I am about to go on holiday and the idea is giving me panic attacks. Mainly because I will be on a tiny island off the southern coast of Thailand, in a hut, largely cut off from WiFi and 3G. Electricity, as far as I can tell, will be brought to me daily inside two coconut shells strapped to a turtle.
The idea of living without Internet access does not scare me as much as doing nothing. Because, if you have Internet access, the task of doing nothing can be completed quickly and easily. Doing nothing on my own, without the help of Facebook, e-mail, WhatsApp, Google or those cats on YouTube, is very hard work indeed.
This week-long period of isolation will accomplish two things. It will help train my attention span, which is now about as brief as... Hey, is that a new cat video? Hut isolation will also prepare me for retirement, now less than 20 years away.
Retirement, as far as I can tell from the men in my neighbourhood, means going to the coffee shop at 8am and ordering a milky tea. At 10am, the men are still there, but the drink orders have switched to Heineken and, perhaps for its medicinal value, stout.
The rhythm varies little over the rest of the day, or week, or year. They might go away for short periods, most likely to sit with other friends at other coffee shops and flirt outrageously with a new beer auntie. By sunset, they are back at home base, same table, same chair. Being old is like a Tupperware party that never ends. And the women wear hot pants.
I recently downloaded a radio programme from the United States and the same thing goes on there. Elderly men will gather at a diner for hours, where they will take all three meals, to the point where if old Lou or Ed doesn’t show up, the waitresses ask the police to knock on their doors.
These diner and coffee shop old boys look quite content and I like the idea of a community of souls who look out for one another, even if it takes place around a greasy plastic table with a number tag. But I am not sure I can do it. How much training did it require, to be able to sit at a table and just, sit?
That is why I am going to that island. As much as it is a break from work, it is also a test of whether I have the energy to do nothing for long stretches of time. Yes, I do know about active ageing, about line dancing for seniors and all that. But if I am not one to go outside and mingle and wear cowboy hats by now, I doubt the urge will suddenly strike at age 65.
The other thing to note is that when I am 65, this island, I am told, could be one of two things: Filled with ancient relics like me, or just filled, with as many as 6.9 million people, if the options being put forward to us are accurate. Neither scenario fills me with joy.
So I need to prepare. Going to an island where I am forced to peer into the yawning abyss of my mind is one way.
The other way is to look into where I want to live come 2030 or thereabouts. This should be true of everyone gasping at the 6.9 million population figure cited in the recent Government White Paper, and wondering what life would look like.
On paper, the city cores of Hong Kong, New York City and Tokyo have a population density higher than Singapore’s, so it is not as if this nation would be hurtling into some sci-fi horror-story zone of factory-farm living never before attempted in human history, as some people seem to be saying.
But I’ve been to those cities and I can say this: They are for folks fired up with vim and ambition, optimists yearning for a better tomorrow, i.e. not me. Not the me now, and especially not the me in 2030.
However, I did see things that might make me change my mind. I saw that quality of life has less to do with the number of humans per square kilometre than with how people treat each other and their environment. The tiniest habits have a huge cumulative significance – how we clean up after ourselves, how quickly we drink a coffee and free up the table, how we drive, how loud the TV set is after 9pm – each of these things ripples on with more intensity in a crowded city.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that people density really thins out at the upper end of the income scale. Price has this rather amazing quality of creating space by making the wrong people run away, leaving the right people behind.
That is exactly what the word “exclusive” really means on those advertisements for condominiums. I look forward to the day when private homes are advertised with “Buy a home here and you’ve just said ‘Get lost’ to everyone in your current social class and lower”. At the very tip-top end of the money tree, why, so many people have been asked to leave, it’s practically a ghost town. But with more rooftop helicopter landing pads.
Already, people in the higher branches of that tree in Singapore live in a bubble of space. A car is one bubble, as is a private school, private tutors and, if you think about it, a maid also liberates you from the throng at the wet market.
With the money I have now, and projecting it into the future, I am quite sure that my retirement will be bubble-less. My options will be limited to milky tea at the coffee shop and maybe the occasional mad extravagance of a holiday in Johor.
That is, unless I jump up a few notches in income level by moving to a nearby country, far enough to buy some breathing space and close enough that I can badger my surviving friends to visit.
It’s an idea I’ve entertained and it’s a win-win for everyone. The Singapore taxpayer gets one less fogey taking up precious space on the MRT that ought to go to someone with a job. And I get to live life with as much space as I want.
In this time of global mobility it would be silly not to think about living out one’s dotage somewhere cheaper and roomier, as thousands of British pensioners living in France have done, along with the tribes of Scandinavians and Japanese with homes in Thailand.
Which brings me back to the hut. I imagine that it will be similar to the place I will spend my final decades. The population issue, of whether Singapore will have 5.9 or 6.9 or 99 million people became irrelevant once I saw myself as portable as the people who come here seeking a future.
So today, I find myself preparing for a week of nothing, steeling myself for a future lived away from Singapore and its seductive overabundance of infrastructure.
On the bright side, things might not be so bad in the rural reaches of Asia by 2030. By then, I hope to have an Internet-access implant, perhaps inside a nostril, so no matter where I live, I will never wonder if anyone needs me to “like” a Facebook photo of a plate of spaghetti.