Living in the Vivarium:
A Singapore Story
by Anna Onni
Bukit Panjang, Singapore
Living in Singapore, a country whose total land surface area is 728.6 km², science as it is taught is scaled down to the science lab and controllable experiments. It is further limited by funding that favours whatever future-driven efforts are useful for the business of a successful city-state. And as a parallel to how science is scaled down, concern about the climate crisis is very much custom-fit to what happens within these national borders.
When it comes to the complex web of “environmental issues,” I am used to the national discourse that scales down an issue or solution to something that can be swiftly shown, absorbed and then remembered vaguely by the audience the next day. Something that can be easily displayed at an exhibition as proof of the concept. Something tangibly visible and easy to grasp when explained by an enthusiastic teacher, guide, or budding young scientist.
I used to be a Science and Technology Club student in primary school, but by the time I was thirteen my paltry mathematics results made me by default a suitable student for the humanities. In the few years between seven and twelve, the teacher in charge of the club would take us on multiple trips to the hydroponics farm to learn how a miniscule percentage of our food was grown locally. The other trips were to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve to see the mangroves and changes of the tides. Back then everything looked bigger. I thought that the walk would never end–especially on the days when it rained or it was high tide and there was barely anything interesting to see. Now I realise how painfully short the walk is. The longest trail is 8.4 km, designed to circle back in a loop to give the illusion of a larger space. Most nature trails and park walkways work that way here. Even shopping malls are designed in endless loops that spiral into each other. But at age 11 I was bored of plants and more fascinated by the few trips where we did “DNA analysis” at the Science Centre. We probably spent more time learning about how to use a micropipette correctly (with some firm warnings against fooling around and damaging the equipment) than how DNA sequencing worked.
While grade school students built papier-mâché volcanoes for science fairs in America (tectonic plates and the Earth’s mantle are strictly confined to the realms of physical geography in our textbooks), Singaporean students are geared from a young age to think of legitimate careers in computing, engineering and medicine. Environmentalism is an afterthought, something you give as a feature that comes with the product you already intended to build. There is a junior coders programme for preschoolers aged four to six years old. The course boasts “Computational Thinking Activities,” “Robotics,” and “Tinkering with Circuits.” An extensive Outward Bound leadership and sports learning facility is being built on cleared out land in a nature park that houses mangroves. Around the construction perimeter it is promoted with this statement printed on PVC: “Developing Environmental Stewards for the Future.” Whether or not environmental stewards can work effectively in the present rather than the nebulous future is still left up to debate. Every activity, every piece of land, is being used for all its economically productive worth.
To explain this strange combination of bustling curiosity and strategic pragmatism to my foreign friends, the concept of the vivarium, an enclosed area designed to provide a stable environment for living organisms, has stuck with me. I have been fascinated by desktop terrariums and home aquariums since I was young. Wolfgang Brunner, project leader for Education for Strong Sustainability and Agency (ESSA), treats his terrarium like a friend which “lives its own life in its bottle.” 1
In a short video, he shares his fascination that the Earth’s biosphere is absolutely enclosed just like the terrarium. “The partners inside here–the plants, the bacteria, the fungi–try to stay alive but they do it in such a smart way that they also start to contribute to the whole, and as a reward for that contribution they will also be supported by the whole. This is the simple rule for the system… for a small plant how can it understand this relationship?” In other words, their lives are a small-scaled model working in a state of hive-like meta-consciousness that understands how each life is part of a bigger whole. The vivarium has become my convenient metaphor for explaining what it means to thrive in a cosmopolitan but essentially contained city like Singapore. Everything done within this system must serve the system itself, and as little as possible of what is generated should be permitted to trickle out.
Within the past decade, two of our main tourist attractions have been built with the idea of immersing visitors in the atmosphere of a garden city. Both are shaped very much like large-scale vivariums. Gardens by the Bay (opened to the public in 2012) and Jewel Changi Airport (opened in 2019) are built to provide the experience of a perfectly manicured spectacle of live plants. Inside the safety of these enclosures, visitors are treated to the most exotic of local and foreign species. In these systems without natural wind and rainfall, it makes me wonder if these plants can even be considered natural. They never appear to wilt. But that is also because they have replacement doubles hot-housed and ready to take their place. There are legions of gardeners tasked to be their caretakers. Entering these constantly maintained spaces, your eyes turn heavenward to the towering heights of manmade waterfalls, sky-scraping solar panel towers, and domes which seal in the air-conditioning that controls the climate within from the mugginess of everyday tropical heat.
Air-conditioning is important for me because I only began to notice how queer our way of life was when I couldn’t understand the ethos of the “air-conditioned nation.” This term was coined in an essay by Cherian George as a response to our first prime minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s well-known concern about temperatures, urban design, microclimates, and the often quoted Wall Street Interview when he named the air-conditioner as the most influential invention of the millennium. 2 The control for temperatures was supposed to provide ideal working conditions for a labouring workforce. The average temperature ranges from 25 °C at night to 33°C in the daytime throughout the year. Not too warm, all things considered. Just not comfortable with the sticky sweatiness of tropical humidity.
My desire for air-conditioning has only been somewhat inhibited by the rising costs of electricity. As long as I don’t think about the energy and chemical sector, the fact that we are a leading player, that in 2019 we were the world's fourth-biggest exporter of refined petroleum, and fuels and chemicals accounted for around 23 per cent of our total merchandise trade 3 – if I don’t think about all this I can sleep in peace at a room calibrated for my personal optimal comfort of 20 °C.
My sleeping environment is ideal when I can sleep under blankets with the air-conditioner running. In this pandemic cycle I have become very familiar with my room as a contained living space subject to the changes of the weather outside. When the air turns muggy and hot outside it feels like a greenhouse indoors. I’m always surprised when I enjoy the same weather outdoors – each time is a bit like dipping your toes into water you know will be too cold for comfort and then diving in because you know that after the shock you acclimatise. I feel a twinge of guilt each time I spend the night in my climate-controlled ecosystem. I know I can afford this because of my privilege. I try to make up for it by being vegetarian or vegan a few meals per week. I’ve stopped impulse buying. There’s so much waste, all this conveniently and comfortably acquired waste.
Our nation’s economy, policies and consumer habits fuel the drive for environmental destruction. But not here. It all happens in the elsewhere that is not within the confines of our national borders. Or it happens to other countries’ citizens, not ours. The historical legacy of this country is fighting for independence – from the Japanese, the British, and Malaysia – and perhaps we have achieved that as a state of mind. It is us, the little red dot on the map, against the world. On a personal level we are taught to scrutinise our own carbon emitting habits. Once we’ve done that we can move on with the rest of our lives. We do not need to question the nature of our enclosed vivarium. The grander scheme of things, what it means to be part of a larger pale blue dot in the cosmos, all this is secondary to surviving the next working day.
Singaporeans’ life-changing realisations about the scale of the world and their speck-like place in it seem to happen only after a leisure trip abroad. The number of #lategrams and conversations about past travels to far flung places circle back to the sense of expansiveness everywhere else. We have no Yosemite, Guilin, Andes, Alps or Merapi to use as a life-sized comparison. Growing up, my first realisation of scale was on the car ride to Genting Highlands in Malaysia. Standing at 1,865 m above sea level, its cooler temperatures were a huge draw for the once upon a time crowds that flocked to the casino resort. Nestled inside the restaurants, shops, and theme park, childhood me forgot sometimes that we were on top of a mountain. It was in the winding drive up and down that caused motion sickness. In this other country we could drive and drive and never hit our destination. I had to be a tourist before I could begin to even conceive what it meant to live in a world larger than my own neighbourhood.
The places I’ve been to as a tourist made me dream of cooler air and snow. When the temperatures dropped to a blissful 22°C and probably a bit lower than that in December of 2021, I slept for a few nights with just the fan and an open window. I used to do this all the time when I was younger, until after university when I finally left the non-air-conditioned hostel room. I woke up blissfully to cool air after it had rained all night. I stayed at home and watched the gentle rains pitter-patter constantly outside throughout the afternoon. The canals were gushing and full almost every day. I dreamt of wintertime elsewhere and enjoyed my walks in the brief windows of sunshine that the cloudy skies allowed. A one kilometre causeway separates us from Malaysia. The same weather system that gave me pleasure was experienced there as a tropical depression that brought torrential downpours throughout the peninsula. Over 70,000 people had been displaced by those floods.
How dare I long for powder snow when someone else’s home is flooded with sewage? This is a mostly rhetorical question. I will long for the carefree image of light snow regardless of a hypothetical situation experienced vicariously through news watching.
To get through the day I avoid the news, turn off any notifications, and curl back into bed. For as long as pandemic restrictions and the high costs of travel last I can play at pretending that the climate crisis isn’t yet upon us. For a few hours, days, weeks, months, everything outside will only come in filtered through the glass of my screens. This isn’t a solution. It just makes things psychologically bearable to think of things as some dystopian world. Even just for a little while.
Then I’ll force myself to look at something else–to learn about the hopeful Earthships made of trash and built on the high desert plain of Tres Piedras, New Mexico. Or observe for myself the otters having a free-for-all buffet of fish in the oldest ornamental water-feature of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, our own UNESCO Heritage Site. Or on my really bad days look up videos from EV Nautilus expeditions where the voiceovers of scientists and researchers laugh and giggle about how adorable sea creatures are. It is a sublime moment on YouTube when sea toads, angler fish from the genus Chaunacops, soothe and quell all dissenting voices in the comments sections. One scientist insists that “spiritually, they can” hear their fan club’s adoration through the walls of a research vessel in deep sea conditions.
Over Christmastime a friend showed me the open terrarium that sits on their dining table, an anniversary gift. Three species of Venus fly traps, a pitcher plant, and wild grass that fell in and grew are comfortably settled into their little ecosystem. Or at least, they are settled now. A sundew died after the house cats killed it, and regular trimming of the wild grass is necessary as a precaution against these same playful cats. I cooed over both the terrarium plants and four cats, in awe at how their humans had made the small apartment home so beautifully expansive with joy and cat hair.
The Venus fly traps in that terrarium had been specially nurtured for our climate and easier homecare. Grown with the biotechnology of tissue culture by SGVenusFlytrap in founder Darren Ng’s home laboratory, these temperate plants were then cared for in group members’ homes to test their abilities to thrive in the heat and humidity. Carnivorous by nature, the flytraps don’t mind a taste of an insect but these are also bred to be perfectly healthy living off sunlight and water. The terrarium seems to require very little care, and has its own lighting system with three specific red wavelengths and a black-thumbs-be-gone water levels indicator for the uninitiated plant parent. But a quick Google warns me about the horrors of algae bloom and the terrarium’s system crashing if the light intensity and distribution, plant selection and position is just slightly off. And all this consideration is just for the single factor of lighting.
Another friend built and tended to a flourishing tank of aquatic plants and red shrimp. When he left for his studies away from this island his main concern was who to entrust with this little world in a glass tank, and all this on the microscale of a home terrarium makes me wonder how homo sapiens can live on this planet. This tiny speck of a vivarium in a solar system that is unconscious of our needs for an atmosphere, for precise conditions of sunlight, gases, water and whatever else the organisms on its surface end up doing. I’m quite sure it’ll survive somehow regardless of what we humans do.
But surviving is a bare existence. I want the planet to flourish. I love walking the nature trails knowing that there are real mountains that dwarf the mound of 164 m that we call Bukit Timah (literal translation from Malay: hill of tin, a not quite forgivable British-era mispronunciation of ‘Temak’, a local tree, resulting in the erroneous belief that tin could be found there). But I suppose back then and even now everyone wanted the land to offer up something useful. There was plenty of tin to be found next door in Malaysia, just not here. Perhaps the building of skyscrapers is an over-compensating mechanism to prove that this country matters. We needed to do that, they say. This small dot can be passed over too easily by a slight redirection of shipping lanes and trade routes. A miscalculation of judgement by voters at the elections. Someone putting this country under the intense glare of public scrutiny, making it burn up from inside.
In my daydreams I wonder if nature will take over and make a jungle out of all this concrete. I longingly toy with daydreams of how this island might transition into some kind of optimistically cautious solar punk world. Perhaps it will. Maybe it’s just me who’s looking at it all wrong. I might just be wanting too much–and this is about learning to live with less.
Anna Onni (she/they) is currently exploring how spirit-nourishing rituals like walking, gaming, planting and feasting can be expressed and shared. Anna is the author of The Book of Sainted Aunts (published for the 2021 Southeast Asian Queer Cultural Festival), and illustrator for The Singapore War Crimes Trials Project. More ramblings and illustrations on Instagram
“The Bottle and The Biosphere with Wolfgang Brunner,” YouTube, June 27, 2013, accessed January 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTFiLCGtPwc.
- George, Cherian. Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited : Essays on Singapore Politics. Singapore, Ethos Books, 2020.