strong consensus.

It’s not the case that the government intervenes in every news story that relates to its work. I’ve met many civil servants who are mystified by the notion that the press is government-controlled, because this does not tally with their experience.[...] Singapore’s CNA have enough autonomy to pursue angles that don’t make the government look great - but only up to a point. The moment government leaders sense that they may lose control of the agenda, phone cals are made to editors to suppress unwelcome lines of journalistic inquiry or commentary.

[...] press freedom must be “subordinated” to the “primacy of purpose of an elected government”
[...] on politically controversial issues, instead of pressuring the government to listen to the people, the press has to persuade the people that the government is right.
Profile Image for Horatio.
249 reviews2 followers
July 18, 2020
This was an excellent book. George writes so well about the political scene within Singapore, capturing its essence and raising its issues in a well-substantiated and eloquent manner. A thoroughly enjoyable read, as well as providing much food-for-thought.

Favourite Quotes:

Goh, on taking office, remarked on his predecessor’s “size 20 shoes”, but was undeterred. “Any successor will find the shoes he has left too big,” he said. “I do not intend to wear his shoes. I shall wear my own, and choose my own stride. I intend to be myself, and set my own style.” That style, which Singaporeans grew to respect and appreciate, struck a balance of dignity and unpretentiousness, sincerity and good humour. By the year 2000, Goh Chok Tong, wearing only his own shoes, helped Singaporeans to be comfortable not only in their homeland, but also in their own skins.

Post-LKY politics—as well as a maturing economy and the digital revolution—will require a paradigm shift in how internal conflict is managed, from a top-down, personality-based mode towards more transparent methods of resolving differences. The balance will have to tilt from the search for good men to an equal emphasis on good laws, as the ultimate answer to good government.

The PAP’s seemingly unsentimental response has its roots in the leadership’s strict adherence to the principle of keeping government on an even keel and free from personality politics. It is an attitude that made Singapore one of the few countries in the world not to carry the portraits of its national leaders on its currency and postage stamps. (Only in late 1999 were stamps and a series of notes issued bearing the likeness of President Yusof.) Even the president’s ceremonial side is seen as a force to be closely managed, lest it undermine the PAP’s stand against cults of personality

First, I want leaders who believe they know best—but are equally certain that they don’t know it all. Politicians shouldn’t run for office if they aren’t convinced they can do the job better than anyone else. I don’t subscribe to the populist tendency to reward relatability over ability. I have enough friends to share a prata with; I don’t need government leaders to fill that role. I don’t need them to rap or share selfies any more than I expect my doctor or banker to do so; they don’t need to entertain me.

When such concerns were expressed, the government refused to reword its legislation more precisely, fearing that this would open loopholes. It instead protested that its intentions were pure. The approach was in keeping with its “Asian way”: government, it believed, needed the freedom to rule effectively; the way to prevent abuse was not to tie its hands, but to choose honourable rulers. Singaporeans were therefore asked to put their trust not in the letter of the law but in the spirit of its drafters; not in contracts, but in conscience.
Profile Image for Grace.
38 reviews20 followers
August 3, 2020
I picked up this book just before the 2020 General Elections, hoping to educate myself a little about the political scene in Singapore. I feel like this should be a pre-requite reading to anyone who wishes to make an informed choice at the polls on Election Day. I knew close to nothing beforehand. But this book gave me a crash course about how everything worked. It gently leads me to engage in critical discourse on a wide range of topics such as: the history and experiences of Singapore's politicians, the press and media, state policies, the election process, the ruling party's model of comfort and control, xenophobia, race, language and religion.

The essays are all written in a concise, easy-to-read manner inviting newbies to discuss and ponder about the issues at large. I feel like this is very important in an increasing politically apathetic Singapore.

I returned from studying and living overseas to Singapore in 2019, just one year before the General Elections and had a reverse culture shock. Accustomed to the grand parades and protests overseas, I now suddenly sensed the overall atmosphere of a stifled, suffocated and repressed society; but couldn't place my finger on exactly why. I also felt disgusted by the superficial pragmatism of my Singaporean friends who were just satisfied to be in their comfort bubble as consumers, only thinking about what to eat, what to buy, and where to go for a holiday next. "Why don't they care about causes larger than themselves? Why are they so apathetic? Is everyone afraid to speak up?" I wanted to swim against the flow, resisting the urge to conform, but yet, a few months after coming back to my hometown, I find myself dangerously comfortable in the lifestyle.

As an average Singaporean, there were many things I was unhappy with in Singapore's society but felt that I lacked the knowledge then in order to form a firm opinion on the larger issues. In my confusion, this book empowered me with just the right amount of knowledge I needed as a starting point. The essays were arranged neatly with a timestamp, reading some of the 20 year-old essays are a true testament to the timelessness of Cherian George's writing, and relevance in society today. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, this book serves a purpose in encouraging civic discussion and citizen action among ordinary Singaporeans, striving to reinvent the Air-Conditioned Nation.
Profile Image for Rachel.
190 reviews26 followers
May 4, 2020
[Book Review] Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics by Cherian George

I‘m a big fan of the books published by @ethosbooks, so when they reached out asking me to review this new 2020 anthology I was both incredibly thrilled and very honoured!

This collection of 37 enduring essays (old and new) on Singapore politics and history was written by former Straits Times veteran political journalist @cheriangeorge in 2000, 2017 and 2020.

These personal writings cover many topics, ranging from the general elections to the presidency, freedom of press, race, language, racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ rights, human rights, PAP, SDP, WP, the LKY years and beyond, local laws like Pofma, religion, media and arts regulation, SG’s relationship with the Web, national identity, and hopes for the future of Singapore civil society.

In my view, I found the writer to be very astute and calm in his meditations and observations. He was especially kind and generous in his praises and credit to the Government, while at the same time, very precise and eloquent in articulating his constructive criticisms.

Some parts were very intellectual (maybe a bit too highbrow for me to truly appreciate) which is great because I believe in reading difficult, thought-provoking books. There are many great, quotable sound bites for me, and I’ld definitely recommend getting a copy of your own to read!

Personally, I think more people need to continually educate themselves on local and foreign affairs and to think critically on political issues (beyond reading Mothership and beyond learning what is taught in school). Politics lies at the heart of everything, and members of civil society cannot pretend it doesn’t concern or affect them for their entire lives. You can purchase a copy of Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited from ethosbooks.com.sg or any good bookstore :) PS. I found it amusing that things I heard from fellow Singaporeans over the past few weeks had crept their way into this book! Such as “WP umbrellas”, Cherian George’s tenure, and how “we are not short of free satirical posts, frank Facebook comments and amusing memes”.
Profile Image for Justina.
66 reviews
October 18, 2020
This collection of essays is about how the country of Singapore is stable, compact, and digitally connected, and how it has a government system symbolized by an air conditioner, suggestive of an authoritarian democracy. The society is air conditioned in the sense that there is central control and comfort from the AC unit, but at the cost of individual autonomy. The author argues that the AC nation prioritizes comfort (good communities, stability, better pay, good schools, and a stable society.) That comes at a the cost, though, of the nation's unequal wealth gradient. Besides comfort, an AC nation cares about central control. From an economic management perspective, Singapore has policies to manage the goings-ons of the town through government control. Many things are centrally planned, and while the economy is liberal, the government is not. (An attempt to take more direct control that isn’t from a PAP state has not been possible yet.) The author presents examples proving that Singapore must sacrifice civil liberties to have the air-conditioned nation which promises comfort.

This is my best attempt to condense my original two-page review to two one-sentence summaries.

Chapters 1-4: Cherian talks about what the “Asian” way is, after political liberalization when the West’s push for democracy had found that Singapore was not emboldened and was shunned by agents of change, showcasing a clash of foreign ideologies, and a variance in cultural values, and Cherian also talks about Lee Kuan Yew's pointing out of western democracy's dysfunctions.

Chapters 5-8: Cherians talks about a new PM and the People's Action Party (PAP) building a nation of character, AC underwear, the official secrets act of 1994, the government's strong central control with no individual autonomy, LKY trying to fix the government structure, the future of Singapore’s political system in the post- LKY era with intelligent planning, and handling controversy investigations.

Overall, the leader was helpful in getting Singaporeans to accept their land and themselves. In summary, this was a great book; I definitely recommend it.
Profile Image for Mavis Chan.
87 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2020
Thoroughly enjoyed the insightful essays on key aspects of Singapore's growth and subsequent challenges in the decades since independence. I particularly enjoyed how the older essays stood the test of time and served to provide context for the more recent ones. It was interesting to compare and contrast the challenges and leadership styles between the different PMs.

Singapore's rapid rise can be attributed to strong leadership and good strategic decision making at a time where tough measures and hard changes had to be made. The author wisely unpacks the different areas where we are now realising the costs of our decision to prioritise economic growth over anything else. From low levels of political involvement and awareness from Singaporeans to the inability to discuss racial issues meaningfully, Cherian George does a good job in correlating the past and the present.

On the press front, things seem more worrying. George's failure to earn tenure at NTU under flimsy circumstances is perhaps a sad reflection of a government that is more keen to secure its position than grow its people. This is particularly disappointing when critical thinking should be encouraged instead of silenced. The essay on Pofma explained how in the historical context of Singapore's strict media laws, Pofma was simply another creative legal addition that takes those powers into the digital age. George's ability to draw the connections that drive insight was perhaps too much of a threat.

Through these essays I was reminded of how the clever instruments of government work in Singapore, and how, despite the fact that we're living in a different age, they are still being used by a government that is slow to change.

Thanks to Ethos for the review copy.
Profile Image for Joey.
99 reviews12 followers
April 3, 2020
A must-read for the politically ignorant, especially helpful for first-time voters like myself to make an informed decision. I've always had scattered opinions about certain parts of SG's politics here and there, but reading about the different issues brought up by Cherian George stirred up such strong feelings of patriotism in me - I agree, hands down, with him when he wrote that his criticisms come from a place of love, for this is our country and we want her to be the best that she can be.

My favourite piece is definitely the headliner - The Air-Conditioned Nation - such a fitting title for our tiny yet complicated lil island. We are "a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control, where people have mastered their environment, but at the cost of individual autonomy, and at the risk of unsustainability." And it is not that we are brain-washed or blind sheep, but that we have grown to realise and be really comfortable with the growth at the expense of individualism.

I poured over the section on the different opposition parties and their roles to the Singapore political climate - it is such a brilliant, concise summary of our little history and a great jumpstart on my mandatory reading come GE. His original material from two decades ago definitely aged well, with such sharp commentary and multi-faceted take on the many issues which make up our society. The new 2020 essays are also so interesting and thought-provoking, I'll have to follow his works more closely from now on.
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