Singaporeans flock abroad for nip and tuck

South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia popular for low-cost plastic surgery

Growing numbers of Singaporeans are heading abroad - not for work or travel, but to improve their looks with low-cost cosmetic procedures.

Countries such as South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia are counting more visitors from the Republic among their medical tourists.

And they have noticed an increasing interest in cosmetic surgery and aesthetic treatments.

In 2010, 239 medical tourists from Singapore visited South Korea. By the following year, this had almost doubled to 468, figures from the Korea Tourism Organisation (Singapore) show. Most of them were women aged from 20 to 30.

Thailand's top private hospital, Bumrungrad International, treated more than 3,800 Singaporeans last year, up from about 2,800 in 2010.

Popular treatments included cosmetic surgery and dermatology.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 Singaporean medical travellers visited Malaysia in 2009. By 2011, this had gone up by more than 40 per cent to 5,900.

Cost is the biggest draw.

Bumrungrad said its procedures tend to be 30 per cent cheaper than the equivalent in Singapore. "Patients may be driven by value, or they might seek more privacy by coming here," said a spokesman.

At Malaysia's Mahkota Medical Centre, botox injections can start from about RM300 (S$122), compared with around $500 in Singapore.

Thailand's tourism authority said a survey of skin clinics found that Singaporeans go for services such as laser facial treatment and botox, typically spending 20,000 baht (S$830) to 35,000 baht each time.

A 33-year-old make-up artist, who declined to be named, saw a Thai plastic surgeon two months ago at a Bangkok clinic popular with Singaporeans. She had planned to have her nose and jaw-line injected with botox, but the doctor convinced her to have chin liposuction for better results. "It was so cheap, only 12,000 baht, which is about S$500," she said. "So I thought, why not? How bad could it be?"

She did have some qualms at first. The clinic "did not look very sophisticated" and a friend who accompanied her on the trip for rhinoplasty at the same place woke up during her procedure, although no complications occurred.

"I was so scared, so when it was my turn for surgery the next day, I asked the doctor to give me more drugs to sedate me," she said. She is very happy with the outcome of her procedure, and is already planning a visit next month for breast enlargement.

South Korea, where plastic surgery is common and culturally accepted, is a choice destination as its doctors are seen as well-trained and technologically advanced, said a spokesman for the country's tourism authority.

Patients - such as full-time blogger Hong Qiu Ting, 25, who visited Seoul recently for procedures to her face - believe that the doctors there can help them achieve the "natural looks" of K-pop stars.

But despite the pull of medical tourism, there are many advantages to having cosmetic procedures done in Singapore. For example, there is no language barrier, and should any complications arise post-surgery, they can be resolved more easily on local turf, said plastic surgeon Wong Chin Ho of Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre.

The Ministry of Health said Singaporeans should consider factors such as the quality of the overseas provider and seek a second opinion locally.

melpang@sph.com.sg