Is Singapore a Toxic Place to Live?

Keith Tan
August 24, 2017


Disclaimer: This is my opinion. And it's a humble one.

These days, I spend my time between Jogjakarta, Indonesia and Singapore. I spend a lot of time in Jogjakarta because we have two offshore software development centres there. We're in the business of helping companies build offshore software development teams in Indonesia.

Update: We now have another centre in Bandung, Indonesia, as well.

When I first begun traveling back and forth, I was always happy to come home to Singapore. It is always home. But I've realised something about being in Singapore - it gives me the tendency to tear someone's face off. There must be something in the water here. So I decided to break it down.

1. Singapore is one of the most stressful countries in the world

In a survey of 2,100 mid-level and senior-level professionals, more than 40% of Singapore employees said that they work more than 50 hours a week, 27% said that they worked 51-60 hours a week, and 16%, more than 60 hours. Now, I'm not subjected to that grind; I work 70 hours a week, easily, and I love my work. However, in densely populated Singapore, you come into contact with these work grinders, and unhappiness spreads, its contagious. They are snappy.

Compared to Jogjakarta, Indonesia:

Wondernauts in our offshore software development centres work 40 hours a week. They typically clock off quite punctually, and at most work 1 or 2 hours after closing time. When they do stay back, there is a relaxed air of conviviality. Snappiness is not the vibe you get when you're out on the street. People aren't rushing. There is an air of peacefulness. And I feel strangely much happier there.

2. Singapore is EXPENSIVE.

The critics of the index that says Singapore is an expensive place to live often point to the basket of goods and services used to calculate this. Yes, a plate of chicken rice costs just SGD 3,50 but if you look closely at these inexpensive options, most are very unhealthy. If you want a good, filling and healthy meal - it's gonna cost you.

Then, there's transport. Some might say, in a compact city with cheap and reliable public transport and affordable cabs, it’s perfectly reasonable to go without a car. But let's look at the numbers. It costs at least SGD250 ($178) a month for public transport - with the occasional Uber or taxi ride thrown in. That's the salary of a junior administrative assistant in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. When people pay such high prices, they tend to be a sulky and grumpy bunch.

And then, there's housing. Rents for three-bedroom apartments in popular River Valley start around SGD4,000 ($2,850) and go up to SGD7,000 and above. No wonder Singaporeans are grinding themselves to the bone to keep their jobs.

My verdict - it is no longer about thriving in Singapore, it is about surviving. And its getting harder to do so. We help companies set up offshore software development teams in Indonesia - most of which are small to medium enterprises. In all my conversations with entrepreneurs and business owners, the sentiment is clear - costs are rising, expectations of higher salaries are rising, because their costs of living are increasing. Can we really blame Singapore employees for wanting more salary to support themselves and their families? So, what is the solution? There is probably no silver bullet. I'm stuck.

What are your thoughts?


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