Will the real cost survey please rise?

Will the real cost survey please rise?

You can be forgiven for scratching your head.

Just three months after the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) survey classed Singapore as the world's priciest city, another large organisation says it is anything but.

This time, Singapore was ranked not as the most expensive city for expatriates to live in globally, but 31st out of over 440 locations, four places up from last year.

It came in ninth in the Asia-Pacific region, behind several other Asian counterparts such as Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

These results were unveiled by human resource consultancy ECA International yesterday. And the big difference between the two survey findings boils down to one thing: The basket of goods used to calculate the cost of living.

In the ECA survey, the basket of goods and services used was based on day-to-day expenditure, including items such as groceries, drink and tobacco, clothing, electrical goods and meals out.

It did not take into account rentals, utilities charges, car purchases and school fees - as the EIU survey did - as such items are "usually compensated for separately in expatriate packages".

Human resource experts, however, told My Paper that fewer employers hand out such largesse to employees working in another country today.

"If it is a move to a challenging location like Indonesia, companies would look at the possibility of offering such expatriate packages," said Joanne Chua, associate director of Robert Walters Singapore.

"However, more and more are offering local package and additional benefits, such as providing assistance in searching for accommodation for the employee for the period of assignment."

Michael Smith, Randstad country director of Singapore, noted that companies here are now more focused on "developing local leadership pipelines, in line with the increased scrutiny around hiring foreign talent".

He added: "Given the slight downturn in the Singapore economy during the global financial crisis period, organisations have since become more conscious around the salary and benefits gap that exists between their junior to mid-level employees and their senior expatriate employees."

The global financial crisis also changed the expectations of foreigners looking to work here, said Linda Teo, country manager for ManpowerGroup Singapore.

"In fact, a lot of people from Europe are willing to forgo the (expatriate) package because they can't even find jobs in their home countries."

The ECA survey, in leaving out costs such as that of education at private schools, may be "a little more relatable" for Singaporeans, compared to the EIU survey, said CIMB regional economist Song Seng Wun.

But he stressed that various factors such as localised consumption patterns will invariably be lost in such international comparisons. "The (basket of goods) won't include your typical wonton mee or kopi-o, so it's important to bear those differences in mind when looking at the results."

The weakening of the Singapore dollar has helped reduce relative costs, said Lee Quane, ECA's regional director of Asia. "Companies sending talent to Singapore from parts of the world where the currency has strengthened against the (Singapore) dollar, such as Europe or the United States, will be able to continue to maintain their assignee's spending power with a lower cost-of-living allowance," he said.

Incidentally, the costliest location for expats is now Caracas in Venezuela, which has an 80 per cent inflation rate.


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