Hong Kong investors shun Singapore homes for cheaper property in Malaysia, Taiwan

Hong Kong citizens purchased just 12 apartments in Singapore in the first half of 2019, down from 32 in the first six months of 2018. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore's housing market isn't turning out to be the beneficiary of Hong Kong's increasingly fraught protests as many may have thought. Instead, investors are looking to cheaper property markets like Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan.

"People here tend to think there are only two cities in the world - Hong Kong and Singapore," said Mr Alan Cheong, a Singapore-based executive director of research and consultancy at Savills. "They think if people flee Hong Kong, they'll all automatically come to Singapore. But everyone isn't Li Ka Shing. Most are just ordinary salaried workers," he said, referring to Hong Kong's richest billionaire.

As anti-government demonstrations approach their fourth month, many people with the means in Hong Kong have been looking at contingency plans. They can range from shifting funds abroad to physically moving from the city. Hong Kong has held the title of the world's least affordable real estate for nine years in a row now, and unhappiness over property prices is one factor fuelling the unrest.

In Malaysia, for instance, "a property in central Kuala Lumpur could cost RM1,500 (S$495) per square foot," Mr Cheong said. "An apartment in a similar area of Singapore would be $1,500 or more." Thailand, meanwhile, is popular for its touristy allure, he said.

Singapore is particularly expensive when extra costs, like additional buyer's stamp duty, are factored in. Foreigners buying residential property in the city-state since July 2018 pay stamp duty of 20 per cent, up from 15 per cent before the government cooling measures were introduced.

Hong Kong citizens purchased just 12 apartments in Singapore in the first half of 2019, down from 32 in the first six months of 2018. From July through mid-August, when street protests turned violent, that dwindled to just four, data from ERA Research & Consultancy show.

Mr Nicholas Mak, the Singapore-based head of research at APAC Realty unit ERA, said Taiwan made the grade due to its relative ease of assimilation - both locations use traditional Chinese as opposed to simplified characters on the mainland. Farther afield, Canada or Australia are popular, although not for those wanting to remain close to Hong Kong with a view to perhaps moving back one day.

"Taiwan is also majority Chinese, so it's similar, whereas places in the West are attractive for those wanting to get away from China or Asia generally," he said.

The interest from Hong Kong has seen several foreign developers fly agents and staff to the former British colony for seminars and sales events. Malaysia's Mah Sing Group said it had been doing personalised consultations for prospects in Hong Kong, encouraged by significant sales in the past of apartments along the Penang seafront and in Kuala Lumpur.

"We received a strong response as people here are already familiar with the Mah Sing brand and confident about our products," group managing director Leong Hoy Kum said. "This time, we're introducing products from Johor as well, to give a variety of options for buyers."

Mr Leong said that based on the feedback received, Hong Kong buyers are attracted to Malaysia due to the country's "tropical weather, cleaner air, good education system, attractive properties and mix of Asian values and Western infrastructure".

Singaporean developers are also trying to get in on the action. Oxley Holdings said it had been actively engaging property agents in Hong Kong to market a recently launched Singapore condo, Mayfair Modern. M+S Pte, a venture between Singapore's Temasek Holdings and Malaysia's Khazanah Nasional, had its Marina One Residences project marketed last weekend in Hong Kong by Centaline, the project's sole agent in the city.

To be sure, it isn't that Hong Kong buyers are actively avoiding Singapore; it is just that many simply don't have the money to move to a city where property is also quite pricey. For those who can afford it, they like Singapore's active resale market, Mr Mak said. He also said Singapore developers were sometimes viewed as more reliable, with better quality projects.

"Professionals are interested in Singapore because it's politically stable and safe," said Mr David Hui, a general manager at Centaline who was at the Sunday event. They are mostly in "finance or law, or owners of businesses over 35".

Yet, even Mr Hui said that for all the talk of relocating to Singapore, it was the Malaysian apartments selling, with transaction volumes in some areas up as much as 50 per cent.

"The Hong Kong protests are like hitting a beehive with a stick," Savills' Mr Cheong said. "The bees buzz out of the hive, but they're not all flying to Singapore. They're going everywhere else instead."

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