Costliest city? People have different needs from expats

The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) latest survey has gone somewhat viral and generated a variety of different responses ("S'pore rated costliest for expats for 3rd year"; last Friday).

Depending on what readers believe or choose to believe, the results of the survey can be interpreted accordingly to support their belief and agenda.

To put things in perspective, the report is targeted at helping "human resource and finance managers calculate cost-of-living allowances and build compensation packages for expatriates and business travellers".

The needs and spending habits of expatriates are different from those of Singaporeans and do not reflect the cost of living for the average resident.

For example, the study focuses on many high-cost items, including home rents, cars, wine, private schools and tobacco.

It is important to remember that a key reason for the higher prices of cars is the limited number of vehicles allowed on the road.

This policy ensures that Singapore does not have the same congestion problems faced by many developed cities.

The strengthening of the Singapore dollar has increased expatriates' cost of living.

On the other hand, a stronger Singdollar helps to improve our purchasing power and keep the inflation rate low, which is projected by the Monetary Authority of Singapore to be between minus 0.5 per cent and 0.5 per cent this year.

Our residential property market is regulated by a variety of cooling measures to prevent risks from over-speculation and asset bubbles.

The costs of public transport and hawker food here are generally cheaper than in many developed cities. Perhaps we can explore setting up farmers' markets or manufacturers' outlets so that we can purchase living essentials at a lower cost.

A more representative study of the cost of living for the average resident was conducted by the Asia Competitiveness Institute in 2012.

Singapore was the fifth most expensive city out of 109 for expatriates but ranked only 61st for locals ("Cost-of-living surveys reflect expatriate, not local, costs"; March 6, 2014).

According to the Household Expenditure Survey 2012-2013 conducted by the Department of Statistics every five years, the average monthly household income has been growing faster than our spending and has gone from $8,105 to $10,503 within five years.

More importantly, household incomes have increased by an average of 5.3 per cent a year in dollar terms, keeping ahead of inflation, which averaged 3.1 per cent a year.

For a country that has no natural resources, we have done relatively well to join the league of developed cities in less than 50 years.

I believe that our best years are ahead of us.

Patrick Liew Siow Gian (Dr)

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline Costliest city? People have different needs from expats. Subscribe