Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The nub of the matter

View of Hong Kong, from KowloonImage by mikeleeorg via Flickr


Tabitha Wang

EVERY few months or so, I get an e-mail from yet another acquaintance from Singapore telling me how lucky I am to be working in Hong Kong "where the big bucks are" and asking if I can look out for a job for him or her.

"It must be amazing," one said wistfully.

"I imagine you partying in Lan Kwai Fong every night before going home to your expat pad in The Peak, while I am stuck here in my tiny HDB flat with my parents." If only…

Even before my husband lost his job, my life was nowhere was glamorous as my friends were imagining. There was no house in the Peak, no Aston Martin DB9 to whiz up to said Peak mansion ... heck, I couldn't even afford a live-in maid like so many middle-class families in Singapore.

But no matter how much I denied it, they still see me through the green-tinted glasses of the grass-is-always-greener sufferers.

It doesn't help that last week, global financial firm UBS released the results of a price-comparison survey showing how Singapore is now Asia's second-most expensive place to live in, after Tokyo and ahead of Hong Kong.

However, employees in Tokyo are paid twice as much as those in Singapore. To rub salt into the wounds, Hong Kong workers take home about 20 percent more than those in Singapore.

Singaporeans need to put in about three days' work, or 27.5 hours, to buy an iPod nano while Hongkongers just have to clock two days, or 19 hours.

Going by the figures, it looks like people working in Singapore are getting a raw deal, right?

They earn less but have to pay more for their daily expenses.

So it follows logically that someone like me, who's employed in Hong Kong, should be having a better life than the poor sloggers back home. Right?

Wait till you read the fine print. UBS said: "We endeavored to reflect the consumption patterns of an average Western European family as best as we could."

That's the nub of the matter.

A shopping basket packed to the brim with cheese, sausages and wine is going to cost less here than in Singapore.

However, soya sauce, Milo and rice cost less in Singapore than in Hong Kong - just that you're never going to see them in the basket of an "average Western European family", are you?

Pubs and western restaurants here may charge less than those in Singapore (because there are more of them competing for the same market).

But the food at the cha chan tengs (tea houses) here cost at least double that of kopitiams back home.

As for transportation, of course it's going to cost more if you insist on driving your expensive German car (thanks to COEs and ERP) or taking a taxi (thanks to surcharges) everywhere in Singapore.

But the MRT fare from, say Kranji to Pasir Ris is only $2 compared to HK$23.50 ($4.30) for an MRT journey of about the same duration from Tung Chung to Chai Wan.

As for rents, given how many bankers have been retrenched recently, maybe a flat in Mid-Levels is cheaper than one in Orchard Road.

But there is no way rent for a three-room HDB flat in Ghim Moh is going to be higher than that for a pokey studio in Kowloon.

So honestly, the middle-class Singaporean is actually better off than a Hongkonger trying to maintain the same standard of living. He eats better, lives in better surroundings and can afford to splurge on expensive cheese now and then.

For instance, I am earning 20 per cent more than I was doing a similar job in Singapore. It sounds impressive until you calculate than my rent is almost 80 percent of my salary and my grocery bill is almost twice what it used to be in Singapore.

I have no savings and have to take on freelance jobs to make ends meet, like some Hongkongers.

So why am I still here? It's not the money. It's the thrill of being in another country, doing the weirdest things like hiking in the hills in winter.

The other day, a Hong Kong friend who'd just returned from a trip to Singapore asked me: "Everything's half price compared to here. Should I try to get a job there?"

Tabitha Wang knows the grass is never greener on the other side - she's checked it on her hikes.


From TODAY, Voices – Friday, 28-Aug-2009

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