No insects

Every Tuesday in Singapore, like clockwork, they spray the entire country for mosquitoes. People are sent reminders in the mail to close their windows on Tuesdays so the spray doesn’t get in. On the streets I’ve seen them do it – the men with masks and these long, two-handed metal implements that look like a more delicate version of wipper-snippers, waist-deep in the manicured vegetation on the roadsides.

Roughly 500 mosquito inspectors are employed by the state to comb individual houses and gardens looking for stagnant water. People are fined steadily increasing amounts if they neglect their properties and allow water to pool and mosquitoes  to breed, particuly Aedes mosquitoes, which are the ones that carry and transmit Dengue fever – the prevention of which is the main motivation  behind this rigorous mosquito control. It’s a serious problem in this part of the world, Dengue fever, and Singapore does not mess around with these sorts of things. If the Singaporean government decides it wants to obliterate every mosquito on its little island and find a vaccine for a disease that infects an estimated 50 million people a year, just wait, it’ll happen.

As a result, there are no insects, at least not in the area my father lives. No ants tracing tiny holes in the pavement or displacing the sand in the grouting. No flies. No mosquitoes. Or very few, anyway: the itch of a mosquito bite feels as alien as revolution there.

Every time I talk to anyone about Singapore, the conversation follows a similar structure.

“So yeah, I stopped over in Singapore too. Just for a few days on the way there.”

“Oh, wow, Singapore. That place is weird, hey.”

And then we’ll nod in agreement and maybe say something about way the whole place seems to be made of shopping centres, or start discussing the benevolent dictatorship that runs the place, or the sheer cleanliness of everything. One of us might mention the way nobody ever does anything wrong there and then the conversation will turn to the heavy and often barbaric punishments underlying this incredibly polite and orderly society – the pervasive but unspoken zero-tolerance policies that form an invisible shroud over every warning sign and every graffiti-less wall – and this will be blamed for the strangeness of the place.

Last year, when I was working on an oil rig up in the Timor Sea, I noticed a similar alien sense to the place that I couldn’t quite figure out the source for. I just assumed it came from the fact that I was on a giant hunk of industrial metal in the middle of the ocean with no sign of land and the same 100 people day in and out. But one night, at 2 or 3am, I was wandering around the empty and windowless accommodation blocks, spot-cleaning the walls, when I went to clean off what I thought was a smudge. The smudge, however, thought otherwise and flew off of the wall of its own accord and up towards the light. It was a moth and, until that moment, I hadn’t seen one of those for a full two weeks.

I suddenly realised that what made being on the rigs so strange was the complete lack of any sort of micro-system. The fact that, apart from the occasional lost flock of birds who found their way onto the helideck, there was no living thing in the whole place smaller than a human. (And being a skinny female on a rig full of giant rig men – I was among the smallest of those.)

The image of that moth stuck with me so strongly I wrote a tiny poem about it about a month after I returned home:

Metal on Water


There was the night the birds showed up.
They never landed, just hung above the sharks;
running wing feathers over the draft that held them
like fingers over fences.


On the inside,
somewhere between the galley and the stairwell,
I scare my first moth from the wall.
Realise, I’ve gone two weeks without insects.

When I first arrived in Singapore this time around, on my first day there, I didn’t really go outside. This was partly because I had things to organise and look into and this was an indoor activity, best done on my laptop in my father’s air-conditioned living room. But it was also because the absence of insects, the amniotic temperatures, the perfectly constructed, dustless streets of the place mean that indoors and outdoors are almost identical in Singapore.

Why go outside? You have everything you need right here.

– Zoe Barron


2 Responses to “No insects”

  1. 1 awasart February 8, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Ms Z
    Well, having visited Singapore countless times for more than 20 years, and after having many of the same conversations regarding not only of insects, but also of the stringent militaristic approach to governance in that great city, I say “listen, the S’pore Government has every right to impose substantial fines on those that ignore the laws” and then I am usually asked “why”?
    My answer is this: Take the smoker as a simple example, in most cities the world over, we are left with no real choice but to reluctantly flick our butts curbside, leaving the sidewalks, gutters and drainage systems clogged with small remnants of our addictions. This is a bad habit I know, especially by the sheer fact, it’s an eyesore to everyone.
    Ok, S’pore, like any well managed city/country has to pay government people to administer a healthy city. From designers that design garbage cans with ashtrays atop, to the production of such designs, delivery, then to the maintenance men and women that clean the ashtrays, then the crews that whisk away the daily collectibles from such readily available trash cans, then of course, it has to pay for landfill and waste management and as you know, Singapore is an island country and has limited acreage in order to manage it’s ever growing population.
    These “trash can ashtrays” are kept clean 24/7, and are in most cases, no more than a few metres from one another. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone, smoker or otherwise to litter and the government, being the fact it pays for the services, has the right to impose such fines on those that blatantly ignore the health and welfare of its population.
    But this is really about managing insects, not just the “litter bugs”. Singapore is like a well managed hive, its limitations and or progress depend solely on the efficiency and understanding of its collective societal conscience. It has government, sub governments, workers and because of the nature of managing large populations, there must be order. Step out of line, and the hive’s assets are endangered, “no honey, no money”, Singapore’s answer to everything to quote a common phrase in reverse.
    I go to Singapore for a breath of fresh air, for stability, for the fact that the law is the law, end of story.

    Oh btw, it’s your mom and dad’s friend D in Penang. I have been following your blog, very very good Zoe. You come from a family that is well versed in the Queen’s own english. Well done. As I see it, your Canadian literary strengths and influences stem from the likes of Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler and of course, naturally, your words are as pure as the driven snow.

    I like snow, I dream of snow at night and awake every morning to dirty streets, rotting garbage and an environment that more or less, barely exists despite itself.

    Throw a snowball for me, or better yet, write about one. It’s cool. You’re cool and one day we’ll meet in Singapore and we’ll make a few snowballs or build a snowperson from manufactured snow…. there is no law to say we can’t, not yet anyway.

    Stay well,

    • 2 STiV February 9, 2010 at 2:38 am

      Actually, there is: Singapore Ordinance 26(c)(14.5)(2009).

      “Snow, manufactured, shall not be held or shaped into round balls. [Penalty: 2 years imprisonment]”

      “Snowballs, manufactured, shall not be thrown or hurtled. [Penalty: Death]”

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