Singapore is an attractive destination for a holiday and a more permanent stay for many reasons. With nearly half of the population born abroad and English one of the official languages, Singapore has become a haven for expats and immigrants. This doesn’t mean you can just jump in and start planning your flights now. Due to a highly educated employment pool and competitive job market, this isn’t the kind of place you want to move to without a clear plan, and hopefully a job, already in place.
As an Australian, you don’t need a visa to enter Singapore, but if you’re planning on working there you will need an Employment Pass or Work Permit/S Pass, depending on your income. Your employer or an appointed employment agent will need to apply for this on your behalf, and the pass lasts up to two years for a first-time applicant. Renewals are up to three years and can be extended to cover your family.
As the holder of an Employment Pass, you will become eligible to apply for permanent residency.
We’ve all heard the rumours about how strict Singapore is (they don’t even allow chewing gum), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are hefty fines for trying to bring prohibited goods into the country.
Some items you can’t bring into the country:
- Chewing gum (it’s true, I’m sorry)
- Gun shaped cigarette lighters
- Endangered species of wildlife and associated by products
- Certain communication equipment such as scanning receivers, military communication equipment and voice changing equipment
- Chewing tobacco, imitation tobacco products (e-cigarettes, etc.) and other tobacco products
- Controlled drugs
Singapore, like Australia, operates with a dollar divided into a hundred cents. Also like Australia, it has notes of $100, $50, $10 and $5 value, as well as $2 and $1000 notes. Their coins include $1 and 50, 20, 10 and 5 cents.
There are a range of bank types in Singapore including merchant, commercial, local and foreign. Merchant banks deal with corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, so they aren’t your go-to for day to day banking needs.
You’ll want to look at one of the many commercial bank options. Broken into local and foreign entities, Singaporean regulations make a clear distinction between the two. Foreign banks are further separated into full foreign banks, qualifying full banks, wholesale banks and offshore banks. Confused yet? Good, because there are also online options that are designed to meet different needs as well.
To make a long story short(er), you need to keep in mind that offshore banks only offer offshore accounts; and, wholesale banks provide a range of services but are limited to one main branch and aren’t allowed to work in Singaporean dollars. These aren’t the banks for you.
All accounts will have fees, they’re unavoidable, and most will ask for a minimum deposit on opening. You will also need to be aware of ‘fall below’ fees as Singaporean banks require a minimum balance to be maintained in your account at all times. This minimum balance varies from bank to bank, so make sure you know what the amount is before you open your account.
Selecting the right bank and right services for you will take a bit of research. You can start with a list of major Singaporean banks and find what meets your needs. You will need to take into account ATM availability, online services and any charges that may be incurred from using foreign currency.
Taxes are universally unavoidable, and non-residents’ personal income is taxed at either 15% or the same rate as residents, whichever is higher. They also don’t benefit from tax breaks, and director’s fees and other income are taxed at 22%. Citizens are taxed at a progressive rate, where the more they earn, the more tax they pay.
Singapore also has a Goods and Services Tax at 7%. Certain things are exempt, including residential property sales and leases. There is a property tax, however, as well as tax on rental income and stamp duty for homes. There are also specific taxes for motor vehicles, discussed further in ‘Getting Around’, taxes on betting and corporate taxes for foreign workers (which is paid by the employer).
Healthcare in Singapore is top-notch as they have the world’s longest average lifespan, but this can come at a cost. While permanent residents and citizens have access to basic health insurance, those on working and employee permits will require private insurance.
Many employers will provide health insurance, including Medical History Disregard clauses so that pre-existing conditions are covered. Some conditions may be excluded in the policy terms and conditions, and it is always best to carefully check the policy documents and how they match with your health needs.
There may also be exclusions such as Singapore only coverage, no outpatient benefits, no dental benefits, limited choice of doctor, no preventative care and no maternity benefits. If this is the case, you can supplement your health care with top-up policies.
If you’re not getting health insurance through your job, you can purchase local, Singapore only, cover. These are cheaper than international options, but probably won’t cover you on any trips you take out of the country and are renewed by mutual agreement. This means the insurer can decide to not renew your policy if you develop a serious condition during the previous policy period. International health insurance covers you no matter where you are, tends to provide high coverage limits and more benefits. They’re usually guaranteed for lifetime renewal and options for pre-existing conditions, but you will be paying for these.
To get a work/employment visa, you need to have a job before you move to Singapore. Finding a job in Singapore can be difficult as it’s a highly sought-after location with a diverse talent market saturated by skilled workers. You will be competing with locals who are aware of the customs, social cues and are already living in the country, so if you’re wanting to make the move to Singapore, you’d best start by looking at the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Market Information to get an idea of where your skills will be most wanted.
Singapore enjoys some strict regulation regarding working conditions. Employees aren’t meant to work more than eight hours in a day and shift workers aren’t to work more than twelve hours. Businesses are generally open Monday to Friday with a half day on Saturday, though the five-day work week is gaining popularity. Employees are entitled to between seven and fourteen vacation days, depending on length of service and seniority, given eligibility under the Employment Act.
Workers aren’t to work more than 72 hours of overtime in a month, though the Ministry of Manpower can grant exemptions at its discretion. If your employee agrees to pay overtime, they are required to pay at least 1.5 times your hourly rate.
As a cultural melting pot, Singapore can feel like a minefield for those unused to working in an eastern environment. While western businesses enjoy a level of freedom in terms of sharing and discussing ideas across various levels of the company, many Singaporean organisations are heavily influenced by traditional Chinese values. This means that there is greater focus on hierarchy and knowing your place within the wider organisation. The collective is more important than the individual, and there is an expectation that your own goals are considered second to that of the company.
If you’re unsure of the workplace environment you’re stepping into, a good start is to treat everyone with utmost respect. It is seen as bad manners to violate chains of command or openly question the decisions of superiors.
It is also important to understand the importance of saving and maintaining face. That is, not embarrassing yourself or your superiors, as this reflects badly on the company as a whole. While in public, try not to correct someone else’s mistake, question them or disagree with them, avoid public displays of anger and try not to refuse a request outright. If someone makes an unreasonable demand, it is best to agree with a ‘yes, but it may be difficult’ or something to that effect. For many western workers, who are used to a more brash and individual focused approach, this can be hard to adjust to.
Also keep in mind that other cultural norms will affect your working life. For example, Chinese employees will perform introductions in order of seniority rather than rank; and will have several names, so check which they prefer. Further, most Malays are Muslims and won’t appreciate physical contact from members of the opposite sex.
Culture shock is very real and the learning curve is going to be steep even if you do your research beforehand. The best advice is to keep calm, avoid bringing attention to faults in public and ask for help where you can.
Education is a key focus for the Singaporean government, providing a system that is adaptive to an individuals’ needs through various schooling options. Lessons are taught in English, as one of the national languages of Singapore, though students are also expected to learn a second language. Many learn their mother tongue, selecting between Mandarin, Malay or Tamil.
Education is split into preschool, primary school, secondary school and post-secondary education such as junior colleges, polytechnics and technical education institutes. Junior colleges are seen as preparation for higher education, while polytechnics and technical education institutes provide more hands on training for middle-level professionals.
Whether you choose a childcare centre or kindergarten for early learning, you will need to apply early and ensure they’re accredited according to the Singapore Pre-School Accreditation Framework (SPARK). You will also need to check with your doctor to ensure your child is up to date with their vaccines before they will be allowed to attend.
Children attend primary school from the age of seven. Some schools will focus on sports, arts or social clubs, allowing you to select one that meets your child’s interests and needs. Following six years in primary school, they can elect to attend a normal secondary school, a specialised school or an express school which allows students to complete their studies a year early. There are also privately funded options available.
Students are encouraged, and sometimes required, to participate in co-curricular activities such as clubs and societies, sports, uniformed groups or visual and performing arts groups. This is seen to develop necessary skills for the future as well as encouraging external interests and socialisation.
The cost of schooling will be dependent on your residency status and the school you select. International and private schools will be the most expensive, while government schools are more affordable. Some institutions may offer financial support to low-income families, but this is only available for Singaporean students if it’s provided through the government. You will need to discuss fees with your chosen school directly to get the best idea of monthly and yearly costs.
After School Care
Singapore’s Ministry of Education has announced that all primary schools will include a student care centre by the end of 2020, providing more options for before and after school care to working parents. Currently parents rely on the help of extended family, which isn’t always an option for expats.
Some families have domestic help for household chores who will also provide some care for children while parents are at work. Not every family can hire domestic assistance however, and they are already focused on other tasks as part of their job.
Existing student care centres provide placements for students both after school hours and during holidays. There are additional costs to these, but they may represent the best option for expats. As always, it is best to consider your choices in line with your child’s need, your working commitments and overall family budget.
Buying vs Renting
Singapore’s population density is one of the highest in the world, and the home prices reflect this. If you’re moving alone and on a budget, you can look at renting a room or sharing a flat to reduce costs.
Most locals live in government subsidised housing (HDB), which comprises of modern and conveniently located apartments that are designed to enable locals to buy homes, with rental options targeted at lower-income households. If you eligible to access HDB housing, there are long waiting lists and quotas in place for non-Singaporeans.
Private flats are available for rent. Though they are generally located in older buildings, they offer a good standard of living. Rent can very widely, based on proximity to the city center. There are also a range of condominiums that include facilities such as swimming pools, tennis courts and gyms. Houses are probably the most expensive option, and if you’re dreaming of a big yard with a white picket fence, you’re probably out of luck.
For the most part buying property as an expat in Singapore is a bit difficult, with many governmental restrictions in place. Your Grace consultant can point you in the right direction to get some local advice, but for the most part renting is the safer, and easier, option.
Singapore Power, or the SP Group, is the main service provider for gas, electricity and water in Singapore. It can take a few days between applying for an account and having the service connected, so this will need to be organised in advance.
Before you start the process of opening an account, you will need to complete an application form, have a copy of your work permit and a copy of your tenancy agreement/proof of ownership. You will also need to pay a security deposit, which will be calculated on the size and type of your residence.
Be prepared to be cooling your home a lot of the time, as the hot and humid climate of Singapore has some households running their air conditioning almost constantly.
Internet and Phone
Singapore offers some pretty fast broadband speeds by international standards and given an internet penetration of 82%, they have plenty of options to get and stay connected. This modern city won’t leave you feeling disconnected from the rest of the world.
Singapore operates off the GSM system, so you’ll need to check if your mobile can use the GSM 900 and 1800 frequency bands before you leave. If it’s an ‘unlocked’ phone, it should be as easy as putting in a new SIM card. Singtel, Starhub and M1 are the main mobile phone service providers.
Singtel and Starhub also provide landline services, while all three also provide internet services. For your entertainment needs, beyond the government regulated channels, Starhub and Singtel are your go-to providers.
Cost of Living
At first glance, the cost of living is considerably higher in Singapore than Australia, especially if you’re not coming from one our expensive cities (Melbourne or Sydney). This is offset by higher salaries and lower income taxes, so all is not lost.
Singapore boasts one of the highest percentages of millionaires in the world, so it’s no surprise the cost of living reflects this prosperity. Your biggest cost will probably be housing, as high demand and little room drives up prices.
If it’s not just you and your family coming into Singapore, but also a furry friend or two, you will need to take some extra steps. Firstly, Singapore will not allow Bengal or Savannah cat crosses within four generations of a pure bred, and dog breeds including Pit Bull/Staffordshire Terriers, Akitas, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Tosas, Dogo Argentinos, Fila Brasilerio/Brazillian Mastiffs, Boerboel/South African Mastiffs, Perro de Presa Canario/Canary Mastiffs or a cross of any of these are prohibited.
You will also need to ensure a pet is permitted within your new home. Housing Development Board (HDB) residential flats allow a single dog, while non-HDB will allow up to three. Cats aren’t allowed in HDB dwellings but may be permitted in other homes. This will need to be confirmed with the specific residential management.
Your pet will need to be microchipped, up to date on all their vaccinations and have undergone necessary veterinary checking and certification. Dogs require an additional license. Your Grace consultant will help you in getting this all sorted.
Singapore has a range of public transport options, though the most common by far is the bus network. Buses run across the majority of Singapore and are blessedly airconditioned. Unfortunately, traffic can make their timing go a little off and they do get packed during peak hour, revealing the darker side of the Singaporean population. But you can’t really blame them, you’d be annoyed too in a cramped bus, in persistent heat, running ten minutes late at the end of a long day.
The Singaporean train system, Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), is great for bypassing traffic but the network isn’t nearly as broad as the buses. They too get crowded during peak hour, but the service is more frequent and reliable.
Both services use the EZ-Link card to pay for fares, which are calculated by distance travelled. You will need to swipe your card over the sensors as you enter and leave the station or bus.
Operating a Vehicle
Owning and operating a vehicle in Singapore is a luxury few can afford or justify. This is a highly regulated sector, with the government imposing significant costs to deter additional drivers on Singapore’s already congested roads.
To register a new vehicle, you first have to bid on a Certificate of Entitlement, which allows you to own and operate a car for ten years. Bidding is open twice a month and can easily exceed the cost of a car. You then need to pay for vehicle registration, which is equal to the car’s Open Market Value, a sum of the purchase price plus all costs incurred during the import and sale of the car. If your eyes aren’t watering at the cost yet, you then need to pay road taxes and all the associated administrative costs.
It’s illegal to drive without vehicle insurance, which is an open and deregulated market, so you’ll need to spend adequate time shopping around for a provider that works for you. There is also the Electric Road Pricing system, which maintains the steady flow of Singapore’s toll roads and encourages road users to avoid busy roads. The use of toll roads is tracked through In-Vehicle Units, with prices changing according to the time of day and current traffic, making rush hour the most expensive time to travel.
The pain still isn’t over though, because parking and petrol are also pretty expensive. While Malaysia, Singapore’s neighbour, has relatively low petrol prices, exit regulations require cars to have their petrol tanks at least three quarters full before crossing the border. This stops drivers taking advantage of any savings across the border.
Singapore is situated close to the equator, so it’s no surprise that it has a “tropical climate, with abundant rainfall, high and uniform temperatures, and high humidity all year round.”1.
Making the Move
You’ve got the job, you know where you’re going to live and maybe you even have schools lined up for your kids. There’s still a million and three things to do, but you’re excited to take this big step in your career.
The best thing you can do now is call the experts at Grace. We can help you at every point of your journey, from packing up your home through to international shipping and coordinating quarantine requirements for your pets. Our consultants have moved countless families and professional across the globe and will make your move as painless as possible.