Last week, I was at a gathering with some Thai and Malaysian filmmakers. I asked the Thai filmmakers about their political unrest. The Malaysian filmmakers about the missing plane. They in turn asked me how I was coping. Living in the most expensive city in the world. I tried to explain the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ranking was skewed towards expatriates living in Singapore. For locals, we could choose between a $150 meal and a $15 meal, between living in a $2,500,000 condominium and a $250,000 HDB flat, private and public transport, private and public medical care. I was going to continue explaining, but I saw something in their eyes that told me this label of being the most expensive city had stuck. Like the canning and chewing gum myths, this will be the latest world-wide label Singapore has to contend with.
My friend who was at the gathering called me a day later to correct me on some facts. He told me a 1000 square feet HDB is now about half a million dollars. With this amount, he added, I could buy a terrace house in Malaysia. I concede I do not know the prevailing property prices. That the cost of living in Singapore has indeed gone up. But I doubt very much we are the most expensive city in the world. My friend was silent for a while. I asked if he knew while primary education is compulsory, it is less than $100 a year. That junior college, even tertiary education are comparatively inexpensive. Students can use their parent’s CPF or take an interest-free loan for tertiary education. My friend corrected me again. That I should factor in tuition fees, enrichment courses and the accompanying costs of education. I was silent for a while.
So do Singaporeans have cheaper options? If we do not eat in air-conditioned comfort, the average cost of a meal can be about $10 to $15. My well-travelled friends tell me eating in high-end restaurants in Singapore is now exorbitant. This, I can attest. Last December, I wished to host a prominent film producer to dinner. He asked if there was a place for a good piece of steak. My assistant found a place within his hotel complex. When we sat down, the producer took a look at the menu and mercifully told me the meal was on him. I saw the prices and my heart hit the floor. The steak and wine were heavenly. But they were at a the-sky-is-the-limit price tag. My guest, if I can still call him that, paid over $800 for the two of us. I sheepishly told him the next meal was on me.
A doctor friend told me his clinic is in one of the poorest parts of Singapore. The average bill for a visit is $35 for generic medication. If more is needed, like Tamiflu, it can go up to about $100. Hospitals has just increased their emergency ward fees to $108. There will be extra charges if specialised emergency tests or scans are needed. This friend estimated that medical costs to Singaporeans have easily doubled in the last five years. And if someone has a critical illness like cancer, the treatment is at least around $200,000. Cost of private medical care will of course be a lot higher. Car ownership is easily more expensive than anywhere else. Public transport, the overcrowding notwithstanding, can be an equalizer. In countries like Japan, the CEO and the office boy commute on the same mode of transport. By train. Or the bus. Whichever is convenient or faster.
I was walking around with these facts and figures in my head. Until someone, much younger, talked about them with an almost alternate reality. He has just turned 30, has worked for four years, done part-time work while studying and serving national service. His family background is average. He sees himself getting married before 35. Or earlier. He said, “Like many of my peers, I am an internet citizen. But not all netizens whine. At least I don’t. I think we need to stop using outdated value systems to measure cost of living. Instead, use new benchmarks for standard of living. Personally, if I have decided to stay and work in Singapore, it doesn’t matter if we are the most expensive city.” Really? How and why is it so?
“If I cannot afford a house, I will rent until I can. If I cannot afford a car, I will not own one, ” he continued. “I differentiate between my needs and my wants. Nothing is sacred. Cost of living is relative. It is only impossibly high if my income cannot match up. If I am gainfully employed, doing well, I don’t see how and why my income will not match up. I see the government doing something about the cost of living. I am doing something myself. My future wife can also help out. I think I will be ok. Why are you looking at me this way?” I was silent for a while. Then I told him I am looking at a breath of fresh air. We may or may not be the most expensive city in the world. His are the most constructive and positive views. And yes I agree. He will be ok.