Is living in Singapore really more expensive than Bristol?

Moving to a new city is always not easy, let alone to a new city in a new country. To make things worse, since Singapore is consistently ranked as the most expensive city to live in, cost of living measurements shows that one will actually “spend less” while living in the UK if they moved from Singapore. Is that true? That’s what this series of blog is for. I am going to keep track of my monthly expenses to see if that’s true.

How is Cost of Living Calculated?

I’m sure you’ve seen those articles where Singapore consistently rank first as the most expensive city to live in. This measurement is typically done by comparing the prices of a select group of items, such as bread, meat, fruits and vegetables, cost of cars, petrol, housingcheese, wine, clothes, shampoo and things that you require to get by in your daily life. Also included are cheap meals in a restaurants, meals in a fancy restaurants, internet and mobile services and so on. Is it truly representative, though?

Are Cost of Living Index Accurate?

Yes, if you’re an expat.

There are 2 factors to consider here.

The first is the basket of items. Obviously, if we selected items like cheese, milk, salads and sandwiches, they will cost more in Singapore. Conversely, if we selected things like white rice, teh-o, milo, cars, and nasi lemak in an angmoh country, they will be crazy expensive (although if you try to find “Singapore fried noodle” in Singapore, you won’t be able to find any). Most people in major cities get around by public transport (New York, London), but the country they are in does not have a COE system, unlike Singapore, where we are both a city and a country.

The second is the cost of those items. Selecting a correct list of items is not sufficient; we need to make sure that the cost of those items in the list is correct. Look at the example below:

The prices of items collected by the EIU WCOL. [1]
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never paid for a S$259 white business shirt before, let alone one that costs $525. Or a $54 haircut with shampoo and blow dry.

Anyone who lives in Singapore knows that those values above are ridiculous. This was actually the index that prompted Deputy Prime Minister (who was also the Finance Minister) to come out and dispute those claims. Not only it reflects poorly on Singapore (it becomes more expensive for businesses to send expats over), it also results in an unfair cost of living adjustments for Singaporeans travelling overseas. Just look at the table below put together by the Singapore Department of Statistics.

COL Comparison
Taken from [1]. Values from 2015.
I quote:

  1. All prices are converted from local currencies to US dollars. This means that the appreciation of Singapore dollars will cause the computed COL to rise even when there is no real increase in COL.
  2. The items in the EIU consumption basket are quite different from the goods and services regularly consumed by Singaporeans. In fact, prices of close to 95% of comparable items in basket were higher than those in the survey by DOS. Among them, 40% had prices that were more than double what Singaporeans pay.

And let’s not forget that

Only Singaporeans Understand

That is why the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy created an index of their own in 2015 [2], because only Singaporeans (or Singapore residents, for that matter) understand. Their study provides the annual indices and ranking for expats and ordinary residents, which refers to people like you and me. And their results are one bit surprising. In summary, Singapore is ranked 4th most expensive city for expatriates (London ranked 7th), but drops to rank 48 for ordinary residents (London ranked 21). That’s a drop in 44 places! Even the BBC picked this up [3].

The company uses an agent called ECA to calculate the cost of living. Their basket of items and the cost of those items were never revealed to me (I’m still trying to get those list), we have some data available on their public space.

Ranking Comparison

In the table below, when the cost of living has been adjusted for Ordinary Residents, it is evident that the Cost of Living is much lower than many other cities. In fact, the COL Index for Singapore 53.54, versus 71.90 for London. There is also a poor correlation between ECA’s published rankings and the ACI’s survey results, with only Zurich and Geneva coming in consistently as expensive.

ECA Ranking Rank
Zurich, Switzerland 2
Geneva, Switzerland 3
Tokyo, Japan 7
Oslo, Norway 20
London, UK ?
ACI Ranking for Expats Rank (ECA Rank)
Zurich, Switzerland 3 (2)    
SINGAPORE 4 (18)   
Geneva, Switzerland 5 (3)     
London, UK 7 (>20) 
Tokyo, Japan 6 (7)     
Oslo, Norway 8 (20) 
Ranking for Ordinary Residents Rank (Expat Rank)
Zurich, Switzerland 2 (3)  
Oslo, Norway 4 (8)  
Geneva, Switzerland (5) 
London, UK 21 (7) 
Tokyo, Japan 22 (6)

Double Standards?

Anyone who’s been to Singapore knows that eating out is a way of life. Food is cheap, good and readily available. Yet this is always never considered in most indexes, because an equivalent of hawker centres and food courts do not exist in most countries. Look at the table below – where are our hawkers and food courts? FYI, only 22% of Singaporeans cook every day [6].

Cost of Living, Bristol vs Singapore, Numbeo
Cost of Living, Bristol vs Singapore, Numbeo. Where is food court and hawker centre in this list?

Next, an assumption that shopping habits, preferences and consumption patterns will not change. Yet one is expected to start cooking their own meals, because somehow that is not a change in consumption pattern or habit. Try telling expats they have to eat ‘zap cai png’ everyday, because that’s what the locals do.

What now?

Maybe it’s lousy policies, maybe I’m not representative of the typical Singaporean population. Yes, the GBP has fallen against the SGD by close to 20% since Brexit, and that’s the only saving grace. Now to figure out how can I survive here without having to deep into my own pockets. Tip number 1: eat more bread and bring a rice cooker.

[1] EIU vs DOS:
[2] Cost of Living, Wages, and Purchasing Power Index
[3] BBC, “Is Singapore really the world’s most expensive city?”
[4] ECA Cost
[5] Singstat Table Builder
[6] Singaporeans Mealtime Habits Revealed
[7] Table 162 Resident Working Persons Aged 15 Years and Over by Usual Mode of Transport to Work, Industry and Sex


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s