Monday, July 18

Cinnamon Goes to Singapore

Hello! We are back from Singapore! We went on a quick one week trip to see my parents, to vacation, to attend my 20th high school reunion and to eat lots of Singaporean food. I had my fill of Mee Pok, Satay, Kueh Pie Tee, Chwee Kueh, Mee Siam, Chilli Crab and Chicken Rice. I am now back, reminiscing about our trip.

You know, I always thought I was the one going through all the change, living in different countries, experiencing different cultures, and developing in complex ways as a person. I expected Singapore to remain the same all through these years. But it too has changed.

My first experience of change came on day 2, when Prince Charming and I left the kids at home with my parents and went to Ann Siang Hill, the trendy hot spot for bars and restaurants. There we had dinner at Cugini's - an Italian restaurant. We were very excited when we got there as the ambience was great and the place was filled with Italians! No better endorsement of restaurants than to have its ethnicity filling its tables, I say. But, we were a little disappointed with the food and the wine. The shocker of the evening came when the bill came at the end....US$350! We had even shared the appetizer and dessert!

We had a similar shocking experience when we lunched at PS Cafe on Harding Road. This time the food was five-star and the ambience hard to beat. It is set in an old colonial building surrounded by trees of dense rainforests. But, my parents waited for an hour for the table and each main course was no less than $23!! What had happened to my inexpensive Singapore!

Not just restaurants, but housing has become exorbitantly expensive. A 3-bedroom government flat (also known as a 5-room HDB flat) in Marine Parade was sold for almost S$700,000 in July (see official HDB stats)!! That is US$580,000!!! Do you know what you can get for that in North Carolina? A huge house on half an acre of land is what you can get.

OK, the US economy has been going through its ups and downs and the dollar has depreciated. But, Singaporeans also feel the same way - that the cost of living has shot up. I felt for the pulse of Singaporeans as I always do in Singapore - by talking to its taxi drivers. Singapore taxi drivers are a cultural phenomenon of their own - mostly well read, articulate and instilled with a keen knowledge of local politics. "Uncle, why is everything so expensive now?" I asked them on a daily basis, and this is what I gleaned from them:

Singapore has always looked outside its borders to develop within. In the '60s, it enlisted the help of Israel to develop its armed forces, in the '70s welcomed MNCs to set up factories, in the '80s got Schipol to help develop its airport, and the 1990s was the decade of developing its financial industry. In developing its financial industry, it has also welcomed foreign expats to live in Singapore to run its investment banks and hedge funds.

But how many "Ang Mos" can there be to drive prices up this much? A taxi driver explained. In addition to Western expats, Singapore has also been attracting Chinese and Indian talent from their respective countries. In addition to skilled labour, students were also being brought in with the promise of scholarships and subsidized housing. There had been a deluge of foreigners and the balance of Singaporeans to foreign residents/immigrants had been upset.

But surely we are a land of immigrants! Look at our food, it is a testament to that! "No," explained the cabbie. "The Chinese from China are rude, spit, treat the locals like they know nothing. The Indians from India speak in Hindi all the time and complain about the weather incessantly. They have no desire to be Singaporean and they all leave when they make their money. In the mean time, rents are driven up sky high, our kids can't get into university, young Singaporean couples cannot buy flats, and everything is so expensive. Tell me, is it worth it?"

I don't know... Is it worth it? I have always admired my country for being so developed and for not having any qualms of learning from other countries as to how to achieve the best in any sector of the economy. Singapore has always embraced foreigners to learn from them. Now, the government still does, but the people seem to be unhappy with the socio-economic results.

I also suppose that Singapore is no different to other developed countries where there can be an "us vs. them" attitude toward immigrants even if all the "us's" are from where "they" are from.

So, Singapore too is changing and growing up. Change is inevitable when you introduce new cultures. The Americans, Brits, French, Chinese and Indians whom you invite to your country will impact it. Always the Yin with the Yang, right? There might even be upheaval as the country's citizens question their rights, their ideals and the qualities that define them. Change is good.... as long as they don't change the Chwee Kueh!



I'm So Fancy said...

Thoughtful post. Did you find that it was still pretty clearly divided into neighbourhoods or was it just a mish mash of different peoples? And whoa on the price tag! Crikey, what were you people drinking!? :-)

Cinnamon and Truffle said...

Singaporeans love blaming everything on the foreigners. This has become a major lament over the last decade (cf. recent election), and it complements another national sport: complaining non-stop even when you have it pretty good!

About the restaurants specifically, the ones you went to are targeted at the expat market. Why blame expats for higher prices, when it's the greedy locals who are trying to milk their expat salaries?



Cinnamon and Truffle said...

To be fair, there are many people who don't have it so good in Singapore, whose stories are hidden from the front pages. But I think the causes are closer to home.


exhedgefundtrader said...

the foodie in me says, i totally want to try these foods you are talking about. what is mee pok and kueh pie tee? sounds interesting.

the economist in me says, US dollar depreciation, in conjunction with singaporean inflation probably explains the high prices you see. if you have 5.5% inflation (which singapore does now), and that compounds for 10 years, would you be surprised to be told that that would increase prices by 80% cumulatively!

add in a dollar index down 30-50% vs world currencies in the past 10 years, and that would take prices up by more than 2x easily!

sorry for the math nerd stuff, back to food next time...


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