Living and Working In Singapore

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Years of fast growth as a financial centre have turned Singapore into a powerful magnet for business people seeking the chance to work as an expatriate.

Those who move to this thriving city state find perhaps the world's cleanest streets and an abundance of pleasant, tropical greenery.

Hot and humid weather, however, are also a feature of this tiny island of nearly four million people in the heart of southeast Asia, off the tip of Malaysia and next to sprawling Indonesia.

Singapore is also a leader in the internet revolution. It claims the distinction of being the world's most 'wired' city, with online access at around 50% of households.

Another distinctive aspect of Singapore is its multicultural nature, with a population that is roughly 70% Chinese, 15% Malay and 7% Indian. Many other groups live there as well.

But Singapore has paid a price for its business and technological development, and its you-could-eat-off-this cleanliness. It comes in the form of a highly authoritarian government.

The main newspaper, The Straits Times, is little more than a government mouthpiece, while even 'Speaker's Corner' is heavily regulated.

Financial Centre

A determined government campaign to persuade Western companies to set up their Asian headquarters in Singapore resulted in a flurry of investment in the mid- and late- 90s, even during the dark days of the regional financial crisis.

Many financial services and other companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Reuters, transferred their non-Japan Asian headquarters to Singapore from Hong Kong. They were drawn by low corporate taxes, cheaper office space, low labour costs, and proximity to southeast Asia.

Despite the presence in the city of every major international investment bank, Singapore's skyline is like a dolls house compared to the skyscraper-packed horizons of Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Most international banks are located in and around Raffles Place, a plaza bordered by the Singapore river. The financial district extends a litte further east into the Tanjong Pagar area, where many non-finance companies also have offices.

Like the rest of Singapore, the business centre offers a huge variety of places to eat. They range from dirt-cheap hawker centres - US$2-3 for a full meal - to upscale Western restaurants.

Hawker centres are food halls that have a common dining area and separate stalls offering a dizzying array of cuisines, such as Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, every kind of Chinese, and north and south Indian, to name a few.

Some hawker centres, or food courts as the nicer ones are called, may even offer Western food for the less adventurous.

Work and Corporate Culture

For the past two years, Singapore has ranked as the world's second freest economy, according to a survey by Washington-based Cato Institute. (Hong Kong was first).

This might seem strange for a country in which the major airlines, telecommunications company, and industrial conglomerates are government-owned, but the survey largely refers to the business conditions in which businesses operate.

In this sense, Singapore is terrific: companies can set up virtually overnight and corporate taxes are among the lowest in the world.

A foreign firm moving into Singapore, however, may want to take note of the mandatory pension scheme, the Central Provident Fund. Companies have to contribute 16% of an employee's salary to the fund.

English, one of the official languages, is widely spoken in the workplace, even in many local businesses because of the country's diverse ethnic population.

One problem employers sometimes comment on is a lack of creative thinking by local employees, who have been reared on a steady diet of rote-learning.

But never fear the government aims to remedy the problem with a campaign to persuade its citizens to think more creatively and artistically.

Housing and Transport

In housing, Singapore emerges as a clear first choice over its rival Asian financial centres, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Unlike the absurdly overpriced and cramped apartments in the other two cities, Singapore offers reasonably priced and spacious accommodation.

Many expatriates live in condominiums with tennis courts, gyms, and swimming pools. A two-bedroom apartment in such a complex could cost US$2,000-3,000 a month.

If condominiums seem too modern, there's always a renovated shophouse or a colonial-style bungalow, both conjuring up images of eras past.

For expatriates cutting corners, there are the inexpensive Housing Development Board flats. Towers upon towers of these government apartments dot the city landscape, offering shelter to some three-quarters of the island's population.

Those who have spent time in other Asian cities, particularly Bangkok and Jakarta, will find Singapore's traffic-free thoroughfares a godsend. Again, that luxury comes with a price. Small new cars cost around US50,000 due to the government's vehicle levy, designed to keep traffic jams to a minimum.

But Singapore's subway and bus systems are quick, efficient, and cheap. Taxis are fairly inexpensive too but can be hard to come by when you most need them - in the evenings when you are rushing home, or out to dinner.


Singapore's unpolluted air allows expatriates to make the most of outdoor activities. Many enjoy roller-blading and biking on the East Coast Parkway or the nearby island of Pulau Ubin, and water-skiing off the coast at weekends.

The nightlife, while not quite as exciting as the pulsating clubs of Tokyo and Hong Kong, includes a wide choice of restaurants, bars, and cafes. A good starting point is Boat Quay, a riverside strip nestled against the financial centre.

Shopping is centered on Orchard Road, which is lined with malls. Many prefer shopping in Singapore to other Asian cities because prices can be cheaper for the same luxury goods.

While there are a few museums and some good theatre productions, Singapore is probably not the best place for culture vultures.

And of course, Singapore is well known as a place to get away from when living in a small place becomes too much.

The Indonesian island of Bintan, less than an hour away by boat, is a popular last-minute weekend destination for many expatriates.

The beaches of Malaysia and Thailand are only a short plane ride away.

Taxes and Work Permits

Work visas are relatively easy to come by - allow two to eight weeks for processing - because the government wants to encourage foreign professionals to settle down and make a home in the city state.

Taxes are perhaps the lowest in the world, around 8-12% for a middle income, and are usually calculated every year as a lump sum. Since the amount is often very low, roughly equivalent to a month's salary, some people pay it off in one go. Others prefer to stagger it in monthly payments.

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