Expat bankers want to leave 'aggressive, unhealthy' Hong Kong for Singapore

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Senior Western expats are tiring of Hong Kong’s pollution and spiralling property prices and are setting their sights – albeit not always successfully – on moving to Singapore. But Hong Kong remains more appealing to junior bankers who are increasingly being shut out of Singapore because of tightening immigration laws.

“Where expats work in Asia often still depends on their age and the stage of their career. Younger professionals are definitely still more likely to head to Hong Kong, while older ones prefer Singapore,” says Kyle Blockley, managing partner of recruitment firm KS Consulting.

Starting a family is one of the main motivators for expats choosing Singapore. “The high-level traditional differences between Singapore and Hong Kong still hold true – certainly now that we have a child, we’re considering Singapore more favourably than before,” says a senior risk manager in Hong Kong who asked not to be named.

Nick Wells, a director at search firm Webber Chase in Singapore, says he frequently gets calls from anxious new expat parents in Hong Kong. “They realise after their tenth trip to the doctors for their kid’s colds and chest infections that they should probably move out of polluted HK, and Singapore is the top choice, despite the annual month of ‘haze’.”

Singapore’s lower levels of pollution were one of the reasons that ex-Credit Suisse banker Dominic Gamble, now CEO of website Findawealthmanager, chose the city state over Hong Kong when he moved from the UK with his young family. “It’s common to see younger, more independent expats going to Hong Kong first before moving here, but I was a late starter to Asia. Singapore is more relaxed and fantastic for a family for its greenery, good schools and great people. HK is slightly more dimensioned just towards China these days, while Singapore is a very diverse country.”

Gamble says he was also put off Hong Kong by its higher accommodation costs. Generous expat allowances died out after the financial crisis and Hong Kong’s expensive housing is now helping to drive out foreigners, especially older ones with families who need larger apartments. “These days Singapore actually offers better value for money than Hong Kong despite being expensive by world standards – rental prices have dropped nearly a third in the past two years,” says Wells. “By contrast, Hong Kong is getting more expensive and I know many expats who have downgraded their accommodation.”

Language is also looming as a more important push factor from Hong Kong to Singapore for experienced finance professionals. “It’s becoming harder to find work here without Mandarin fluency,” says the Hong Kong risk manager. “That may soften in the short term as China’s economy softens, but it’s a long-term concern for expats in Hong Kong, unlike in Singapore where you only need English.”

20-somethings still prefer Hong Kong

While older expats have growing concerns about staying in Hong Kong, the city remains appealing to those in their 20s and early 30s. “If I were to advise a 20-something singleton which city to choose, it would still be Hong Kong,” says Wells from Webber Chase. “Hong Kong maintains a traditional gritty edge compared to polished Singapore – a rare energy only found in places like New York and London. Its inhabitants live and die by the sword, which leads to a competitive and aggressive banking market that younger people enjoy.”

Hong Kong’s reputation as the best city for young Western bankers to base themselves has been inadvertently boosted by a 2014 Singaporean law which encourages banks to hire more locals. Under the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) employers must advertise vacancies on a government-run website before they can apply for a foreign work visa. The FCF is mainly driving down junior expat applications because senior jobs paying more than S$144k (US$100k) are exempt.

Meanwhile, not all of Hong Kong’s senior expats are having second thoughts about the city. “Life in Singapore is less exciting and more regulated and there’s less freedom of speech,” says Henry Chamberlain, a Hong Kong management consultant and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. “People in Hong Kong are able to insult the Chief Executive and camp in the streets with yellow umbrellas for months. I also enjoy the fact that HK has a winter – Singapore’s constant heat is a real bummer.”

And even senior expats who do want to quit Hong Kong might find it difficult to actually get a job in Singapore – banks continue to offshore operations roles out of the city and into Malaysia, the Philippines and other less expensive markets. “Gone are the days when international firms were growing their onshore businesses in Singapore – volume staffing requirements aren’t what they used to be, while UK banks are withdrawing and downsizing,” says Blockley from KS Consulting. “Plus there are still plenty of foreign managers here and there’s no need to bring in many more.”

Image credit: Prasit Rodphan, iStock, Thinkstock

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