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The Singapore economy, colloquially speaking

Most economists polled by BT see 2016 growth as buay pai or not bad; at 2-4%, it'll be modest year in whatever lingo

For the record, of the nine economists who responded, six expect growth next year to be in the buay pai range - meaning they expect the economy to expand between 2 per cent and 4 per cent.


LET'S face it. Economic forecasts tend to be dry, technical affairs. But what if they were done in a uniquely Singaporean way?

In the spirit of the year-end joviality, The Business Times attempted just that. In late November, the paper surveyed private-sector economists on their GDP (gross domestic product) growth forecasts for 2016 - bringing BT's Ho Say Boh poll to birth, for better or for worse. Ho say boh, for the uninitiated, means "good or not" in Hokkien; informally, it is often used as a greeting in place of "how are you?".

In that vein, the paper asked economists to describe their outlook for the economy in five colloquial terms commonly used by Singaporeans: ho say or excellent; buay pai or not bad; sian or unexciting; alamak or oh dear; and jialat which loosely translates as disastrous.

After being subjected to a dreary year of uninspiring economic data, economists welcomed the new twist to Singapore's economic forecasts. "But wait, are you sure your editor cleared this?" asked one respondent. "You're cracking me up!"

Said UOB economist Francis Tan: "I've never seen any survey like this before . . . I'm sure some people will say it's bad because it doesn't use proper English, but actually I don't care lah. I think it's good and I'm happy to participate in the poll. If you can make such a dry topic interesting and get more people interested in the economic outlook, then I think it's excellent."

Added CIMB Private Banking's Song Seng Wun: "It is a measure of sentiment at that particular point in time, and is something the man on the street can relate to. And putting a sentiment to it can also show how it can shape economic behaviour - should I save up, or should I get on with life?"

For the record, of the nine economists who responded, six expect growth next year to be in the buay pai range - meaning they expect the economy to expand between 2 per cent and 4 per cent.

The other three foresee growth being sian - with a growth rate of zero to 2 per cent.

None of the economists polled expect the economy to contract - be it a technical recession or a real recession - and hit the alamak and jialat ranges.

No one sees growth reaching the other end of the spectrum either, with zero voting for the ho say or excellent mark, where the economy expands over 4 per cent.

Going by the Ministry of Trade and Industry's (MTI) official forecast, the government expects growth to straddle the sian and buay pai ranges, with a projection of one to 3 per cent expansion.

With his 2016 GDP growth estimate of 2.7 per cent, UOB's Mr Tan expects growth to be in the buay pai range, pulled up by US-led external demand.

"The catalyst this time will be the American consumer. With employment on an improving path and a stronger US dollar (due to the interest-rate normalisation in the US), the overall stronger consumption demand will benefit export-driven economies around the world, Singapore included," said Mr Tan.

Other economists who expect growth between 2 per cent and 4 per cent include CIMB's Mr Song, ING's Tim Condon, Mizuho's Vishnu Varathan, OCBC's Selena Ling, and StanChart's Jeff Ng.

But the three who are less optimistic - Bank of America Merill Lynch's (BAML) Chua Hak Bin, DBS's Irvin Seah, and Nomura's Brian Tan - see growth coming in at the sian range, at zero to 2 per cent growth.

Noting Singapore's lacklustre productivity gains, BAML's Dr Chua said: "Manufacturing remains in the doldrums, while services growth is more resilient- but sliding nevertheless." He expects 2016 growth at 2 per cent.

DBS's Mr Seah added that China's slowdown will continue to weigh on Singapore's prospects, even as the US recovery gains a firmer foothold.

While Mr Seah's forecast pegs next year's economic expansion at 2.1 per cent - strictly speaking, this is actually in the poll's buay pai zone - he believes the risks to the downside swing his vote into the sian territory.

BT's poll also sparked a side debate on what exactly constitutes sian and buay pai growth. StanChart's Mr Ng sees 2016 growth at 2.3 per cent - a figure technically in BT's buay pai range, although he disagrees that the figure is not bad.

"Based on our current forecast, it's going to be buay pailah. But I feel 2 to 4 per cent growth is more the sian type than the buay pai type," said Mr Ng, who added that growth will likely remain supported by domestic demand.

Mr Ng has a point. From a numbers perspective, recent economic data has looked similar to that seen during the 2008 financial crisis.Then, the economy grew only 1.8 per cent in 2008, and shrank 0.6 per cent the following year.

It's also hard not to feel sian by the current state of affairs, given previous growth rates. Before the crisis, the economy expanded by 9.1 per cent in 2007. It grew a heady 15.2 per cent in 2010 after the crisis, and still managed to expand a further 6.2 per cent the year after.

There is general gloom this time around, not least because of the short-term pain sparked by manpower constraints. Singapore may be weaning itself off from its reliance on labour and looking towards productivity-led growth - but the transition takes time.

"We expect labour productivity growth to remain disappointing over the medium term and estimate Singapore's potential growth will slow to 2.1 per cent in 2016 to 2020 from 3.8 per cent in 2011 to 2015," said Mr Tan from Nomura.

At the same time, external factors are weighing on Singapore's GDP growth. Several of the economists polled stated that China's poor showing and the lack of demand from the US has tempered growth in Singapore - and will continue to do so.

The government, for its part, is also giving a more cautious outlook on growth next year. The lower half of MTI's one to 3 per cent projection falls below Singapore's economic growth potential of 2 to 4 per cent per year, from now to 2020 - itself a downgrade from the 3 to 5 per cent expansion initially envisaged.

With the official forecast spanning both the sian and buay pai categories, OCBC's Ms Ling believes The Future Economy committee - led by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat - should "conceive a new strategy to kickstart the growth engine again" and make things ho say for everyone.

For more of BT's year-in-review stories, visit