Sunday, January 23, 2005

Welcome to tropical Siberia

Excerpt from theStar

Jackets, scarves, boots – the way some people dress for the office nowadays, you’d think you were in a temperate climate, not tropical Malaysia that sits three degrees above the equator. It’s all because of that ubiquitous and now indispensable invention, the air-conditioner, discovers MENG YEW CHOONG.

Short skirts are a thing of the past for most women office workers who wrap up in jackets, pants and boots to keep warm in offices that are usually icy all the time.
OFFICE worker Shelley Lee (not her real name) doesn’t wear skirts to work anymore. No, her dressing preference has nothing to do with modesty or feminism. It’s just because her office is too cold for bare legs.

“I used to wear skirts but after my company moved from a shop lot to its own multi-storey building with central air-conditioning, many of us had to cover up against the cold. If I wear a skirt, my knees would be freezing by mid-afternoon.

“Jackets and shawls draped over chairs have become a permanent feature in our office and many women colleagues wear boots to work because the place is cold enough for that!” says Lee, 34, who works in a media house in Petaling Jaya.

She adds that another colleague even wears gloves to keep her hands warm. But nothing perhaps beats having to use a hot water bottle at work!

According to Melody Yeoh, coats and scarves are not enough to stave off the cold at the Klang Valley-based private hospital where she works. “It is so cold in the office that some of my friends even carry a hot water bottle around. It’s crazy,” she laments.

Welcome to the modern workplace where air-conditioning rules, for better or for worse.

On man’s penchant for artificially chilled air, archaeologist Kris Hirst, who contributes to an online archaeological website (, says: “Air-conditioning is a symptom of civilisation. As civilisation progressed and progresses, we humans gradually move from adapting to our environment to adapting our environment (moulding the environment to suit us).”

In her essay on the phenomenon, she adds that this urge to master the environment is not exclusive to any race or tribe or nation. “This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, nor is it restricted to a particular culture – all humans seek to control their surroundings.”

And it would appear that people in the tropics are hell-bent on creating their own Ice Age in their confined spaces be it their homes, cars, offices or shopping malls.

A visiting journalist from Hong Kong once commented that he always had to remember to take a jacket to meetings in Kuala Lumpur because he has learnt that every office, hotel or restaurant in town is too chilly for him.

So while Singapore may be known as an “air-conditioned city”, Kuala Lumpur and other major Malaysian cities cannot be lagging too far behind, thanks to the relative affordability of air-conditioners (and partially due to the leverage of easy credit as well). As for the workplace, air-conditioners are near compulsory, if not already so.

Who would have thought jackets, sweaters and windbreakers would become essential officer wear in Malaysia?
Their ubiquitous presence means that people can disregard the climate and do as they please all the time, no matter how hot the blazing sun outdoors. Where before people might have downed tools in the hottest part of the day, air-conditioning means that they can work through the day. Which is probably why the diligent Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, called it “the 20th century’s most important invention”! Indeed, thanks to air-conditioning, the long distance transportation of goods and people was made possible. And cooling systems tamed inhospitable climates in places like Atlanta, Sao Paulo, and Cairo.

In Malaysia, it’s most obvious impact seems to be the increasing penchant for autumn/winter weight clothes among office workers. In the pre air-conditioned days of Malaya, the Brits how to dress: short-sleeved shirts and loose shorts made of cotton. And we locals, of course, were always suitably dressed for this humid, hot climate. But when heat and humidity are no longer constraining factors, what then, is the result?

A casual survey of fashion stores in the Klang Valley serves to confirm that air-conditioning provides a license to dress in distinctly untropical styles: windows are filled with leather jackets, long boots, sweaters come year end. In fact, Western designers have recognised that there is a sizable number of affluent consumers in Malaysia who don’t mind coughing up the dough for clothing made for the fall/winter period in Europe.

The savvy ones diligently tailor their year-end collections to suit our “cool” indoor weather so top designer boutiques now carry a generous selection of autumn/winter styles from the catwalks of fashion capitals like Paris and New York.

A Malaysian spokesperson for Italian label Prada said in an interview previously that most of the label’s fall pieces that sell well here are made of silk, light wool and classic Prada nylon. The key to success in marketing here lies in bringing in lightweight winter fabrics – our chilly offices are cool but not quite wintry, after all (though some might beg to differ!).

According to a Chanel spokesperson, “Our popular products here are the tweed jacket and cashmere sweaters, as well as knitted tops. As for boots, they are becoming increasingly popular.”

Actually, Dr Hui Ying Ming might appreciate winter weight woollens and furs. The government doctor says the air-conditioning in her workplace is far too cold, “but the worst is air-conditioning in hotels where conferences or dinners are held. It is often so cold, I resort to wearing winter clothing and even then I am still shivering. It makes it very difficult to concentrate on the presentation when you’re shaking you’re legs to generate warmth!”

Hmm. Here’s a thought. All that energy used to freeze Dr Ming is helping to add to the conditions that are creating global warming. So while we’re creating little Ice Ages in our offices, we’re actually warming the globe up...


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