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Frigid Neoliberalism: A Brief History of Snow City

Close-up view of a snow-covered surface with a clear globe resting on it, and light shining through at an angle

Ask an average Singaporean where their first experience of snow was, and they might say Snow City, Jurong. Established at the turn of the millennium by NTUC Income and the Science Centre, the Antarctic simulacrum is probably media scholar Cherian George’s worst nightmare—“the Air-conditioned Nation”—brought to its (techno)logical extreme. The political metaphor described “a society with a unique blend of comfort and central control,” where in exchange of climate mastery, citizens sacrifice their “individual autonomy” and risk unsustainability. If air-conditioning technology embodies the perversions of the Singapore psyche, then Snow City is the country’s sleep paralysis demon.

On the sweltering afternoon of 3 June 2000, then Parliamentary Secretary Chan Soo Sen gave his opening speech inaugurating the Snow City. Chan foregrounds the uncanniness of snow in the tropics—“snow always fascinates”. One might read this as an inverted gaze that overturns the colonial gaze, whereby the colonised seizes the power of looking by making snow as a source of exotic fascination.

However, in a cardboard attempt at being relatable, the Guest of Honour brought up his first experience of seeing “real snow in Oxford nearly 25 years ago” when he studied there. Not only were listeners reminded of the one-party state’s elitist overseas scholar-to-government official pipeline, the emphasis on the authenticity of British snow (no less found in the monastic groves of imperial thought) in contrast with Singapore’s faux liquid nitrogen mixture only reinforces a stark postcolonial mimicry. The colonised or the once-colonised can only be pale imitations of the master, no matter how brilliant the mimicry. From the beginning, Snow City was nothing but a frigid fantasy that depended on colonial notions of tropicality as associated with discomfort, disease, and laziness. Conversely, cool weather is seen as the most conducive for civilisation. Perhaps this fantasy could find more resonance with the coldsploitation “snow films” popular between 1910 and 1930, where the legitimised consumption of Arctic scenes and polar narratives legitimised projects of colonisation in North America.

Chan extolled Snow City as a product of Singapore’s “New Economy”. This campaign gears towards the development of cultural and high-technology industries, especially after the 1997 Asian Financial Crises, diverting Singaporeans’ attention from existing economic woes towards a “futuristic new economy” and even rationalising the “uneven social impacts” of techno-economic shifts onto the labour market. Similarly, Snow City’s parent establishment, the Science Centre, was inaugurated in 1977 in the wake of the recent 1973 Oil Crisis, signalling the importance of a techno-scientific perspective towards future political and environmental issues.

Snow City’s establishment must be understood in a period of massive worker precarity as the Singapore economy emerged from crises, only to be bombarded with more neoliberal values of “flexibility” and “creativity”. Rather than providing worker rights to self-organise or expanding worker welfare under this uncertain climate, the insurance co-operative arm of Singapore’s sole trade union centre invested in the development of a sensory “innovation”, rather than actual material improvements to worker’s lives. As Chan concluded his speech, by then a neoliberal gospel, he did not forget to emphasise that Snow City must have “regular innovations” and “new attractions” to keep up with the rapidly changing tastes under the New Economy.

How much does the Snow City’s pursuit for incessant novelty change under neoliberalism? Since its operation, the SGD6 million Snow City has produced at least 10,920 tonnes of snow, along with equal amounts of liquid nitrogen and water. The production of cryogenic fluids, such as liquid nitrogen, contributes to significant carbon dioxide emissions. Not to mention the electricity needed to power its militaristic “snow gun” and keep temperatures at -5°C, in a city where 19% of carbon emissions come from air-conditioning, second after industrial emissions. Even as Snow City’s carbon emissions remain unaccounted for and unreported, it makes a palpable impact on warming global temperatures to keep its snow fantasy alive. It co-opts indigenous communities as mascots while contributing to destruction of their land and lifeways.

Not to be a tropical Grinch, but Singapore’s Snow City is an outmoded and environmentally-damaging object of the passé New Economy. For all of its failings, the attraction does redeem itself as being the place that offers the first, and perhaps only time some Singaporeans can experience snow. After all, not everyone has the opportunity to engage in snowball fights in Oxford.


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