Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

Economist Song Seng Wun eats out to get a taste of the economy

Through food, economist Song Seng Wun gets his pulse on financial matters

Economist Song Seng Wun, 56, has an unusual way of talking about the state of the economy. He links it to food in his Facebook posts.

The director of group private banking at CIMB Private Banking usually starts his posts on where and what he has eaten recently and goes on to comment on the economic developments of the day.

The Singapore permanent resident grew up in Kuching, Sarawak, in East Malaysia and left for Auckland in New Zealand for his studies at the age of 17. He returned to Malaysia during the mid-1980s and worked as an economist with Maybank in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1990, he moved to Singapore - "for money lor", he says. Here, he met his Singaporean wife Anne Teo, 54. They have been married for 24 years and have a daughter, 20, and a son, 16, who are studying.

Ms Teo, a former Singapore Airlines stewardess, is a housewife. The Songs live in Tanjong Pagar, an area rich with food choices that, as Mr Song often raves about, range from a $3.50 plate of satay beehoon in the Tanjong Pagar market food centre to a $300 meal at Restaurant Andre.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • The best food is at home. So it'll be my wife's tom yum pasta.

Why did you start posting about food and economics on Facebook?

I can't remember when I started, but it was a long time ago.

I think it's for myself. Every Monday, I talk to my colleagues on the state of the economy, the investment theme of the week and so on.

My role as an economist is to tell them: "Okay, this is what happened last week, so what are the few things that are worth paying attention to on the Singapore and regional fronts? And what's the global perspective? And how could these affect the world of finance?"

The posts began more as a reminder to myself of the key things I want to tell them on Monday morning.

What does an economist do?

We track the behaviour of people.

For example, when the private sector is not spending, the Government has to step in so that there's some hiring taking place. And whether people spend money depends on the interest rate, whether it's attractive enough to keep money in the bank.

All that depends on whether you and I have confidence in our jobs, have money to spend, so we decide whether to eat a plate of $3 economy rice or go to a fancy restaurant.

And what people do has an impact on business spending.

So this is how my kaypohness (being a busybody) comes about, to see whether people are shopping or whether there's a higher turnover of eateries.

At the ground level, it's looking around and observing and, at the national level, it's looking at data that is released.

So it comes down to food as well. Food and how the F&B industry fares is my pulse on the economy.

How often do you post on Facebook?

I don't post more than twice a week. Usually, it's related to my work. The real reason is how to make economics palatable. The challenge for my profession is that studying economics is very boring and dry. What I want to do is to make it fun.

It's also to focus my mind. I post on the weekend for the week ahead or mid-week if there's anything happening. I call it my ranting on food that's tied somehow to the economy.

You talk about food in the Tanjong Pagar area very often.

I've lived in Tanjong Pagar for 20 years, except for about five years when I moved to Queenstown to escape the noisy construction work during the building of The Pinnacle.

This whole area represents the history of Singapore, as you can see the transformation from the old Chinese, Malay and Indian food places to the high-end Andre Chiang-type of restaurants in the Bukit Pasoh, Keong Saik and Tras Street areas. This shows Singapore's progress.

Is there anything you miss from the old Singapore here?

Bo pian (Hokkien for no choice), it's part of the change. But even as we see buildings transformed into new food joints, at least the outer shell is preserved, such as the shophouses in Duxton Hill.

That's why I like this place, Essen@Pinnacle, the foodcourt in The Pinnacle. You still see the old buildings and the greenery around the area, but inside, it is air-conditioned.

I bring friends and foreign visitors here. They are so used to sitting in fancy restaurants, so I take them to see a Singapore they don't see, but which is changing from the ground.

Do you venture out of the Tanjong Pagar/Chinatown area often?

I do that during lunchtime. It's also to show my colleagues how easy it is to find food outside Shenton Way, where we work.

There are a lot of bus services from my office at Fullerton Square. We would get on the first bus that comes and see where it goes. If it's Service 196, for example, we go to Marine Parade. Or Service 10 to Old Airport Road.

Some people may say it's crazy to go all the way to Old Airport Road for lunch, but you can count the number of bus stops on one hand and you are there in 10 minutes. There are tons of food choices there and you don't have to chope seats with tissue paper.

Or if we cross the road to take the bus, we can go to Portico in Alexandra Road and have a relaxing lunch outside the financial district.

Do you prefer hawker or restaurant fare?

There's always a time for everything. With a place such as Restaurant Andre, not many in my gang are used to its modern twist in cooking. They'd say why pay so much and still end up feeling hungry? But isn't it about the excitement of tasting and trying something different?

For a friend's birthday recently, we went to Corner House for chef Jason Tan's food. I think it's the best. You can't have that kind of food every day, but eaten once in a while, you appreciate and enjoy it.

But most of the time, it's hawker food at Tanjong Pagar market or Maxwell food centre. That's Singapore. We get to explore the best of both worlds.

How often do you eat out?

My wife cooks on weekdays. But on weekends, the family eats out.

What are your favourite restaurants besides Corner House?

Near my home, there's Terra, a Japanese-Italian restaurant in Tras Street. There's also Trattoria Nonna Lina in Cantonment Street, which serves very homey Italian food.

And there's Mellben claypot crab beehoon in Tanjong Pagar Plaza, which moved over from Bestway Building in Prince Edward Road.

There are also very good Japanese and Korean eateries in the area.

Further away, there's a new favourite, thanks to the current hot weather and its beer - Pollen at the Flower Dome in Gardens by the Bay. You can pretend to be drinking in a cool temperate country.

Do you look out for new eating places to try?

Yes, it's fun. We decide among the family. Sometimes it's friends who make recommendations.

Also, I walk to work and take different routes. When I see a new restaurant, I'll check it out.

Or staff I know from restaurants I frequent tell me where they have moved to and I'll go and kaypoh.

When I meet them, sometimes we talk about the issues they face, such as rentals and regulations.

Singapore's F&B scene depends on the footprint coming through. Because the overall population and labour growth is now deliberately being depressed, it will have an impact on the economy and slow things down.

What is your wife's speciality? Do you cook too?

My wife's dish that everyone loves is tom yum pasta. And it must be cooked with spaghetti No. 5, not the thin pasta.

My dish is claypot chicken rice. For claypot rice, you have to use "sinful" ingredients such as lup cheong (Chinese sausage).

And my secret ingredient is large dried shrimp from Sarawak, which you fry before adding to the cooked rice.

What does your wife think of your claypot chicken rice?

Her reaction is "okay lor". In her eyes, I'm always messy. For her, the kitchen must be spotless. One drop of oil or a sliver of onion on the floor, I'm dead.

Do you miss the food in Malaysia?

When I was living in Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s, my favourite was the backlane black fried Hokkien mee near the Chinatown area.

And from Sarawak, my kampung food was kolo mee. There are different styles in Kuching depending on the lard, shallot oil and the kind of noodles used. And whether the noodles are topped with just minced pork or minced pork and prawns.

In Singapore, the kolo mee stall in Bedok North Street uses oil from char siew to toss the noodles. Sarawakians recognise that style and say it's the "ang" or red one because the char siew oil is red. The stall, called Red Hornbill, sells probably the most authentic kolo mee in Singapore.

I also like Sarawak laksa. There is coconut milk, but it is the belacan and dried shrimp that come through in the stock. And there're no cockles, just beansprouts, prawn and shredded chicken.

If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?

Nobody. For me, what matters is having friends and family around you when you are enjoying a meal.

  • Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Getting a taste of the economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe