Hong Kong refugees face challenges on Singapore’s utopian island

John, an employee in the financial sector in Hong Kong, does not want to move to Singapore.
The expat, who refuses to disclose his real name or any other personal details, says he and his family live a “very luxurious life” in the former British territory, now under Chinese sovereignty.
“I stare at the sea outside and look at the pool in front of me while we talk. I know we will not have it,” Jun said on a call from his current home, worried about the heat of the real estate market across the South. Chinese See.
“We are moving from a house with a pool, a tennis court, a garden and five bedrooms, to somewhere where we are basically looking at another apartment,” he says.
However, John feels he has no other choice. He is one of many foreign workers this year trying to escape the strict measures of the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong. The strict rules were the last straw for many in the city who had already endured almost a year of increasing political unrest before the advent of the coronavirus in early 2020.
Although these restrictions have gradually eased in recent weeks, a large number have already shifted. Reports earlier this year of parents being separated from their children in hospital wards made China’s repression particularly personal, prompting many families to pack their bags.
The most obvious new destination was Singapore, another Asian financial hub, where, unlike Hong Kong, business travelers no longer have to quarantine on arrival. Long seen by some as the cousin of the smaller, less vibrant Chinese city, its allure was boosted after it began lifting COVID-19 restrictions last fall. Restrictions on holiday travel, restaurants and nightlife were canceled before being lifted in Hong Kong.
In the first four months of this year, the number of visitors to Singapore from Hong Kong increased more than 13 times on an annual basis to 13,678, according to official data. The figures include tourists as well as business travelers.
However, the transition was not an easy process. In addition to the usual problems associated with resettlement, expatriates have faced rising house prices, unprecedented competition for school places and increasingly stringent visa requirements.
In March, the Financial Times reported that some of Singapore’s top private schools received up to 15 applications for every single seat vacant, as parents fleeing Hong Kong struggled to find places. Craig Considine, CEO of Tenglin Trust School, one of the city’s most famous international schools, says demand has remained “very strong” throughout the year. He adds that with the increase in the number of applications for vacancies, no new offers will be submitted until the end of 2022.
Realtors also get an avalanche of calls. In the first quarter of this year, the private home rent index rose 4.2 percent from the previous period, reaching its highest level since registrations began, according to the Singapore government. The authorities provided only an indicator, not approximate figures for rent. Meanwhile, rents for private homes in Hong Kong fell by nearly 2 percent in the first quarter.
Nearly all of the skyscrapers in Singapore were public housing, with about 80 per cent of the population living in these apartment complexes, leaving newcomers scrambling for the much smaller choice of private properties.
Areas favored by wealthy foreigners are becoming particularly competitive, according to Harry Krishnan, chief executive of real estate guru in Singapore.
“If you want a house in Bukit Theme near the British School, you’re in trouble,” he told the Financial Times earlier this year. Point to a desirable residential area near downtown Singapore, where one of the most densely populated private residential communities is located.
Leonard Tay, head of research at the Singapore office of Knight Frank Real Estate, expects rents to continue to rise for up to 15 months. He adds that it is not just “Hong Kong people” who are heating up the market, which indicates a housing shortage after construction was disrupted during the pandemic.
In addition to Bukit Theme, Tay says the areas around the Orchard Road shopping area and near the beach in East Coast Park have experienced particularly high demand.
Relocation problems are being made more frightening by recent government measures to stem the flow of foreign workers. Singapore, often seen as one of the world’s most open economies, has long welcomed international companies. But competition for jobs has sharpened attitudes toward the high-income immigrants who visit the central business district and the lavish pubs along nearby Clark Pier. The government felt pressured to respond.
Officials have increased the basic wage required for visas on three occasions in three years, with a new minimum wage of about $ 44,000 for professionals entering the workforce this fall. For people in their mid-40s, it rises to more than $ 91,000. With companies saying they are under pressure to benefit the local population, not every family expecting to move could do so.
“The government has been very honest that they do not want us to move more back office staff,” the Asia chief told an international bank last month. “It’s fortunate to have larger back office operations as long as we hire local residents.”
Daniel Petty, who moved from Hong Kong in September, says his wife struggled to find work amid opposition from foreigners.
But the bank’s own manager is reluctant to hire other expats. “I look at school fees, rental costs,” he says. “People will demand more wages to move here. I am very conservative about bringing more people to Singapore.”
As far back as the 19th century, when both cities were British colonies, Westerners made a trip to the island cities of Hong Kong and Singapore – about a four-hour flight away. In recent decades, foreigners in search of wealth and a warmer climate have continued to travel to and from the two cities’ financial districts where, rather than colonial buildings, there are now glass offices occupied by the world’s largest banks.
Despite the ties between the two cities, however, new arrivals to Singapore find that living there is a very different experience.
The small city-state gained its independence from British rule in 1959, decades before Hong Kong was handed over to China. Under the relentless leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, its first prime minister, it transformed in a matter of years from a commercial outpost with scarce natural resources to a low-tax business center.
The rainforests have been demolished, as have many of the city’s traditional shops – low-rise buildings that house residential and commercial spaces. Land was recovered from the sea to build more elegant vertical towers. High government funding for housing and health care has satisfied voters, while political opposition is often quickly eliminated.
These oppressions continue to this day. In 2020, Singapore accused an activist who stood alone and hoisted a banner with a smiling face of taking part in an “illegal public gathering”.
Foreigners who avoid such protests often find Singapore comfortable, clean and safe, while lacking something in the spirit of its nickname, City of Lions. But after seeing the violent street protests and growing political change in Hong Kong, some are grateful for the prospect of life in Singapore.
“Everyone says ‘Hong Kong, Singapore: it’s the same thing,'” said Heather Thomas, a US business owner who recently moved from Hong Kong. “But it really is not, it is really different. The pace of life is a little slower, which is not necessarily a bad thing.” .
Another entrepreneur who arrived this year says Singaporeans remain “very cautious” about coronavirus restrictions, despite the relaxation of rules. Like everyone else, he hated talking openly about his new home.
“In Hong Kong, it’s immediate,” he says, referring to the reaction of Hong Kong residents when coronavirus restrictions were temporarily lifted in previous years. “Open the gyms, and the gyms will be full.”
Adapting to Singapore is also physical. It is located just one degree north of the equator, about 2,500 km south of Hong Kong.
“It’s very difficult,” says the entrepreneur. “During the first month I was here, I could not get enough sleep. I was always exhausted due to the humidity.” “When you order a drink, the ice cube melts within 30 seconds,” he adds.
After adjusting to their wetter and more comfortable new city, many professionals remain optimistic about their future in Singapore. Thomas, who ran a Pilates company in Hong Kong for 17 years, had already considered expanding her business in the city-state before the pandemic. But later problems in her business prompted her to speed up these plans and start a new life in Singapore.
“We need diversity (…) We have had alternating downturns for the past three years,” she says. “In Singapore, there is a niche for traditional Pilates and there are an increasingly high-end clientele. There is also demand in a space that is not yet occupied.”
As more people like her arrive in Singapore, her prospects as a small business center are likely to increase.
“Singapore now really looks like a better place than Hong Kong to start a business,” she says. “It’s an hour and a half away from Bali, it’s amazing.”
Until his temporary move to Singapore at the beginning of this year, COVID-19 had largely threatened Phil Krysheelsky, who runs a firm that provides corporate advisory services in Asia. When the virus first started spreading in 2019, he said he was working for a manufacturing client, just a two-hour flight from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first discovered. From his home in Hong Kong, he has since spent most of his time adjusting to Beijing’s unexpected epidemic policies.
Now, like many who have arrived in Singapore this year, he feels liberated simply because he can travel freely across the border. “When I was a kid, there was a game called Wack a Mall,” he says. “You knew what was going to happen, but you did not know when, (…) the paradox in Hong Kong makes it almost impossible for business executives to work on the continent or the rest of the world.” . On the other hand, when he arrived in Singapore, he was quickly stunned to discover that clearance and departure from the airport took only 20 minutes.
“I went for a walk and the restaurants called me in,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack, man. I think it was pretty cool.”

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