By: Farah Ong
Try locating Singapore on the world map and you will see this little red dot tucked underneath Malaysia in the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. This little red dot may be the smallest country in South-East Asia, but it has now ranked the 3rd most expensive city in Asia to live in, just after Tokyo and Osaka, beating Hong Kong.
Singapore has transformed from a small, chaotic seaport into one of the richest, cleanest, safest, efficient and most expensive cities to live in. This quick emergence from a third-world to a first-world nation has inevitably transformed the people’s mindset and expectations of worldly pursuits. From the laid-back inhabitants of island people to a city known for it’s materialistic culture obsessed with their pursuit of the 5C’s– cash, car, condo, credit card and country club.
This small nation carries a population of approximately 5 million people, all nestled within its 710 square kilometers area. Mind you, it used to be only about 582 square kilometers in the 1960s and still has ongoing reclamation projects.
Singapore is home to many foreigners, with almost 20% of it’s 5 million inhabitants made up of blue collar workers from developing countries around the region and expatriates, or what is now more commonly called-‘foreign talents’. Its corruption-free, open business environment and open-trade policies have lured many foreign investors to come to Singapore, despite the tremendous rise in land and labor costs especially over the recent years.
Singapore Living Costs: Housing/Accomodation
If you’re a foreigner looking at settling or working in Singapore, you probably need a comfortable pay scale range in order to live comfortably and be able to save up. Most of your salary will go to housing rent. Due to its land scarcity, property prices are at an constant high. The 3 main types of housing in Singapore are the public housing high-rise flats or what they call HDB flats, the slightly mid-market private property condominiums, which usually come with amenities like a swimming pool and gym and the upmarket landed property.
Be prepared to fork out SGD $1500-$2500 (approx. USD $1120-$2000) for rent per month in a 2-3 bedroom in a public housing apartment or HDB flat. If you’re looking at renting a 2-3 bedroom condominium that’s going to set you back anything between SGD $3000-$5000 (USD $2400-$4000), depending on the location you’re in. You can imagine what the rental is like for a landed housing property in this country. For locals to purchase a HDB flat, you need to be married and if you’re single you have to be over 35 years old to be eligible to buy a flat.
A 3-room(3 room flat= 2 bedroom) HDB flat can set you back anything between SGD $270 000-$300 000 (USD $215 000- $240 000)depending on the location. Just a couple of weeks back they released the valuation price of the most expensive HDB flat in Singapore- close to SGD $850 000 (USD $677 000) for a 5-room flat (5 room= 3 bedroom). And HDB flats are purchased on a 99 year lease! Those buying a private landed property housing are looking at a minimum of $3000 000(USD $2.4 million) and a lifetime’s worth of mortgage. Because of the exorbitant property prices, this has led to many young Singaporeans still living with their parents even way into their 30s.
Singapore Living Costs: Vehicle Ownership
To own a vehicle is another expensive thing in Singapore. On top of the price of the vehicle, Singapore is probably the only country in the world that comes up with the policy of Certificate of Entitlement or COE-which loosely translates as a certification to own a vehicle. And the premium for COEs varies depending on the type of vehicle you own. A rough estimate would be approximately SGD $15 000-$25 000 (USD $12 000- $20 000) for a brand new Japanese Sedan, and it comes with a timeframe – 10years. That is excluding the price of the vehicle.
For motorcycles it would be a lot cheaper, I just paid SGD$1800 (USD$1450) for a 10 year extension of COE for my PX 150cc Vespa. And Singapore also has a highly efficient ERP or Electronic Road Pricing system. There are electronic gantries located mainly in the city and business district and expressways. Every vehicle is equipped with an electronic device where it automatically charges a toll for entering those areas. ERP charges varies from $0.50-$$3.00 depending on the type of vehicle and time of entry. Bear in mind that in order to enter the city area, chances are you will have to pass by more than one gantry. Failure to pay or insufficient amount in the cash card will result in a fine of about SGD $10(USD $8).
Singapore Living Costs: Public Transportation
The consolation in Singapore’s transport system is that the public transport in Singapore is highly efficient, with all public busses and trains(Mass Rapid Transit or MRTs) being air-conditioned and operating from 5am to about midnight daily. On weekends there are night busses operating all the way until 4am. The soon-to- be completed circle line will connect all around the island.
Train fares are priced at SGD $1-$3(USD $0.80-$2.40), whereas bus fares are at SGD $1-$2.50 (USD $0.80-$2) depending on distance travelled. Although it runs on a pretty efficient timing schedule, be prepared to be packed with other commuters in this over-populated country.
Taxis are considerably affordable if compared to other developed nations like Australia or Japan, although the recent price hikes in taxi fares have made us caught up a notch or so in taxi pricing. Flag-down rates are at SGD $3.00-$3.40(USD $2.40-$2.70) for normal taxis, with $0.22 for every 400m thereafter up to the first 10km, and $0.22 for every 350m after the 10km. Flagging taxis in the morning and evening peak hours comes with a surcharge of 25% of the metered fare, and a CBD charge of $3 is applicable if you’re travelling to or within the city area. Midnight charge is 50% of the metered fare. Taxi bookings are at an additional SGD $3 on the average for most taxi companies. So if you call for a taxi in the morning heading to town, that’s $3 booking fee, $3 CBD charge, $3 start on the meter and on top of that you pay and additional 25% of the metered charge for the morning peak-hour surcharge. That’s already SGD $9 even before the taxi moves off and excluding ERP charges.
Singapore Living Costs: Food
A bigger consolation would be food. That’s the beauty of living in South-East Asia, where you can still get tasty affordable food. Even in an expensive city like Singapore, you can get a wide-range of affordable eateries. Street hawkers are a rare sight these days, unless you’re looking at characterless tourism type of hawker fares in touristy areas like Chinatown. But hawker centers are still widely available where you can get a decent meal for as low as SGD $3(USD $2.40) a dish. The slightly modern version of the hawker centers are the food courts, basically an air-conditioned hawker-center located in the many malls in Singapore. Expect to pay anything from SGD$4-$8(USD $3.20-$6.50) for a dish.
And there are a lot of eateries which operate 24 hours. Of course there are also plenty of restaurants and gourmet style-dining places in this highly efficient city, but it’s a huge consolation to know that even in this expensive city, you can eat pretty decently without choking on the bill after.
For those who prefer preparing their own meals, there are also a wide range of markets and supermarkets. Most economical would be the local-style wet markets, which are located mainly in residential areas. If you’re looking at a more modern type of grocery fare, there are different supermarkets ranging from the locally-run NTUC Fair Price and Giant Hypermarts to the slightly upmarket supermarkets like Cold Storage and Jasons Gourmet types. If you’re planning to cook for 1 or 2 persons, it might be cheaper to just eat out at a hawker’s or mid-range type of eatery.
What is a city without its entertainment and culture? What price does one have to pay to be entertained or lead a cultured life? A trip to the cinema will cost you SGD $8 (USD $6.50) on weekdays, SGD $10 (USD $8) on weekends. Add that to a decent mid-range meal at a café that will set you back another SGD $20-$30 (USD$16-$24). If you’re planning to go clubbing, be prepared to spend at least SGD $50-$100 (USD $40-$80) on one weekend (assuming a SGD$30 cover charge), that’s excluding the taxi ride home. A cheaper and more popular alternative amongst city-dwellers would be drinking outside or at home before entering the club. If you’re more of an art-goer, there are the different museums that charge from as low as SGD $10 and can go as high as SGD $24 for the new Art-Science Museum. Watching a performance can range from SGD $25 (USD$20) for a local production to a hefty SGD $250 (USD $200)for an internationally acclaimed production like The Lion King or Wicked the Broadway Musical.
Singapore Living Costs: Taxes
What other consolations could you be looking at, considering the high cost of living in this tiny island? Tax! Singapore’s tax rates are low compared to the rest of the region, and much lower compared to Australia or Europe. Personal income tax rates start from 0% and are capped at 20% for residents. Non-residents are taxed at a flat-rate of 15%. The corporate income tax rates in Singapore is approximately 8.5% for profits up to SGD $300 000 and a flat 17% for above SGD $300 000. There is no dividend tax, no estate duty and no capital gains tax. From an economic standpoint, this is an attractive plus point in inviting foreigners to treat Singapore as a work or business base, with safety and cleanliness being the other major factor and workforce efficiency being the other.
So if you’re looking at relocating to Singapore and are looking at saving a bit of money, what kind of a pay scale range will you be looking at? Say for example you’re not here on a typical expatriate package, what is the desired comfortable amount you’re looking at? Well the answer varies depending on your version of comfortable. But here’s a general note- just like in any city, one can live frugally and save up some money. A high cost of living doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher quality of life. Make friends with the locals, you’ll know the good and cheap places to eat, find out which routes to take to avoid donating unnecessary money to the Government for ERPs.
Get some friends to share your flat with. Cook in a little bit more. Rent some DVDs and throw house gatherings instead of clubbing out in the city area. Singapore may be an expensive city, but beneath this fast-paced city filled with a stressed-up bunch of over-achievers, there lies a morbid charm. Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world. You can wake-up at 4am in the morning and walk out of your house without fear or worry, and within 10 walking minutes you’ll be able to find a decent place to eat.
Singapore may be a well-manicured city, so clean and efficient that it becomes a disgustingly beautiful country. But look past through the clean streets, warning signboards, countless dustbins and courtesy campaign billboards and you will see it has a heartbeat- muffled beneath the glaring lights, fast paced motion of city living. Stay long enough and you can even feel it’s heartbeat, despite it’s hefty fee for efficiency and safety.