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The Malaysian Fascination with Air Conditioning

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As I sit here, tapping away at my keyboard like a dutiful miner tap tapping at the coal face, I have to break off periodically to give my fingers an invigorating rub. I pull my cardigan tighter around me, rearrange the shawl that is wrapped, grandma-style, around my knees, and wonder hopefully if enough time has passed to justify another cup of tea.

No, I am not visiting relatives in Canada, or at home in the UK, but sitting in our office in Bangsar, where the air conditioner seems permanently set to “arctic,” forcing everyone to have to troop around in coats and jackets. Just this morning, I caught my colleague with a huge smile on her face as we gathered around the coffee machine for warmth. “I have found the secret,” she whispered, “woolly tights!”

It is ridiculous, to be honest, that we have to resort to the sort of thermal clothing reserved for cold climates just to come to work, and I am sure that most of us expats, when we gleefully abandoned our winter coats and miserable mornings diving from duvet to dressing gowns for a life in tropical Malaysia, did not envisage having to make sure we are well-layered up just to go to the mall.

Now yes, Malaysia is a hot country, and yes, it is very pleasant to slip into a building blasting out chilled air after a portion of time spent under the burning sun, but who really enjoys being forced to exist all day in temperatures that would make the average polar bear reach for his thermal vest? I suppose these temperatures would be quite familiar for those of us who grew up in colder climates (whether or not we enjoyed them), but I am boggled as to why a nation born and bred in the tropics would be so inordinately ill-suited to the natural climate.

For the average Malaysian, it seems the only way to survive daily life is to dive from one cold chamber to the next, ensuring that the house, the car, the office, the train, every possible location is chilled to a crisp winter’s day. But why?

Generations before them coped with the heat – they stayed indoors, they paid little men to wave fans in their direction as they perspired, and they just got on with it, because that was life. It was only in the early 1900s that the air conditioner was even invented, and it took a long time to creep its way around the world; those with modest incomes have only relatively recently been able to afford the hundreds of ringgit it costs to keep their homes chilled 24 hours a day.

Subtle air conditioning works well – a comfortable room temperature that you almost don’t notice – but 90% of the time, the setting in all manner of places is set just as frosty as it will go and my poor fingers go whiter than a snowman’s bottom.

I suppose the saddest thing about all this, is that the incessant development of the city – the flattening of parks, of trees, of houses built with cooling verandahs to make way for high-rises packed as closely together as humanly possible – makes the city feel hotter. Modernisation also forces people to feel more reliant on the technology around them, to be entirely useless without it, and to therefore be less self-sufficient, which is unfortunate.

What do you think of Malaysian’s fascination with air conditioning?

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Read more: Weekends are for the Wealthy – July 2012

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