HR & EDUCATION | Krisana Gallezo-Estaura, Singapore

What's making it hard for Singapore expats to integrate with the local community?

Singapore is home to the wealthiest expats but there are just some things they are not happy about.

A recent survey by HSBC Global Research shows that Singapore expats are the richest in the world. 54% of Singapore expats earn more than US$200K annually versus global survey average of only 7%.

Nonetheless, the survey also showed that while Singapore scores well as a desirable place to live among expats, it only achieved 4th position in the ‘Expat Explorer Experience’ league table and second in Asia after Thailand, ranked 2nd in the world.

The survey showed that majority of expats in Singapore (76%) are experiencing a better quality of life since relocation, close to half (48%) are enjoying higher standards of accommodation, more than half (57%) are commuting with greater ease and 43% are having a more active social life.

However, expats in Singapore are facing some challenges in integrating. Only 19% here strongly agree that they have integrated well with the local community, 41% strongly agree that they tend to socialise with other expats rather than locals, and only 15% strongly agree that they try to learn the local language.

Singapore Business Review interviewed some Singapore expats to ask their views on what makes Thailand a more desirable place for Singapore expats.

Matt Young, Chief Editor & Publisher, M.Sc. Journalism Media MICE

Singapore compares less favourably to Thailand especially in the following areas: Finding accommodation, making friends, using the local language, making local friends, integrating into the community, work/life balance and quality of accommodation.

There are others, but I'll keep my comments to these areas.

Finding decent accommodation is tough. When the sky is the limit on an accommodation budget, expats shouldn't have a problem.

But as more foreigners become self-initiated expatriates like myself, we can't expect a high accommodation budget courtesy of a multinational corporate perk. Therein lies a choice: an HDB flat, which are a far cry from Western international condo/apartment standards, or a condo, which easily gets into the stratospheric accommodation range.

It's not a comfortable choice to make. Perhaps expats don't have such a choice to make in Thailand, thankfully.

Making friends, making local friends and integrating into the local community all are part of the same thing: Ensuring that life as an expat is pleasant enough abroad not to get homesick, and go back home.

I always found it fascinating that on the outset, Singapore is a very Western-looking nation. The same fast food outlets, brands, and fashion can be seen here as anywhere in the West. But probe deeper and there are plenty of cultural barriers to greater engagement.

Get in a room full of ardent Singlish speakers and it's easy to feel like an outsider very quickly. Not being a fashionista, or blending in in other ways, all can be impediments to befriending locals. It's subtle, but there is a definite difference in the ability to make fast friends who are Singaporeans, versus those who are mainland Chinese, having lived in Beijing previously.

Perhaps it's the reverence to rules in Singapore, or the never ending quest to be where it's "happening," but something culturally makes me as an expat balk at times, and seek out another expat friend quickly to confide in.

Meanwhile, despite language barriers, my experience with Thai suggests these are down-to-earth people who you can strike up a conversation with easily, so long as some English is involved.

Finally, as for the work/life balance, is there one in Singapore? I have yet to meet it.

Jörg Dietzel, Chairman & CEO, JörgDietzelGroup

Different expats will have different parameters to decide what’s the best place for them to live in – while some may appreciate the safety, cleanliness and order of Singapore, others will like the buzz of Thailand, the hinterland that makes weekend escapes easy and the more single-minded Thai culture, as compared to Singapore’s mix.

Also, on a superficial level, the courtesy and friendliness of Thais will give some the impression that Thailand is a friendlier place – but integration with the local community is probably even more difficult there. It’s not that Singapore makes it impossible for expats to mix with local Singaporeans – many of them don’t want to integrate.

They are more comfortable to mix with fellow Westerners where they can speak their language and eat the food they are familiar with.

A local friend of mine who works for a ship brokerage tells me about his British and Danish colleagues: They work hard, then go drinking at Boat Quay.

When he offered to bring them out to some more interesting, local places, they refused – they’re happy in the ‘expat bubble’ they’re living in. Living arrangements are also not conducive to mixing: In condos, most couples and families live their own lives, and you hardly know who your neighbours are.

And in my HDB block local Singaporeans look at me funny when they see me in the lift – Western expats staying in HDB flats are still the exception.

There is curiosity and there are questions, some of them quite probing, about size of flat and rental cost. But there are no invitations for birthdays, and when I went around during Chinese New Year shortly after I moved in, handing out and receiving oranges, it was seen as a curiosity.

The trouble is, mixing doesn’t happen automatically – it takes effort. Effort to make the first step and get to know ‘the other’, the person whose look, language and habits may be different from ours.

And even though it will certainly enrich both sides to learn more and widen their horizons, it’s more comfortable to stay within our comfort zone, happy with what we know and what is familiar.

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