Hong Kong was king, but Singapore is usurping its crown.
A hectic, eclectic mix of Chinese and British colonial culture, Hong Kong became an economic powerhouse, a meeting place for Eastern industry and western finance. The skyscrapers that loom over the harbour stand testament to Hong Kong’s hard-won spot at the high table of global finance.The transfer of power back to the Chinese in 1997 brought an end to 156 years of British administration. The Chinese have managed to keep business booming in Hong Kong, but not without complaints over democratic rights and freedom of speech. These culminated in street protests in 2014 as the so-called Umbrella Revolution demanded free and fair voting in elections. The revolt failed and was followed by a crackdown on the media and educational institutions.
Singapore, on the other hand, seems like a tranquil and stable place to business. Free from the dirt and grime that pervades Hong Kong, with significantly lower crime rates and a rapidly growing business culture, Singapore is tempting expats away.
The Lion City looks set to become Asia’s new trading capital, completing the transformation from port city to global financial hub. It may be the world’s second most densely populated country, but the city-state is also famous for being clean, pleasant and family friendly.
The expat charge from Hong Kong to Singapore is being lead by the older generation. Singapore’s job market might not as vibrant as Hong Kong’s, but experienced managers can find very lucrative jobs and great salaries.
It’s not just the pay that is causing this expat exodus; we’ve explored the reasons why droves of foreign workers are swapping Hong Kong for Singapore.
It’s not as boring as you think
Singaporean law is pretty strict. A long list of seemingly innocuous things are outlawed, from chewing gun to paintball and toy hand cuffs to feeding the pigeons. This has given the country a reputation as being a bit of a spoilsport where many forms of fun are illegal or include an added ‘sin tax’.
Expats can expect to pay extra for their beer, and quantities of cigarettes are strictly controlled. Despite these restrictions Singapore is home to a vibrant nightlife, with rooftop bars, mega clubs and super casinos providing typical entertainment.
The tiny city also boasts an impressive range of sporting options, although these can be fairly pricey. Expats can play golf, surf, go scuba diving, and even go skiing or ice skating at indoor slopes and rinks.
The highlight of the Singaporean sporting calendar is the thrilling Grand Prix. Held at night, the Formula One race takes place on the city streets which turns the whole town into a neon-lit high-octane party. Even if you don’t care about the speeding cars below, you can enjoy an incredible roof-top party or high rise concert during the race weekend.
For a slightly more relaxed experience, seek out the growing number of spas for green tea hydrotherapy, massages or manicures. Massages are an Asian favourite, but do check the reputation of the establishment beforehand, as some offer ‘extra services’ that may be unexpected.
Cost of living is lower
Singapore is not a cheap place to live. Space is at a premium in the tiny city-state, so accommodation costs are high, as are the daily costs of living. Residents of even expensive cities like London or New York will take a painful wallop in the wallet when moving to Singapore.
As pricey as things may be, they are still cheaper than Hong Kong, and there are ways to drive down costs even further. Singapore’s excellent transport system is much cheaper and easier than taking a cab, instantly racking up savings on Hong Kong’s smog-choked streets.
Education in Singapore is subsidised, so expats needn’t fork out for expensive international or private schools. The same is true of medical expenses, with a comprehensive public health system that asks for minimal contribution in comparison to expensive private insurance.
Living as an expat you can try to take home with you, surviving on familiar, yet expensive imported products, or get a taste of the rich and diverse cuisine on offer. Singapore is a place for Asian foods to meet, merge and transform into an exciting and affordable plethora of delicious dishes.
The basics of life are usually cheap in comparison to the salaries on offer, especially when shopping in local produce markets. Groceries can be over 12% cheaper than their equivalents in Hong Kong.
Singapore is the new business whizz-kid
Singapore has a highly skilled local workforce, international finance, an English-speaking business culture and a very efficient bureaucracy. Business is booming in the financial and technology sectors.
Investment from all over the world is turning Singapore into the next big thing, if it hasn’t already. The island rates in the top spot for ‘ease of doing business’, with good reason.
Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, rent is cheaper in Singapore. Although the city-state is smaller than Hong Kong, it has a much smaller population, and the government has been careful to control the demand for housing.
Cooling measures have stopped a property bubble from overloading the wallets of Singaporeans. Whilst the average property in Hong Kong costs more than fourteen times the average salary, that figure is just five times for Singapore.
This translates to the rental market too, where an apartment in Singapore can cost 16% less each month than its equivalent in Hong Kong.
China is taking a greater interest in Hong Kong following the Umbrella Revolution. Combine that with the expansion of the Chinese economy, and the mainland is pulling Hong Kong closer to home.
Mandarin in slowly making its way into the business world in Hong Kong. Where it was once perfectly possible to get by as a monolingual Anglophone, more and more meetings now involve a smattering of Mandarin.
Chinese businesses are becoming a bigger and more frequent occurrence on the international finance market, so Mandarin would be a useful tool for dealmakers around the world. Singapore will surely be swept up in this tide sooner rather than later, but for now it’s keeping English as the official language of business.
Even if you did want to learn Mandarin, Singapore is the ideal place to do it. Schools in the country aim to produce fluently bilingual students, able to converse in both English and Mandarin. Expat children in Singaporean schools will have a head start learning the language, and adults will find no shortage of capable Mandarin teachers.
Singapore is cleaner and healthier
Anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong will remember the smell. Foul pollution mixing with garbage rotting in the stifling humid heat: a smell that lingers in the nostrils and in the lungs.
Hong Kong is a spaghetti plate of roads, alleyways and express flyovers, all crowded with cars, buses and motorbikes. A blue haze hangs over the city, obscuring its iconic skyline. Last summer saw pollutant levels rise to dangerous levels, with children, the elderly and the infirm warned to stay inside. Even then, residents could not escape, with one in five apartments reported as containing dangerous levels of fumes.
Singapore has also had its battles with air pollution, although not to the same degree. The government has taken significant steps to combat the problem, placing strict regulations on transport and industry. Much of the ‘smog’ seen above the city is actually smoke from forest fires burning in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.
The country has had more success battling street level litter, with tough fines and prison terms helping to keep the streets clean.
Singapore is less cut-throat
Hong Kong still attracts an influx of ambitious young high achievers. Businesses there have a hire-and-fire attitude that demands a lot of their staff, but handsomely rewards those who live up to expectations.
Hong Kong has an aggressive go-getter attitude that rewards hard work and risk-taking. A Singapore-based company director told efinancialcareers.com that this was part of the city’s DNA: “its inhabitants live and die by the sword, which leads to a competitive and aggressive banking market”.
The work-hard-play-hard philosophy might do wonders for bright young things whose dreams of success give them the stamina of marathon runners, but weeks of late nights and breakfast meetings take their toll on the elder generation.
Instead the senior managers and experts are leaving Hong Kong to seek positions in Singapore, where the salaries are just as generous but the days are shorter. These consultants, directors, managers and board members can enjoy a much more composed working environment without needing to keep pace with people half their age.
Singapore is safer
Hong Kong has a reputation as a wild town; street gangs and hoodlums regularly battling it out with corrupt cops and each other. These might be the fantasies of Kung Fu movies, but they are inspired by real events.
Singapore on the other hand has been declared the safest city on earth by just about any survey attempting a poll. The government is proud of the fact that there has been no gang related violence in the city since the 1980s and there are few streets in Singapore that aren’t safe to walk down after dark.
The low crime rate is partly due to a culture of widespread legislation that is rigidly enforced. Possession of drugs is punishable by death, as are firearms offenses and kidnapping. Lesser offenses can see offenders dealt hefty fines or ordered to do community work.
Many of these offenses would surprise people around the world. Spitting in the street, supplying chewing gum, eating on the subway, jaywalking and littering can all result in penalties. Police will rarely look the other way and cannot be bribed.
Singapore also employs caning as a form of punishment, whipping the hands of those who overstay visas or commit vandalism.
The comprehensive laws may seem like a serious limiting factor on life, but have helped turn Singapore from a tumultuous, rioting hotbed of dissent into a thriving, clean super-economy.
If there is one thing Singapore does better than business, it’s education. The senior expats deserting Hong Kong are doing so with their families in tow, bringing their kids to a school system that comes top of the class.
Singapore has primary, secondary and pre-university stages of schooling, all subsidised by the state. Some of the statistics make it look as though the school system is letting down the 18% of Singaporeans with no qualifications to their name. This is due to the fact that only primary education is compulsory.
Those who do stay in the system reap the rewards. Singaporean pupils have been ranked as the best in the world for Maths in one survey, in the top five for Maths, Science and Reading in another. The city-state also boasts a 98% pass rate for the International Baccalaureate, including half of the world’s 81 perfect scorers.
The school system is so good, and all taught in English, that the majority of expat kids study at state schools rather than expensive international schools.
Two of Singapore’s universities are listed among the top 13 in the world, and fees are also heavily subsidised by the government.
Singapore is Asia’s most liveable city
You’ve probably reached this conclusion yourself from reading all the points above, but Singapore really does trump anywhere else.
Well, it’s not all that simple: various bodies around the world publish annual lists of their ‘most liveable’ or ‘best to live in’ locations around the world. Singapore isn’t always in the number one spot, but it is always in the leading Asian contender. And it’s always streets ahead of Hong Kong.
Singapore’s education system, solid infrastructure and booming economy secure it a good position, but the icing on the cake is its low crime, socio-political stability and comparably good record on pollution. In 2015, Singapore beat both London and New York.
There’s a whole host of reasons to abandon Hong Kong and set up in Singapore. Will you be joining expats already making the move?
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer