August 10th, 2012
09:07 AM GMT
Editor’s note: Outlook is CNN's in-depth look at business climates around the world. To August 12, 2012, we’re focusing on Singapore.
(CNN) – It’s always been a case of two-way traffic in the spirited rivalry between Singapore and Hong Kong to attract expats – those that do a stretch in Singapore often do one in Hong Kong, too.
The comparisons form a staple of bar room chatter in both Asian cities.
After Singapore’s manicured dormitory suburbs, the sometimes over-weaning presence of the state and its tame media, Hong Kong’s fast pace polity and bare-knuckled local press can be a breath of fresh air.
For those escaping to Singapore from Hong Kong’s ineluctable pollution, a breath of fresh air, quite literally, is all they want.
Last week, Hong Kong choked in the worst pollution to hit the city in two years.
The human resources consultancy ECA International – whose location rating survey gauges expatriate living conditions – ranks Hong Kong as Asia’s third most livable city after Singapore and Japan’s Kobe.
Rebecca Bisset, editor-in-chief of Singapore’s Expat Living magazine, says that Singapore takes its fair share of corporate refugees from Hong Kong, many of them seeking a more family-oriented environment after the work-hard-play-hard ethos of Hong Kong.
“I guess Singapore is the place you come when your body just can’t take it anymore,” she jokes. “Apart from the fact that it’s more of a party town, the biggest problem for Hong Kong seems to be pollution.
“In Singapore, there are no problems with typhoons, the cold, the sort of things you get in Hong Kong,” she says. “Here it’s pretty much summer all year round and we love it.”
While Singapore has a more staid reputation than Hong Kong, expat families are willing to overlook a certain that for the convenience and fresh air.
“I do have one friend who says she will definitely go back to Hong Kong from Singapore once her children have grown up,” says Bisset. “But mostly people here like the easy lifestyle.”
The government’s push to attract foreign talent, however, has recently stirred a backlash in Singapore where ostentatious displays of wealth have played poorly with the local electorate.
A deadly car crash in May involving a mainland Chinese expat driving a Ferrari at breakneck speed through the city center galvanized xenophobic sentiment. Prior to this incident, Bisset says, there had been a large-scale clamp down on work permits for foreigners throughout the city state.
“That has softened a bit this year but there is, perhaps, a sense that people are coming from outside and taking top paying jobs,” she says. “But when they see how much expats have to pay for housing and schools, it puts it into some perspective.”
Nevertheless, the government’s drive to build Singapore as a world-class center for commodities trading as well as other financial services means the flood of expats is unlikely to dry up anytime soon.
Financial services providers are increasingly basing their operations there.
Richard Straus, who heads Citi Private’s North Asia division for global family offices - a branch of the bank that runs offices that manages finances for mega-wealthy families - says Singapore is becoming a focus for investors, adding that 1,000 to 1,500 family offices will emerge in Asia by 2015.
“When I talk to family offices all around the world, many of them are very interested in the Singapore story in terms of the infrastructure and the environment there,” says Straus.
As well as being in the Asian time zone, the city-state has a pool of experienced financial professionals and a transparent legal system. The Singapore government views the establishment of family offices as giving them a competitive advantage, and is keen to make sure that international rules apply.
While Hong Kong also has a favorable environment for family office structures, Singapore has recently gone the extra distance to turn itself into a hub for high net worth families.
“Infrastructure, rule of law and talent make Singapore very attractive,” says Straus.
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