In 2002, Tim Barnes was asked by his boss to move to Singapore. An Australian living in Sydney at the time, he jumped at the chance – he was in his mid-20s, single and had visited a few times before.
More than 60% found Singapore helped their career progression and that their earnings rose after moving to the country
He had only planned on staying for a handful of years, but wound up living in the city for eight. He met his expat-wife in Singapore, made a lot of friends and just generally liked the clean country. “I’ve been to a lot places in Asia and it’s very expat friendly,” he says. “It’s developed and very Western.”
A new HSBC report has again named the Lion City as the best place in the world for expats to live, after surveying about 27,000 people who rated 45 countries on subjects like salaries, experience and family. More than 60% found Singapore helped their career progression and that their earnings rose after moving to the country. The survey found the average annual income for Singapore expats was $139,000 (USD), compared to $97,000 in the rest of the world. And 66% also said that Singapore offers a better quality of life than their home country.
Considering the move? As attractive as it might sound, BBC Capital found there are several parts of daily life – both quirky and serious – that expats need to think about before relocating.
Expats who want to buy a car better be prepared to shell out a lot of cash. A Toyota Camry, which retails for $25,000 in the US, goes for $145,888 Singapore dollars ($107,124). Why the exorbitant cost? Incredibly high car-related taxes.
First there’s a registration fee based on the “open market value” (OMV) of the car. According to Dollars and Sense, a Singaporean personal finance site, you could pay S$60,578 extra on a Mercedes E200 with an OMV of S$49,113. Then an excise duty is charged, which is 20% of the OMV, plus a 7% GST (Goods and Services Tax) on top of that.
The most famous tax, though, is the certificate of entitlement (COE). Your COE cost is based on the type of car – the larger and more powerful the engine, the more expensive the COE – and how many people want COEs at any given time. In some cases, this payment can be more expensive than the car.
Singapore simply doesn’t want too many cars on the road, says Priscilla Ng Yi Xian, a born and raised Singaporean. It’s a small country, she says. “They want people to use public transit.”
She doesn’t own a car, but may buy one when she has kids. For now, Uber works just fine. “It’s simple", she says. “I call a cab.”
Expats will also have to put up with video cameras tracking their every move. Flora Chao Lutz, a Washington DC native who moved to Singapore in May with her family for work, has noticed cameras nearly everywhere.
The kids try and put their hand to the cameras and block them
Since 2012, more than 52,000 police cameras have been installed on 8,600 blocks, according to the Straits Times, a Singaporean newspaper. The police say they were installed to help deter littering, loan shark harassment and illegal parking.
Chao Lutz doesn’t mind the cameras – she thinks they’re meant to keep people safe – but her two young children do find it odd. “The kids try and put their hand to the cameras and block them,” she says. “They don’t like it, but I prefer the safety.”
Save me a space
Singapore is often named as one of the most expensive cities on the planet, but anyone, anywhere can get a fresh, made-to-order meal for just a few dollars. The city is filled with hawker centres – busy, bustling, food courts where locals and expats alike eat both lunch and dinner.
If you move it, someone will come across the room and let you know that it’s their seat
There’s a good reason why people love these places: there’s a vast array of dishes from all over the world, and the food is really cheap. Meals typically cost between S$3 and S$7 (about $2 to $5).
However, new arrivals need to watch out for tissue packets placed on empty seats. It’s a practice called ‘chope-ing’ – in other words, it’s how Singaporeans reserve their table when they stand in line to order. “If you move it, someone will come across the room and let you know that it’s their seat,” says Barnes.
FOMO… on a whole new level
If there’s one cross-cultural feeling that we all have, it’s the fear of missing out. Singaporeans, though, take it to an entirely different level, says Shally Venugopal, an entrepreneur based in Washington DC who was born and raised in Singapore with expat parents.
That fear actually has a name in Singapore. It’s called kiasu, a Hokkien word which means “afraid to lose out” in English
That fear actually has a name in Singapore. It’s called kiasu, a Hokkien word which means “afraid to lose out” in English. Essentially, when a new restaurant or apartment block opens, people clamour to be the first to check it out and they’re willing to wait for hours to get in. “The lines are crazy insane,” she says.
Singaporeans are always trying to get ahead, Venugopal says, and many want to be seen buying the latest property, at the big concert or eating at the hot new restaurant.
Ng agrees. Many Singaporeans are worry about falling behind their peers. “People try to outdo their friends,” she says.
That often means trying to get their children into the most prestigious schools, or buying homes in the best neighbourhoods.
For expats, this mostly means actively avoiding the things that everyone’s talking about. Even popular hawker centre stalls can get mobbed – in July, long lines formed at two different stalls the day after each received a Michelin star.
While most expats have many of the same freedoms as they do at home, LGBT people do not. Being gay or lesbian is not illegal, but homosexual activity is, punishable by up to two years in prison, however, it’s not enforced, says Yangfa Leow, a registered social worker and executive director of Oogachaga, an LGBTQ counselling and support service in Singapore.
The only way that same-sex partners would both be allowed to stay in Singapore is for both to have employment visas
Same-sex marriage and civil unions are not allowed, and foreign same-sex marriages are not recognised by Singapore, and this can be an issue for gay expats who want to enjoy the country, says Leow. A non-working partner would not be granted a dependents’ visa, which means that they wouldn’t be able to stay in the country.
The only way that same-sex partners would both be allowed to stay in Singapore is for both to have employment visas, he says.
All told, though, gay Singaporeans and expats can live their lives how they want. There are gay bars, clubs and a large gay pride event called Pink Dot, where LGBTQ people, wearing pink, gather in a park and form a pink dot in support of diversity and inclusiveness. Foreigners, however, are not permitted to take part in protests in Singapore so would not be allowed take part in the actual forming of the pink dot.
Leow does say, however, that gay women and transgendered persons are less visible and “for reasons of comfort and safety, may prefer to socialise in more private spaces.”