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Working Overseas: Singaporeans Share 7 Things They Had to Get Used to When Living Abroad

singaporeans working overseas

Joanne Poh

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Is the grass really greener on the other side? Singaporeans who have left the little red dot will invariably tell you that you have to take the good with the bad.

Moving overseas opens our eyes to so many things we took for granted before, but also lets us see that there is more to life than the rat race.

Of course, every Singaporean is different, as is every experience abroad. But many of the overseas Singaporeans we spoke to tended to mention the following things that they have to get used to when overseas:

 

Higher taxes

One thing that most Singaporeans have to adapt to when they move overseas is higher taxes. With the exception of those who move to tax havens like Dubai, most people have to be prepared to pay higher income taxes.

34-year-old May, who worked at a bank in Hong Kong for a year and a half, says, “I had to pay about twice the amount of taxes in Hong Kong. In Singapore as a Singaporean I pay lower taxes.”

For someone earning an annual income of between $40,000 and $80,000, the gross tax payable is between $550 and $3,350 in Singapore.

In comparison, residents and expats in Hong Kong are taxed progressively from 2% to 17%. The same individual, who will be earning between HKD$230,285 and HKD$460,570, will pay income tax of 2%, coming up to between $4,605.70 and $9,211.40.

It’s not just income tax, too. The goods and services tax (GST) in Singapore currently stands at 7% but will be increased to 9% anytime from 2021 to 2025. But this still can be lower than the global average.

Nas Daily, who is here in Singapore to set up his business, have attested to this as well. He says that he actually looks forward to paying the 7% or 9% (when increased) GST in Singapore as he currently pays 17%, presumably, in Pakistan.

 

Less predictability and efficiency

Singapore’s efficiency and predictability is something Singaporeans often miss when we’re away. We’re used to having round-the-clock services that give us what we want when we want it.

Cheryl, a 35-year-old teacher who worked in Shanghai, says, “I think one of the norms I take most for granted in Singapore is our efficiency and standards of excellence. I do often get a shock elsewhere.”

For Jeremy, a 42-year-old legal counsel, moving to Bangkok has meant having to “function in an environment where the rules are not clear or transparent.”

He says, “You can’t just jump onto a government website like you do in Singapore to know how taxes work or how to get your driving licence converted. In Bangkok, locals and foreigners rely on forums to navigate various aspects of living here.”

 

Having to pay extra attention to personal safety

Singapore is not crime-free, but 33-year-old Charlene, who completed her undergraduate studies in Melbourne, cites safety as one big thing that Singaporeans take for granted.

“You appreciate it a lot once you step out,” she says, “the fact that we don’t have to constantly feel like we need to look over our shoulder when walking along the streets at night. Everything else like food or weather is subjective and you can adapt.”

 

Better work-life balance

It seems to be a common sentiment that work-life balance is easier to find overseas. In Singapore, fresh grads tend to enter the workforce already expecting to have to work long hours.

Elvin, 35, who returned to Singapore last year after completing a masters degree and internship in Spain and France, says, “In Spain, the pace of living is much more relaxed. Although it can be seen as less efficient, they are still productive while maintaining a better qualify of life and being less stressed.”

Cheryl, who has taught at schools in both China and Singapore, says, “I was teaching in a boarding school (in China), so I was on campus the whole week. But there was definitely more balance compared to what teachers in Singapore face. There were fewer assessments, so much less marking. I could go back to my apartment at the end of a school day at about 5pm. And they had two hours of nap time in the afternoon.”

 

A wider range of available lifestyles

Singapore, being a small country, can be a bit limited in the range of lifestyle options it is able to offer. We love our hawker culture and bustling city, but what if you’re looking for something different?

Jeremy says, “There are some upsides to living in a ‘less’ regulated country like Thailand, from the ability to park my scooter on street sides for free to the ingenuity of small business that spring up everywhere on city sidewalks.”

As for May, living in Hong Kong gave her access to a much wider range of weekend activities. “Clubbing and partying was much more fun, and there were more things to do on weekends, such as hiking, boating and barbecuing in winter,” she says. “I think it’s better for singles to live in Hong Kong due to its more vibrant lifestyle.”

Responses from Singaporeans working overseas in this reddit thread about working overseas also agree. One redditor praised Toronto for a great place to settle down due to easy access to mountains, lakes, and the great outdoors.

If you are an LGBT individual, you may also find more acceptance in other countries such as Taiwan where gay marriage was legalised in 2019. Even Beijing seems to be more accepting, according to another redditor.

 

Culture shock

Cultural shock is very real, and most overseas Singaporeans who do not mingle exclusively in Singaporean circles experience it at some point.

Cheryl, who worked as a teacher in Shanghai, found the approach to handling children quite jarring at times. “I was teaching at a private school with lots of children from rich families and I remember they were very, very spoilt,” she says.

She also started to see Chinese culture in a different light. “The teachers I interacted with were very pleasant and kind despite many being more senior than me. I recall they valued Chinese culture very much and once when I ate with them, they said, ‘You are a Chinese but you hold your chopsticks badly.’ I think Chinese in Singapore don’t place as much emphasis on us being Chinese.”

 

Having to deal with visa applications constantly

With your pink IC, you could go about your daily life in Singapore almost seamlessly. As a foreigner, you would have to contend with constant visa paperwork in your new country.

Singaporeans who work for stable MNCs that can get the necessary visas sorted out for them have it lucky. For Singaporeans who move to be with their partners, they’d either have to marry a resident to get a work visa, or quickly search for job opportunities so that they can stay longer than what’s allowed by a tourist visa.

And considering the bureaucracy that some countries have, visa applications can be a painful part of working overseas. This blogger reported that applying for residency in Spain took 5 months even with the help of her husband’s company and professional lawyers.

Another reported that visa woes became a constant in her life when she decided to settle down in Sydney with her partner.

Working overseas can have its pros and cons. Have you ever lived overseas? Share your experiences in the comments!

 

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.