In Focus
HR & EDUCATION | Danielle Isaac, Singapore
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Singapore expats burdened with lower packages and higher cost of living

A study revealed that over half or 52% of expats in Singapore are dissatisfied with the city's cost of living.

Moving out from London to become an expat in Singapore was fairly straightforward for trader Oriano Lizza. He noted how the lower tax levels make everything “considerably easier” now that he has stayed in the country for over 20 months.

This was shared by Sheena Chauhan, a senior account manager from the UK who has been in Singapore for over four years, and said that whilst working hours and salary are very similar to the ones in London, the lower tax “makes an impact” on take-home pay.

However, a high cost of living undermines this benefit. Whilst Chauhan and Lizza have different careers and experiences, the two share their complaints about the cost of living in the Lion City. This was highlighted by the fact that over half or 52% of expats in Singapore are dissatisfied with the city's cost of living, a new report by expat community InterNations revealed.

Singapore took the 50th spot amongst 72 countries for the cost of living rankings in 2018. Had it fared better, it could have taken over Taipei as the overall champion of InterNations’ list.

This issue was also reflected in other firms’ study of expat life around the globe. In June, ECA International revealed that Singapore is in the 20 most expensive cities for expats around the world.

“The price of goods and services included in our basket of goods has only seen a modest increase in Singapore over the past 12 months, in line with other similar economies in Asia,” said Lee Quane, regional director for Asia at ECA International, in June. "However, the rise in the rankings has been due to the relative strength of the Singapore dollar versus the US greenback in the past year."

Quane said in another interview with Singapore Business Review that their study was also affected by the fact that an increasing number of expatriates recruited into Singapore from lower salary locations. When these salaries are adjusted to Singapore, they become lower than that of expatriates from higher salary locations like Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia.

However, Lizza noted that the expats he spoke to have also said: “the packages of yesteryear were considerably more attractive.” For him, an ideal expat package stands at $100,000. He added, “This is the case of many developing expat environments. From what I hear they have certainly come down. I feel the current package is sufficient but as humans, we always want more.”

Chauhan shared a broader perspective and said, “The cost of living isn’t cheap, but it’s possible to live more frugally (or more lavishly) if you choose... Companies are increasingly customising their packages to suit individual needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Quane explained how some companies take into consideration some select factors when computing the total value of the expat package. He identified the employee’s nationality, “since many salary packages are calculated by making reference to the home country salary structure,” as well as their employment relationship and family size.

Other trends that have significantly affected the value of expat packages include cheaper expat benefits such as housing and child education costs and the shift in approaches towards expats’ tenure of employment.

“More expatriates are being employed in Singapore on a permanent basis. This means that their employers expect them to remain in Singapore for a long period of time (e.g. permanently),” Quane said.

As a result, they are often provided a cash salary in line with what would be provided to Singaporeans. In some cases, this may be lower than what a typical expatriate on a standard expatriate assignment compensation structure would have earned, the director added.

Satisfying expat life
Despite the significant implications of a consistently high cost of living, Chauhan and Lizza are still fairly satisfied with their Singapore expat life. InterNations noted that the majority of expats (88%) is extremely satisfied with their personal safety, compared to 48% globally.

Lizza commented, “The cleanliness and safe nature of Singapore is also very reassuring and makes Singapore a fantastic place to raise a young family. Transport tends to be very efficient and not overly costly regardless of where you live on the island. Travel options are endless as well as its business opportunities both globally and in the SEA region.”

Singapore also ranked high at fourth in terms of quality of life thanks to its good performance in travel & passport. Chauhan was able to draw comparisons between her home country and Singapore. “ The low cost and reliability of public transport is the most marked difference when drawing comparisons to living in London,” she said.

Singapore clinched 14th place as the best city for working abroad, based on satisfactory career prospects & satisfaction, work & leisure, and economy & job security. Singapore’s top employment statuses also stand out compared to global and regional results: 31% of expats in Singapore are managers.

Expats also found it easier to settle in the Lion City. Chauhan, a native English speaker, said she had no problems with language. “As a British national of Indian origin, I also found cultural assimilation less of a challenge as there are many synergies with the melting pot of Asian cultures within Singapore.”

Lizza, however, still struggles with integration into the local society and culture. “Singapore can be somewhat sterile and it often feels as though you are living in a bubble, in comparison to other major cities in the world. It is often to healthy to return home from time to time to obtain that sense of reality.”

However, Chauhan noted that there is more to gain from working and living abroad than remuneration alone. “Savvy employers are becoming more flexible in meeting the needs of their employees, so it’s important to consider the expat package as a whole, beyond just net salary,” she concluded. 

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