Singapore: ‘An Expat Life Starter-Kit, Tiny and Neatly Contained’

SINGAPORE—The two-year mark is the turning point. That’s when you choose to return home (assuming you can find your way back) to pick up where you left off—or you commit to the expat life.

Singapore is like an expat life starter-kit. The majority of the expats I’ve met out here are fresh off the boat and just dipping their toes into an international lifestyle. Many have investments elsewhere—a house they’re still paying the mortgage on, the next promotion, aging parents—that will inevitably summon them back after a few years. Expat children are sent to international school and expected to attend university back “home.”

This isn’t the place for those who want to immerse themselves in Asia; it’s a clean, safe outpost for doing business in the region. Other major cities in Southeast Asia are enmeshed with cultures that extend beyond the city limits. Bangkok is a gateway to Thailand. Hong Kong blurs into the Chinese mainland. But Singapore is tiny and neatly contained. We come here to boost careers that we likely intend to continue elsewhere—either back home or in a new city—and to learn whether we’re truly meant for life abroad.

It’s always a surprise when ang mohs (the local slang for “foreigner”) divulge that they’ve been in Singapore longer than five years or that they’re Singaporean citizens. The Ministry of Manpower, the government branch responsible for labor policies and regulation, sets the default Employment Pass contracts for expats at one year. Even those who make so-called permanent transfers with their company often have contracts based on a one or two-year renewal cycle.

Eligibility for citizenship also follows this short-term rule, as you have to be a Permanent Resident for two years before you can apply (and it’s difficult to obtain PR if you haven’t held an EP for two years). I know one couple who has lived here 25 years, but the majority of expats at any given time are fresh transplants and will remain that way.

As the government restricts the ability of foreigners to purchase vacant land or landed properties, our only hope of owning real-estate is to purchase an apartment in a condominium, the prices of which rival Manhattan’s. Thus, we rarely own our homes (which often come fully furnished) and our leases forbid us from making any permanent changes. If we buy furniture, we commit to paying to ship it elsewhere later. The enormous cost of even leasing a car and the smooth transportation alternatives make it rare for expats to invest in more than a bicycle.

Friendships are forged in a matter of weeks in Singapore and can be relinquished just as quickly. Goodbye parties are popular because departing expats must offload the liquor they can’t take with them.

Even lifelong expats like me don’t consider Singapore to be our final stop, partly because Singapore itself is still figuring out what type of country it wants to be. It’s hard to plant roots in a city you might not recognize by the end of a two-year contract. Construction projects are ubiquitous; familiar streets completely transform in mere weeks. Even the iconic Merlion statue (referred to as the “personification of Singapore”) was relocated in 2002 and renovated in 2012.

It’s as though Singapore is trying to fashion itself into everyone’s perfect city: families are safe and comfortable, the single crowd has bars and restaurants, businesses have low taxes and high-speed internet. But because it’s trying to be everyone’s ideal, Singapore lacks the energetic personality that draws expats to cities like Tokyo or Ho Chi Minh City. Like the rest of the country, Singapore’s arts and culture seem to still be under construction.

One day, we’ll surely leave. For now, my husband and I are debating between Melbourne and Tel Aviv for our next home because of their animated environments and growing tech scenes. And who knows? Maybe we’ll move back in 20 years to find that Singapore has grown into a cultural force with a personality I’d like to get to know better.




Latest news