Monday, April 28, 2008

Irony Comes to Singapore

The following Reuters item, reported by Jan Dahinten and filed last night, caught my attention this morning:

Singapore's government is advertising food stalls that offer S$2 ($1.47) meals to help people in Asia's second-richest country cope with consumer prices at a three-decade high, a newspaper reported on Monday.

The pro-government Straits Times said Singapore's Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan had launched a website ( listing food stalls that tells people "where they can find cheap, tasty food".

"The list will come in handy for Singaporeans who are in the midst of battling rising costs," the newspaper said.

Countries across Asia are grappling with higher food and energy costs and Singapore's inflation accelerated to 6.7 percent March from a year ago to a 26-year high, official data showed last week.

Economists believe inflation is close to peaking after a run-up in the past year and the government predicts that inflation will stay above 6.5 percent for the first half of the year before dipping in the second half.

Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I were living in Singapore, food stalls were one of our favorite elements of the "local culture." They provided one of the best ways to get acquainted with the extraordinary diversity of cuisine in the country at remarkably little expense. Five years later, when I started making regular business trips to Singapore, regardless of what my expense account could cover, I still enjoyed checking out the food stalls, seeking out old favorites and prowling around in search of new ones. (If I was travelling with colleagues, my question, at the end of a working day, was always, "Do you want to eat where the hotel recommends, or do you want to eat where I used to eat?") The problem was that the food stall was turning into an endangered species, and I saw some of my favorite sites being forced to yield their modest but precious real estate to the global powers of Thomas Friedman's "flat world" (meaning, of course, cookie-cutter joints like McDonald's, who built customer bases by powerful advertising campaigns, rather than neighborhood word-of-mouth).

Now that Singapore is feeling the impact of the global food crisis as much as any other nation, the tables seem to be turning (perhaps literally as well as metaphorically). I could not resist checking out the URL in Dahinten's report and was pleased to see that the food stall culture is still alive and well. (I just finished breakfast, and I was still drooling over memories of all of those offerings!) However, the "e" in that URL stands for the east side of the island, where, in spite of some major efforts such as Tampines New City, development may not have been moving quite as rapidly as it did to the west, with the National University and a prodigious assortment of science and industrial parks. That was where we lived, in a district called Holland Village that was practically an expat enclave. It was the sort of place that Tom Friedman could visit after a night in his luxury hotel and convince himself that globalization was alive, well, and thriving in Singapore.

The last time I visited Holland Village, all of my favorite haunts had been displaced. All the fun of the place had been squashed out by "Friedman flattening." It was a great comfort to read that one could still eat well on the cheap to the east in Bedok. Still, it would be nice to hope that, one day, all those global mega-chain eateries will give their real estate back to the hawkers; and the food stall culture will rise again throughout the island!

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