The Strategic Retreat

Singapore is not the most expensive city in the world

Singapore skyline night

A few hours after I published an article on the cost of owning a car in Singapore I stumbled across a story naming Singapore the most expensive city in the world. Now, Singapore is wicked expensive; I’m certainly not denying that but it’s not the most expensive place in the world.

Singapore may be the most expensive place for a rich expat trying to live the exact kind of life he/she was leading before moving. If that’s what they mean by “most expensive city” then I won’t argue but in terms of practical expenses, the designation is just not accurate. Singapore is a land of juxtaposition, a place of contrast and a place of polar opposed realities. Singapore can be really expensive but, as far as world class cities go, there are a lot of cost saving options in Singapore that are not present in other cities. I’m sure I’ll ruffle some Singaporean feathers on this one. The only thing Singaporeans enjoy more than being ranked #1 in something is complaining. This report is Joss paper to their burning barrels of complaints. It allows venting about the high cost of living along with the ability to throw in a humble-brag about how important Singapore is. But, it’s just not reality and that’s doubly true for the cost of living for the typical Singaporean.

Singapore MRT behind pagodas

Transportation

This is a huge factor as to why Singapore achieved the number one rank. Owning a car in Singapore is prohibitively expensive. It’s that way by design. The infrastructure isn’t set up for many people to own a car, and it never will be. Singapore is just too small. Only 1 in 8 people in Singapore own a car and that number is unlikely to ever drastically change. Owning a car for 10 years will set you back over 100K, for even the cheapest car.

But, you don’t need to own a car. Singapore has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. It’s especially great when you view cabs as being part of the public transportation network, when the MRT or bus don’t fit your needs, you can always hire a car. Like the bus and MRT, cabs are much cheaper than in other world cities. The island is small and doesn’t have a lot of traffic(there’s plenty of complaints about traffic but compared to California, it’s nothing). The cabs are regulated and the buses and subway are subsidized. The city is laid out as if designed by a SimCity savant. It’s easy to get around and a car is more of a status symbol than a necessity. When over 80% of the population doesn’t have a car it makes it hard for me to view it as a requirement.

Peoples park in Singapore

Housing

This one is really a best of times, worst of times situation. If you’re a foreigner or a Singaporean under 35, it’s ridiculously expensive. If you’re a Singaporean who’s married or over 35, the price of housing is usually manageable. Most Singaporeans(about 80%) live in HDBs which are government constructed and subsidized apartments. They operate as self contained neighborhoods with the necessities for life being close at hand; parks, food courts, community centers. HDBs run from about $300,000 to $500,000 depending on the size and location. There are numerous programs to aid lower income people in purchasing HDBs and subsidized rent for the poor. If you’re truly poor your rent can be as low as $S23 a month. What this all comes down to is that(a few outliers aside) every Singaporean has a place to live and the vast majority are able to own their own HDBs. Singapore has one of the highest home ownership rates and lowest homelessness rates in the world.

Now, if you’re not Singaporean or don’t fancy living in an HDB that’s not the case at all. You’ll be paying many times what somebody with subsidized housing is dishing out for their mortgage. Not only are there no subsidies but there are additional taxes when non-citizens purchase property. Instead of a nice 3 bedroom for a 1-2k monthly mortgage you’ll be looking at a single room with no access to common areas on a non-elevator floor of The People’s Park. The cost of living is amazingly high for foreigners -and those living outside of the HDB system- but it’s really not that bad for citizens who go the HDB route, which is something that should be kept in mind when declaring a city the world’s most expensive. Most expensive for foreigners isn’t exactly the same thing as being the most expensive overall.

Singapore Chicken Rice

Food

The juxtaposition doesn’t stop at housing, the variance of food prices in Singapore is astounding. People often talk about Singapore having some of the best food in the world, and it does. This is especially true if you only have 4 Sing in your pocket. As far as cheap food goes, Singapore does it better than anywhere. The problem is, spending more money doesn’t always increase the level of food quality.

It’s really really easy to spend a lot of money on food in Singapore. Especially if you’re into fine dining or western food. Open air food courts, known as hawker centers, are ubiquitous throughout Singapore and provide low cost, hygienic conditions and amazing tastes. Indian, Chinese and Malay foods, and combinations there of can be found in hawker centers located near any grouping of HDBs or in stand-alone facilities throughout the island. Prices range from $S2-$S6 for a full meal and a lime juice or squeezed sugar cane will go for between $S1-$S2. They are fast, cheap and delicious, making Singapore one of the easiest and cheapest cities to eat in for a person on the go.

Not everybody likes hawker centers, many people don’t like the open-airedness of the experience. After all, the weather is terrible in Singapore. It’s always too hot, always. Some people like to eat inside, with air conditioning and napkins(there’s a napkin shortage in Singapore). If that’s your jam, food will indeed be expensive. It’s very easy to drop $50 or $100 per person on what could end up being a mediocre meal. Singapore seems to have two main price points, really cheap and ungodly expensive. I’ve never been disappointed in a hawker meal yet expect to be disappointed at a nice restaurant.

So, yes; food is more expensive. Even cooking at home can be costly, ground beef is 5 times the price I pay in the California Bay Area. There are zero good burritos on the island, and a bad burritos will still run you $S10-$S20. But if you’re flexible, there’s good food to be had. In addition to hawker food there are many great Banana Leafs and reasonably priced Kopitiams. So, whilst Singapore food can most definitely cost more than other cities, there are delicious and nutritious options that can be had for a fraction of the cost.

Orchard road

Clothes

According to the report, Singapore is the most expensive place in the world to buy clothes. I believe that. Tertiary only to complaining and collecting #1 rankings, shopping is the primary hobby of Singaporeans. Singapore is too hot to exist in and although Singaporeans work long hours they still need a few extra hours a day in air conditioning before returning home. The malls in Singapore are huge, they are complexes that take up city blocks and are interconnected to other, equally large malls. Until Singapore wises up and covers itself with a cooling dome, scurrying like nouveau riche rats from handbag store to handbag store is the only practical option. Not only are clothes expensive in Singapore but fashion is everywhere. Singaporeans put pride into their appearance and definitely covet brand names and current trends. If you’re trying to keep up with others, clothes will indeed set you back.

But, you don’t have to. You can eschew current trends and dress for functionality rather than to show off. There’s no shame in shopping at Mustafa’s. That seems like a less than genuine way of countering the “most expensive” claim though. Of course everything is cheap if you don’t buy it. Rather than pushing my anti-consumerist agenda I will suggest taking advantage of what Singapore has to offer, cheap travel. Singapore is the easiest place to travel Asia from. The MRT goes right to the airport, the best airport in the world. From there you can take a low cost carrier to nearby cities, shop to your heart’s content and return the same day or weekend. I’ve flown to Kuala Lumpur and back for under $50, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh for under $100. You can take a ferry to Indonesia for $20. You can take the bus to Johor Bahru for $2. The key to affordable clothes in Singapore is to not buy them in Singapore. You can take a nice weekend shopping trip to a fun locale and save tons of money doing it.


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Singapore is indeed expensive but it’s impossible to compare city to city just by using a spreadsheet. In LA, a car is required. In Singapore, it’s a luxury. In Portland, a condo costs what it costs. In Singapore, it cost what the government doesn’t subsidize. In Denver, you’re stuck shopping at stores in Denver. In Singapore, you can be in a new country in an hour, free to shop where you want. The opportunities of Singapore offset many of the costs, they just have to be utilized. Part of being “the most expensive” is lacking viable cheaper alternatives, that’s just not the case for Singapore. As much as Singaporeans like to be #1, this isn’t a list that Singapore should be topping.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.