SINGAPORE - Howls of anguish rang out around the room. You could almost feel the pain of those around the table.
The scene was a recent lunch meeting I was invited to with the leading lights of Singapore's retail sector, and top of their agenda was the unrelenting woes they were facing in the light of rising costs. They piled it on pretty thick.
"We are dying," cried one business chief, somewhat melodramatically.
"We are working day and night for our landlords," another chimed in.
A third added, more measuredly: "The impact on service is being felt, and this will hit Singapore's reputation as a tourist destination. It is not good for us."
Rising costs, mainly from higher rentals, but also from manpower shortages driving wages up, were plainly a source of much angst for this well-heeled group.
They are not alone. You hear the same squeals of pain every time you talk to a restaurant manager or just about anyone in the service sector.
Workers too have been voicing concerns about rising costs. Little wonder then that when news broke earlier this year that Singapore had been given the dubious honour of being the "world's most expensive city", according to a survey of expatriate living costs by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the story quickly went round, and resonated with many.
And, amid the slew of measures unveiled in this year's Budget, the one that caught attention was the hefty 25 per cent jump in alcohol taxes, which pushed the price of a beer at the local kopitiam to new highs.
Just last week, another lifestyle survey, this time by Deutsche Bank, cited Singapore as the priciest place in the world for some things, such as yes, a pint of beer, and as expected, cars, but also rather surprisingly, gym memberships.
In contrast, the cost of public transport and health insurance here is among the lowest in the world. For other items, like a pair of Levi's jeans, or an iPhone, and office rentals, Singapore ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack, the survey found.
One researcher summed up this mixed bag of results well: "If you're living in an HDB housing estate, sending your kids to a local school and using the MRT, life may not be horrendously expensive. It's not cheap... but it's not completely out-of-whack expensive."
Indeed, government leaders have been at pains to explain that these surveys are a little misleading since they reflect the lifestyles of foreigners, not locals. The goods included in the EIU sample - imported cheese, fillet mignon, "Burberry-type raincoats" and theatre tickets - are not the everyday fare of most Singaporean heartlanders.
The stronger Singapore dollar has also made the Republic a more expensive city to live in for expatriates, even as locals benefit from the lower inflation that the strong currency brings, they add.
Few, I think, doubt these explanations. Yet, the sense that daily living and business costs have been rising in recent times clearly continues to rankle with many. These gripes have not gone unheard, with several MPs telling this newspaper that they intend to raise the issue in the House during the debate on the President's Address at the reopening of Parliament, which kicks off tomorrow.