Singapore’s 5.5 million strong population is dominated by non-citizens. Around 40% of the country’s residents are expats; students, workers, and travellers. In HSBC’s Expat Explorer report, Singapore was ranked in the top spot – the best place to be an expat. Singapore is rumoured to be expensive, so what is it that is drawing foreigners to the country every year?
The Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank, release their global Prosperity Index annually. The survey ranks the most prosperous countries in the world. Many assume prosperity is used in reference to the financial standing of a country and, while this is included, the Legatum Institute considers more factors in its ranking.
Ranking in 17th place this year (out of 142 countries) was Singapore. This puts Singapore in the top 12%, with its rankings for education, governance, and safety helping the country rank so well. Economy is Singapore’s strongest category, for which it took the top spot. In contrast, Singapore did not rank well in personal freedom (38) and social capital (25).
Singapore already has a fantastic expat community and, with an incredibly stable economy and overall celebrated way of life, it is understandable as to why many move there. But, how much does it really cost to live in Singapore?
In 1965, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and forced into unwanted independence. At this time, Singapore was a typical Third World country. Poverty and malnutrition were the norm, and children were put on special feeding programmes arranged by charities. With poverty, came extremely high levels of unemployment, and there was only a small domestic market.
Singapore’s government responded quickly, initiating the Economic Development Board to spearhead an investment drive and make Singapore an attractive destination for foreign investment. Foreign direct investments increased dramatically and, by 2001, foreign companies accounted for 75% of manufactured output, and 85% of manufactured exports. Due to this, Singapore’s investment rates rose among the highest levels in the world.
Despite peaks and troughs, and the SARS outbreak of 2003 affecting the economy, Singapore continued to thrive and become a powerhouse in the financial world. Today, Singapore has a highly developed trade-orientated market economy. The country’s economy is one of the most open and least corrupt in the world, with low taxes, the third highest GDP globally, and a pro-business attitude.
Singapore’s government, over the past 50 years, has set an incredible example as to how a country can rise from the ashes with the correct infrastructure and strategy. To preserve its international standing and further its economic prosperity, savings and investment policies are constantly being developed, and innovation, entrepreneurship, and workforce training are championed.
The unit of currency in Singapore is the Singapore dollar (SGD) and represents as S$. Each dollar is divided into 100 cents. Notes are available in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 50, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 SDG. Coins are available in 1 SGD and 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents.
Singapore is one of the world’s leading financial centres, meaning that expats benefit from leading banking systems – around 700 local and foreign institutions. There is also a cashless payment system known as NETS in Singapore, which is a convenient way to make purchases and most expats will find their Singapore bank card will have this facility automatically.
Housing in Singapore for Expats
In 1973, the Singapore government imposed restrictions on expat ownership of all private residential properties. The Residential Property Act was put in place to allow Singaporeans to buy their own residential property at an affordable price. The RPA was amended in 2005 to allow foreigners to purchase homes in non-condominium developments, of less than six levels, without the need to obtain approval.
Expats can buy restricted residential properties in Singapore, but an application form must be submitted, and few are met with much joy. For this reason, renting homes is considered the norm for the foreign population.
The housing market in Singapore is split into two sectors; public and private. Most locals and Asian expats reside in public HBD (Housing and Development Board) homes, whereas expats tend to stick to the private market. However, public housing should not be snubbed in Singapore. Unlike many countries, HBD properties aren’t associated with lower incomes and they are of a high standard, some even come with luxury options. Expats are more than welcome to rent HBD homes, but there is limited availability.
In the private market, prices will vary depending on apartment size, and proximity to schools, transport, and amenities. Expats will often live in apartments, condos, or bungalows that are part of a greater complex. Often, these complexes come with added extras, such as cinema rooms, gyms, and swimming pools.
Property in Singapore is notorious for being expensive, so expats should ensure their salary is high enough to afford the type of lifestyle they want if they have not been moved for work by an employer.
Expat Healthcare in Singapore
Singapore is ranked sixth in the World Health Organisation’s list of best world health systems. It is extremely strong and, unlike many countries in the world, both the public and private sectors function at similar levels. Usually, expats will use private hospitals for primary care, and public hospitals in emergencies.
Healthcare is not free in Singapore, and this is so people do not overuse the system. However, most treatments are heavily subsidised and prices are controlled. Inevitably, the fees in private facilities are more expensive than public hospitals and clinics. All citizens are enrolled in a compulsory savings scheme to help them pay for services. Many people in Singapore also opt for private healthcare.
For visitors, the cost of healthcare in Singapore can be extremely high. For this reason, it is recommended that travellers find suitable international medical cover before their trip. Expats should also note that some over the counter and prescription medications that are legal in home countries, may be considered controlled substances in Singapore.
Before you travel to Singapore, it’s essential to check any medications you may be bringing into the country. You may need to get prior authorisation and a permit to carry these medications and this should be arranged at least ten days before you travel. In most cases, you will be able to bring up to a three months’ supply with you and you will need a letter from your doctor and a copy of the prescription.
Expat Education in Singapore
The education system in Singapore has been described as world-leading and it is considered very important – 20 per cent of the national budget is spent on the sector per year. There is compulsory education for children of primary school age (6-12) and it can be a criminal offence if parents do not enrol their children in school and ensure they attend regularly.
Expat children are welcome to attend public, private, or independent schools. However, it is best for parents to weigh up each option before enrolling their child.
The best public schools in Singapore are often oversubscribed, and places go to Singaporean children before expats. Even expats who have permanent residency struggle to get their children a spot in public schools. Public schools are much more affordable than international schools, and allow children to integrate themselves in to Singaporean life much more quickly. The only downside of public schools in Singapore is that children will be taught the Singaporean curriculum, which is very different to the likes of Europe and the USA. Children learn quietly in Singapore, with a lot of independent study, and little in the way of interactive discussions and diverse learning styles.
In private schools, students are highly competitive and families put a lot of pressure on their children to succeed. This is the way of life in Singapore and many expat children can feel ostracised as they struggle to assimilate with the new educational culture. The best schools often dismiss average and underperforming students.
Western parents must keep in mind that corporal punishment is legal and regularly used in schools in Singapore. Caning is permitted for boys only in Singapore, but both sexes can be struck with an open hand or paddle as a form of punishment.
Due to a large expat population in Singapore, there are many international schools serving the children of the foreign community and most parents end up placing their children in these schools. Most of the schools implement the International Baccalaureate curriculum, but some uphold the system used in their country of origin. Popular international schools have waiting lists so it is best for expat parents to research and make informed decisions quickly if they want their first choice.
It is no myth that international schools are very expensive but many expats moving to Singapore will have their child’s school fees payed for by their employer as part of their relocation package.
Cost of Transportation
Expats are welcome to drive in Singapore and, after converting their foreign license, the process is relatively straightforward. However, buying a car is extremely expensive and, with a fantastic public transport infrastructure, it is by no means essential.
Getting around Singapore is a stress-free experience and, due to the majority of public areas being heavily pedestrianised, many choose to save money altogether by walking or cycling everywhere.
If this isn’t appropriate, expats can purchase a rechargeable EZ-Link card. These can be bought at MRT stations (over ground and underground trainlink system) or 7-Eleven stores. They can be topped up online, or at MRT stations, and used to take trains and buses.
Due to the sheer number of them, taxis are an inexpensive option in Singapore. However, they are not always the most convenient as the streets of Singapore are often chaotic with traffic.
Jobs in Singapore for Expats
Due to Singapore’s strong economy, the country has an unemployment rate of only 2%. Companies from all over the world now have offices set-up in Singapore and, with this, comes employees transferred from their original countries. However, if you have not been relocated by your employer, finding work is relatively easy. Like most countries, you will apply for a job opening and be invited for interview if you are suitable. To secure a job in Singapore, you must have the correct documentation. Many companies in the country have large numbers of foreign workers and, by contacting your home country’s embassy, they will be able to provide you with a list of businesses from your home country who also have offices in Singapore.
Most expats secure jobs within the ‘growth industries’. This includes digital media, biomedical science, electronics, healthcare, banking, engineering, and legal. English is the official work language in Singapore, so communication will not be an issue whilst trying to secure a role.
Comparison to UK
The world’s largest database, Numbeo, has a vast selection of user contributed data in regards to Singapore. Compared to the UK, the cost of living is 22.4% higher in Singapore. However, due to wages, many expats are very comfortable and have left over cash to spend as they wish.
The tables below provide an over view of the differences in costs between Singapore and the UK. Please note that all Singaporean prices have been converted into British pounds.
|Groceries||UK Price (£)||Singapore Price (in £)||Cheaper Country|
|White bread (500g)||£0.95||£1.33||UK|
|Local Cheese (1kg)||£5.87||£13.01||UK|
|Transport||UK Price (£)||Singapore Price (in £)||Cheaper Country|
|Utilities (Monthly)||UK Price (£)||Singapore Price (in £)||Cheaper Country|
|Electricity/Heating/Water for 85m2 apartment||£143.46||£92.28||Singapore|
|1 minute of PAYG talk time||£0.13||£0.10||Singapore|
|Internet (10 Mbps, unlimited data, cable/ADSL)||£21.05||£24.81||UK|
|Clothing||UK Price (£)||Singapore Price (in £)||Cheaper Country|
|Jeans (Levi or similar)||£57.15||£59.62||UK|
|Dress (chain store)||£29.91||£32.43||UK|
|Nike running shoe||£64.20||£71.85||UK|
|Leather business shoes||£61.18||£75.43||UK|
|Eating Out||UK Price (£)||Singapore Price (in £)||Cheaper Country|
|Fast food meal||£5.00||£4.41||Singapore|
|3 course, mid-range||£50.00||£35.25||Singapore|