Firsthand: Why don't S'poreans wear sunglasses?

I'm too hot, hot damn.

Ilyda Chua | April 11, 2024, 05:02 PM



It's a typical day in Singapore.

You're at an unshaded traffic light, waiting for it to finally change so you can rush across the road to the blessed coolness of the air-conditioned mall that awaits you on the other side.

As you wait, you notice the other people around you. They very likely are Singaporeans. Despite the oppressive heat, they lack any sort of sun protection — hats, caps, or sunglasses.

There is a woman a few steps away with an umbrella, a UV jacket, and a wide-brimmed sun hat. Obviously an auntie, an expat, or a tourist, you note with a swell of misplaced superiority.

Ignoring the fact that she looks far more comfortable than you feel, you join your fellow pedestrians in heroically squinting into the sun and blinking the sweat out of their eyes.

Does this sound like you?

If it does, congratulations. You're part of the majority of Singaporeans who — despite living in a part of the tropics that is experiencing extreme UV levels and desert-like temperatures — chooses to spurn sun protection.

Like myself. No, I'm not proud of it.

The question is, why?

Let it burn

I remember a conversation I had with a friend some years back.

She was complaining about the heat. "I have to wear my sunglasses everywhere now," she told me. It was a habit she'd picked up during a study-abroad stint in the UK.

With a scoff, I declared: "Sunglasses are for tourists."

It's a sentiment that I saw reproduced in a recent highly-scientific* poll by Mothership.

Apart from applying sunscreen — which, in all likelihood, is a behaviour tied more to vanity than anything else — just 11 per cent of respondents said they used some form of sun gear.

A staggering 38 per cent declared that they'd rather burn.

*Or not.

For the record, I'm one of them.

But while I knew deep in my heart that sun protection is inherently unfashionable, I didn't quite understand why.

Why such disdain for such objectively useful items, that can help to protect against everything from skin cancer and cataracts to premature wrinkles?

Do we not care about our own well-being?

Are we just living in denial?

To find out more, I did some investigation.

Que sera, sera

One colleague, Joni, reckons it's because the prospect of serious sun-related disease "feels very far away".

"I feel like skin cancer is an angmoh thing," she quipped.

It's actually true. Caucasians are more prone to skin cancer, thanks to their lower levels of melanin.

Australia and New Zealand had a melanoma skin cancer incidence rate of 53.8 per 1,000 people, as compared to 0.4 in Southeast Asia.

Cataracts is much more common, with about 78.6 per cent of elderly patients here affected by the disease, although, admittedly, it is much more treatable.

But apathy towards the sun isn't a universally Asian trait.

In neighbouring Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan, sun protection is very much a thing.

Joni reckons it's because in those countries, there's a lot more interest in remaining fair-skinned, thanks to the prevailing beauty standards.

"Singaporeans just gave up," she added.

Singaporeans can't dress

I still wasn't entirely convinced though.

Sure, maybe there's less concern over sun-related maladies here.

But that didn't explain why we still spurn sun protection as uncool, despite the obvious physical comfort a hat or a pair of sunglasses would bring.

That's also another aspect in which we differ from other Asian countries like China or Japan.

From sun patches to "facekinis", sun protection gear isn't just socially acceptable — it's even trendy.

Photo from Shopee

Photo from Soobeauty/TikTok

Surely, sun protection could work its way into our Uniqlo and blogshop-infested couture, too, right?

Not according to a fellow sun protection-hater, Isaac.

"Singaporeans don't know how to dress," he affirmed.

Unlike China with their floppy sun hats and Korea with their hip-hop style, Singapore lacks a culture of accessorising.

Exhibit A: the OL's authority on fashion, @shentonista.

Scroll through the archives and you'll find that the discerning local's idea of fashion is a trendy slip dress, flats, and a disproportionately expensive handbag.

Accessorising extends only to simple jewellery and — if you're feeling bold — a pair of headphones and some funky sneakers.

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A post shared by shentonista (@shentonista)

There are other reasons for avoiding accessorising — like how arm covers and caps feel hot, and wearing glasses increases the likelihood of acne.

But the fashion aspect is the biggest factor as to why Isaac avoids sun protection gear.

"I cannot do hats sia, I damn ugly with hats," he said.

"Let's face it — we peaked with hypebeast and never recovered."

Pride of the tropics

A week or two ago, I found myself walking into 313@Somerset.

I was on a mission to buy a pair of sunglasses — my first ever.

In part because of extreme UV levels, yes. But mostly thanks to my parents' relentless nagging heartfelt advice to do something about it lest I burn my retinas and die.

As I left the mall an hour later with my brand-new sunnies, I was shocked at how much more comfortable I felt.

Despite the blinding glare of the sun, I could actually see.

I even felt cooler. (Literally, not figuratively. Although I guess that too, kinda.)

Waiting at the traffic light on the way home, I basked in my newfound immunity to the sun.

As my fellow Singaporeans sweated and squinted beside me, I felt an undeniable smugness.

But it didn't take long before that sharpened into a sense of alienation.

In my evasion of heat-related suffering, I felt dismissed from the masochistic camaraderie that all Singaporeans feel.

It felt almost dishonourable.

Like I was somehow cheating myself out of the quintessential local experience.

Photo from Canva

That got me thinking.

Maybe it's not about the fashion, or the apathy, or the risk of sun-related disease.

Maybe the real reason why Singaporeans eschew heat protection has more to do with the shared experience of the heat.

The collective need to endure it, together, as a society.

Or tahan it, rather.

Photo from Mindef/Facebook

Whether it's shaving your heads in BMT or forcing yourself through yet another round of standardised testing, communal suffering is something Singaporeans understand deeply.

It's the great equaliser, forging a bond that nothing else can quite compare to.

The heat is no different. By experiencing the heat as a nation, we feel a unity that no amount of patriotic NDP songs can conjure.

Photo from NDP

Even more than that, it allows for that other thing that Singaporeans understand deeply: one-upping each other in our martyrdom.

After all, complaining about the heat is our national pastime.

But you know what's our national sport?

Competing to see who really has it worse.

Top photo by Kow Zi Shan and Charlota Blunarova/Unsplash