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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

LISTEN FOR THE OTHER SHOE

A worsening economy becomes apparent


THE 8:30 P.M. UNITED Airlines flight from Hong Kong at one time was jammed with travelers heading to Singapore for the weekend. No more. I had a row to myself on this plane. In fact, United has decided to halt the evening run next month and inaugurate service to Bangkok, now the darling of bargain-hunting Hong Kong shoppers. Traffic to Singapore is down even though a round trip can now be bought for as little as $235, not much more than the least expensive deal to Manila, a shorter trip by half.

On the ground in Singapore, it is not hard to spot the economic crisis. Shuttered storefronts abound. Hawker centers may still be full, but many restaurants are hurting. Eating good food plays such a critical role in everyday life that if Singaporeans are cutting back on this beloved pastime, the economy must indeed be in bad shape. Walking down the red-brick Boat Quay promenade on a Friday evening, I am besieged by restaurateurs. The only place along the shophouse strip still busy is Harry's Bar, a yuppie expatriate hangout. Further down along the river, I can peer through the windows of the Singapore Town Club, once a tony meeting place for Raffles Place executives. The place now is closed - empty and dark.

On the weekend, a friend and I venture out for pepper crab at Long Beach, a local favorite. The seaside establishment seems full, but even without a reservation we don't have to wait. Manager Steven Liew insists that business is down just 10%. He has taken advantage of cheap seafood from Malaysia and Indonesia to slash prices and keep the joint jumping. As we leave, he follows us out, tells us to wait and then scurries away to hail a taxi, notoriously rare outside the city center in the evenings. I have never received such a courtesy before.

I spend an afternoon with some overseas graduate students at the National University of Singapore. With scholarships that include fixed housing awards, the recent arrivals are the envy of their older schoolmates. The newer ones can pool resources and afford comfortably furnished luxury apartments with swimming pools and 24-hour security.

This is a good time to be enrolled; recent graduates are in for some tough job-hunting. Take Ernie Teo, a Malaysian armed with perfect, British-accented English and degrees in engineering and finance from two U.K. universities. In good times, the 25-year-old's handphone would be singing constantly with job offers. But Teo has been looking for a position at a bank or finance house since April. No luck. "I've written God knows how many letters," he says. "While I've had a handful of interviews, most companies don't actually have any openings." With the help of family, he is determined to keep at it - at least until the end of the year. "I was prepared for this, and I want to give Singapore a chance."

Many others have no option - just ride out the storm. Near the entrance to the port facilities at Tanjong Pagar, a few unemployed workers wait along the curb looking for temporary jobs as stevedores or lorry drivers. One Malay man in a crumpled blue T-shirt and dirty jeans tells me that he has not had steady employment for more than three months. "I hope the economy improves soon," he says. At the moment, with the Lion City edging toward recession, nobody can assure him that it will.

- By Alejandro Reyes/Singapore


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