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Hong Kong versus Singapore: Which city is best for expatriates?

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In the race to lure talent for global firms' regional headquarters, Hong Kong (top) and Singapore have long been neck-and-neck.

[HONG KONG] In the race to lure talent for global firms' regional headquarters, Hong Kong and Singapore have long been neck-and-neck. While many companies make their managers locate in one or the other city - often depending on whether their duties focus more on Southeast Asia, or on China - others give top talent a choice.

Back before Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong had an edge due to expectations of the opening of China's economy, the city's role as the entrepot on the border, and the banking industry poised to capitalise on it.

Now, Singapore's push into innovation and technology has the Lion City on an upswing, said Karen Koh of recruiting and consultancy firm HRnetOne, who works in the Singapore-based company's Hong Kong office.

"Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was a more popular expat destination than Singapore because of the job opportunities or perception that banking was much hotter in Hong Kong," she said.

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"I don't think banking will ever be able to compare with Hong Kong, but other sectors in Singapore have come up."

For expatriates considering which city to choose, here's the ultimate Hong Kong versus Singapore guide, with prices converted to US dollars:

1. First Things First: Your Salary

The top salaries in Hong Kong for jobs in the financial industry are about 25 per cent higher than in Singapore on average, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the 2017 salary survey of recruitment firm Robert Walters Plc. That trend carries across most industries.

Personal income taxes in the two cities are relatively low. The top rate in Singapore for income above the first US$230,500 is 22 per cent; in Hong Kong, the top rate is 17 per cent.

2. What You Spend Your Money On

Those extra dollars don't necessarily get you as far in Hong Kong, however. The city has overtaken Tokyo as the most expensive in the region and second overall in the world for expatriates, behind only Angola's capital Luanda, according to the latest cost of living survey from consultancy firm ECA International. Singapore, by contrast, is 24th on its list.

The survey tracks the cost of goods ranging from groceries to beer and tobacco, while excluding spending such as rent and school tuition.

Taxes on alcohol mean the price of imbibing is higher in Singapore. A pint of beer in a Singaporean pub goes for about US$9, while the same will set you back US$7.70 in Hong Kong, according to Deutsche Bank AG's 2017 report on global consumer prices using data gathered from Expatistan.com, which compiles input from thousands of people reporting the prices they pay in various countries.

The bank's Bad Habits Index, which combines the price of five beers and two packs of cigarettes - also heavily taxed - has Singapore ahead, at US$64.30. In Hong Kong, it's US$53.50.

The foodie expatriate may be interested to know: Hong Kong boasts 61 Michelin-starred restaurants, including six with three stars. Singapore has 29, with its Joel Robuchon outpost the only three-star establishment.

3. How Much You'll Pay for Housing

For most people, the single biggest cost, though, is housing - unless companies still offer housing packages, which have been increasingly dwindling.

Expat packages for both cities have been sliding for the past five years, down 2 per cent to US$265,500 in Hong Kong and 6 per cent to US$235,500 in Singapore, according to ECA's MyExpatriate Market Pay survey.

While salaries have risen in Singapore in the same period, the decline in benefits has reduced the total package value, according to Lee Quane, ECA's regional director for Asia.

For those paying their own rent, Hong Kong is more expensive than Singapore by a huge margin.

Overall, rent in Hong Kong is 47 per cent more expensive, according to June data from Expatistan.com. Monthly rent for a 900-square-foot furnished residence in an expensive area costs about US$2,600 in Singapore, while the equivalent in Hong Kong costs almost US$4,900, the site said.

"The housing cost is the biggest downside for Hong Kong right now," said Patrick Groth, Asia regional director for relocation company Crown World Mobility.

"That's a big disadvantage because you get much, much more for your money in Singapore."

4. Doing Business and Investing Money

Those looking to park their cash in local investments have done better in Hong Kong over the years. Real estate investors have seen secondary home prices soar 400 per cent since the last property slump in 2003. Hong Kong's stock market has beaten Singapore's over the past five years, too.

International companies based in Hong Kong rose 53 per cent since 1997, totaling almost 1,400 as of last year, according to government data. Singapore, which tracks total investment by foreign companies, recorded a 12 per cent decline in the 2011-2015 period, with US companies the only ones to increase their presence.

Yet Singapore beats Hong Kong as a more attractive destination price-wise for companies, according to a report last year from DTZ/Cushman & Wakefield. Hong Kong suffers from higher costs, while Singapore boasts cheaper office rent - about half the price on a per square meter basis, the report said. Singapore ranks No 2 in Asia, behind South Korea, and No 6 in the world on the Bloomberg Innovation Index.

For those starting their own businesses, Singapore also ranks No 2 in the world - after New Zealand - for how easy it is to get off the ground and through regulatory hoops, according to the World Bank's latest ranking. Hong Kong ranks No 4, up one place from a year before.

5. The Price of Getting a Car on the Road

Singapore is possibly the most expensive place in the world to drive, due to regulations and fees designed to keep traffic from turning into the chaos that befell Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and other South-east Asian cities as incomes rose and more residents could afford to get behind the wheel. 

Drivers must bid for a limited number of special permits, as well as pay a slew of taxes and recurring fees that can more than double the cost of car ownership.

An Audi A6 luxury sedan costs, all-in, about US$70,400 in Hong Kong, based on manufacturers' suggested pricing, which includes a First Registration Tax, annual fees and insurance. In Singapore, the car would cost about US$168,100 based on quoted prices from authorised distributors, according to the government's vehicle registration website.

Taxis are relatively cheap, however: An 8 kilometre taxi ride will set you back about US$8 in both Singapore and Hong Kong, according to Expatistan data. That compares with US$22 in London and US$15 in New York, the data show.

6. Pollution and the Air That You Breathe

Hong Kong became notorious for its high levels of air pollution, so the government began enacting curbs on emissions - from vehicles and heavy cargo ships using its port - as well as cooperating with officials in Guangdong province to try to reduce smog blowing across the border.

These measures have shown results. Since 1999 Hong Kong has curbed roadside levels of nitrogen oxides by 56 per cent, and fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, by 52 per cent, according to 2016 government data.

Singapore, despite stringent vehicle emissions standards, is occasionally plagued by trouble from across its border as well: haze from Indonesian wildfires. The city suffered from another spike in 2016.

Singapore reported good or moderate air quality for 87.5 per cent of the year in 2015. That's lower than the 97 per cent of the previous year, due to the wildfires. Hong Kong reported 247 clean air days, for 67 per cent of 2016, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on the city's air quality index.

7. Educating and Taking Care of the Kids

The cost of private school rivals rent as the biggest cost in each city. Tuition for a new middle-school student at Singapore American School costs about US$36,200 if the student comes from a non-American family. At the American School Hong Kong, a similar new student entering grades 7 or 8 will need to pay about US$25,200, including the entry fee, plus either a recurring annual fee of US$2,600 or a refundable debenture of US$77,000. It's also difficult to get a spot in a number of Hong Kong schools.

"As soon as we knew that we were moving to Hong Kong, one of our most immediate thoughts was: Start applying for schools now because it is so competitive," said Adam Johnston, managing director with Robert Half Hong Kong Ltd, a unit of staffing firm Robert Half International Inc and father of one- and three-year-old kids.

Yet Singapore's secondary schools beat Hong Kong's in the global Program for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, ratings. Singapore ranks at the top for math, reading and science. Hong Kong is No 2 in reading and math, but fell to No 9 in science in the latest test.

Most young families will also hire a domestic worker to help out. Minimum wage for such workers in Hong Kong is currently about US$550 a month, according to the government. Food, health-care and other costs are additional. In Singapore, wages for Filipino maids and nannies are mandated by the Philippine government. As of last year, they were the equivalent of US$400 a month.

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