Monday, April 13, 2009

Paradox of recession

Nothing is predictable in Singapore nowadays, or at least, some things do not work according to the script.

Consider the opening of the newest shopping mall, Tampines 1, in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in Singapore. Retailers and even the Retailers' Associations have, in the recent past, asked the government for help in cutting costs, such as reducing the GST from 7% to 5%. The government said no. And after witnessing Tampines 1, who can blame them?

Tampines 1 sits on the site where Sogo was. It opened last week, to throngs of people. If there is one thing you can trust Singaporeans to do, it is shopping at the latest malls. I avoided the mall (yea, I am an atypical Singaporean) on its opening day, as well as the weekend, for obvious reasons. I thought today, Monday, would be a good day to visit. I was wrong. The crowd at this Mall on Monday afternoon is nothing like a weekday crowd. Everybody on the island seem to be there, from the children to the teenagers to the adults in businesses and casual wear to the aunties and uncles, all of them were there. I can begin to understand the gridlock that shoppers were faced with last weekend at this mall.

The Japanese retailer chain, Uniqlo, the newest new thing, was shuttered, not because there weren't any customers. Yes, it had drawn down its shutters, but a long queue of would-be customers were lining up just outside, ready to rush in when the shutters come up again. How any retailer would envy at this state of affairs. The mall is much bigger than I'd imagine it to be because I used to visit the old Sogo quite often before it shut. I could imagine the retailers at Tampines Mall and Century Square swatting flies all day long. The crowd was over the other side of the MRT station - in Tampines 1, stupid!

People just came, like bees to flowers, except that visitors came to dump their money into this newest of new places whereas bees would suck dry the nectar from the flowers. Come to think of it, that's what the shoppers were doing - sucking dry the merchandise using their not-so-hard-to-part money. Hey there's a recession going on, if you've forgotten. But then again, it should be like this if one wants to break the spiraling cycle of thrift, which has the effect of choking economic activity thereby worsening the recession.

My one complaint is the food sold at Kapitan, the Kopitiam food court located at the 4th level. Let me rephrase that. My complaint lies with one food stall in Kapitan, the stall that sold char siew rice. When my companion put the plate of char siew rice on the table, the stranger sitting next to me exclaimed at the portion - it was very small indeed. This is the first time that a total stranger has ever made such a remark. Singaporeans tend to be a reserve lot. They'd usually just whisper among their own group of friends. So you can imagine how small the portion really was to elicit such an unbridled comment! But this takes the cake - it costs $3.80! Cough cough cough... And in case you were wondering, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the rice, the char siew, the cumcumber and the sauce. In fact, you could getting better char siew rice at $2 elsewhere.

I thought, if this is how much things will cost, I shuddered to think how high prices will be at the planned wet market in Sengkang Square when it goes into operation. Kopitiam won the bid to build and operate it just 2 weeks ago. And their bid was 2 times the next highest bid. There may be some red faces in Kopitiam right now, but I think they will have the last laugh because they know they can recoup this exorbitant investment quite quickly. That's because people will still flock to this market even if it prices are higher. The reason is very simple - there just isn't anywhere that can compete with the convenient location of this planned wet market. This lack of competition is something that HDB overlooked when it pretended to understand how free markets (there is no effective competition) worked. Of course, there have been complaints and dismay expressed by heartlanders of the prospect of having yet to pay more. The initial euphoria of having a wet market at your doorstep is turning to disillusionment. At the end of the day, the ward's MP and the HDB will be the ones with red faces.

This is living in Singapore today - all full of irony and contradictions.

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