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Song Seng Wun keeps tabs with bellynomics

Economist gets better pulse of economy by traipsing around S'pore for lunch every day

SENG WUN'S WANTON OBSERVATIONS: Mr Song has quite a following on Facebook, thanks to his inimitable way of melding macroeconomics and gastronomics


EXCEL spreadsheets, statistical models, and historical data series - Song Seng Wun likes them just as much as the next economist. But when taking the pulse of the Singapore economy, he prizes one other tool: bellynomics.

To get an on-the-ground (or in-the-tummy) view of how the economy is faring, the CIMB Private Banking economist traipses around the island almost daily, eating at different establishments.

But each quest is for more than just nutritional sustenance; he uses his excursions to compare costs, track rentals, and even the hourly wages of workers.

"To me, that's getting the pulse of the economy through my mouth. It's a practical thing, really - that's my excuse anyway," Mr Song tells The Business Times.

The 55-year-old private-sector economist is an old hand, and a familiar face in business circles here. He has, after all, chewed on both good times and bad; he's one of the handful of economists who hails from the pre-Asian financial crisis era, and has covered every calamity since - from Sars in 2003, to the global financial crisis of 2008/2009.

Perhaps lesser known, however, is the fact that he has quite a following on Facebook, thanks to his inimitable way of melding macroeconomics and gastronomics.

For the past two years, he has chronicled his foodie jaunts on the social media platform. Most posts comprise a picture of the dish, a breakdown of the cost, and a casual observation about the economy.

Take his Sept 16 post, for example. Mr Song ventured into Orchard Road for lunch to gauge the busyness of the shopping street, ahead of the Formula One weekend. Apart from sharing the details of his meal - S$12.50 roast pork noodles from I Want My Noodles, Shaw Centre - he also mused about the haze's impact on the country's hospitality sector.

"Shops don't seem to be any less or more busy than usual. But if hazy conditions were to persist, our hospitality-related industries will surely be affected. Singapore stands to 'lose' roughly S$1,500 from each 'missing' tourist for the average 3.7 days' stay. That's about S$400 a day gone if the tourist skips town. That's my excuse for more atas lunches ahead!"

Actually, the bulk of Mr Song's posts feature kopitiam fare. "I like to show that there are many places where you can get very value-for-money food, even as we're all complaining of higher costs. A S$2.50 or S$3 meal is not difficult to come by," he says.

He spends a fair bit of time eating around Tanjong Pagar, where he lives in an HDB flat with his wife and two teenage kids. Having resided there for 18 years, he's a well-known face in the neighbourhood (although with his go-to get-up of suspenders, bowtie and fedora hat, Mr Song isn't hard to spot, either).

"So I will go and kaypoh at all the F&B (food-and-beverage) places, since they're the ones who constantly use casual workers and part-timers. I get a good feel of whether businesses are paying more for their workers, and whether more ah pek and ah soh are being enticed to work. So it's also about seeing how policies are at work on the ground," says Mr Song.

His experiences confirm official statistics - for example, that Singapore's labour force participation rate for residents has continued to improve, especially for older workers and women. Still, he thinks hourly wages will have to increase further, in order for more students and under-25s to find part-time work attractive.

Inflation and wages aside, he also takes note of changes in commercial rents. He says: "I get a sense of whether the property market is ripe for an easing in policy. I've seen some rentals flattening out, but at the same time I still see owners who are quite happy to hold on to a shop that they haven't let out for a year."

Beyond Tanjong Pagar, Mr Song (who doesn't drive) also treks to other parts of the island during his weekday lunch breaks. His favourite haunts are Old Airport Road, Pasir Panjang, and Marine Parade.

"The other point I want to show is how easy it is to go to different parts of Singapore from Shenton Way. People say: 'Huh, you go so far to Old Airport Road?!' and I say: 'Do you know how convenient it is by bus?!'," laughs Mr Song, rattling off the various bus routes available.

These days, Malaysia-born Mr Song is also seeing firsthand the tightness of Singapore's foreign labour policies. Despite having lived in Singapore for 25 years, he has only recently put in his application to become a permanent resident - with the intention of becoming a Singapore citizen eventually.

"I didn't apply before because of ties to my family back in Kuching. But my family now - my kids, my wife - are Singaporean, so I've started the process . . . Once I'm ready, I should be someone who was born in Malaysia, but died a Singaporean."

With a full belly, of course.