Sunday 7 June 2009

Why doesn't this recession feel like a recession?

It was the first weekend of the Great Singapore Sale and Orchard Road was deserted.

There was no queue outside the Luis Vuitton outlet at Ngee Ann City. You could get a parking spot and a table at KFC without waiting. And oh, by the way, pigs flew.

But no swine flu because it has been renamed Influenza A (H1N1) flu. In reality, Orchard Road was of course the opposite of deserted and pigs didn't fly.

For the umpteenth time: Recession? What recession?

After looking for a cheap present for my son's 12th birthday in the packed malls last week, I agree with MP Sam Tan, who said in parliament two weeks ago: "Today, as we go to some of the mid-priced restaurants like Crystal Jade and Ichiban Boshi, do we feel that there is a recession?

"Even at Mezza9 in Hyatt Hotel, a fairly upmarket place, there remains a sizable lunch crowd on most days."

I've never been to any of these restaurants, which are a little more upscale than KFC, but yah, I've eyed the throng at Crystal Jade enviously through the glass pane. Don’t they know there’s an economic crisis now?

And then I wondered: Why am I surprised that Singaporeans are still living it up during a recession?

Sure, unemployment may be up to 3.2 per cent, the highest in three years, but that means 96.8 per cent are still working. Although more will likely lose their jobs in coming months, even more will not. So for the majority of Singaporeans, life goes on - meaning "Great Singapore Sale, here we come!"

And then it hit me - Sars.

The last time Singapore faced an economic crisis, we were also struck by Sars. And because of Sars, the malls and restaurants were virtually empty for a few apocalyptic weeks in early 2003.

Now that felt like recession (even though technically, it wasn’t). In fact, it felt like the end of the world.

Instead of just abstract statistics, you could actually see how bad things really were when you went out - that is, if you even dared to venture out for fear of catching the deadly disease.

Like Sars, H1N1 struck in the middle of the current economic crisis.

But I survived Sars. I knew Sars. Sars was not a friend of mine. H1N1, you're no Sars.

So now whenever there’s a recession, I expect to see tumbleweeds rolling down Orchard Road like back in the bad old days of Sars-struck 2003.

Otherwise, no matter what scary economic numbers they throw at me, I’m going to say it again and again: Recession? What ...

Do I really have to say it again?

- Published in The New Paper, 7 June 2009