We’re Number One

Singapore is highly ranked on many metrics — research and education, development, wealth, cell phone usage, English-speaking population, savings rates, math scores, and many more. The government is fond of touting these accomplishments; each gets a front page mention on the Straits Times (the paper of record). Today, Singapore secured high honors on yet another rankings list; it is now the most expensive city in the world, topping Paris, New York, London, Sydney, Zurich, Geneva, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and all the rest.

Go Singapore.

It is undeniably expensive to live in Singapore. But these results are still, in my view, slightly misleading. Digging a little deeper reveals some of the main factors that led to Singapore’s high ranking: (i) the cost of owning a car (mostly due to astronomical vehicle taxes), (ii) the cost of utilities, and (iii) the cost of clothes. Luckily, two of the three are avoidable. One can comfortably live in Singapore without a car at all; public transportation covers the entire island, and cabs are plentiful and reasonably priced. Further, since Singapore is such an efficient travel hub, it’s not hard to get clothes (even designer brands) on the cheap elsewhere in the region.

Another factor in Singapore’s high ranking is the relative strength of the Singapore dollar against other currencies. But this metric, too, is misleading. The strength of the SGD makes Singapore an expensive place to visit (when you’re exchanging other currency for SGD). But if you live here, you’ll almost certainly get paid in SGD. And getting paid in a strong currency is good, especially if you send any of that money abroad (as do most domestic helpers and foreign workers, a class of residents who tend to be among Singapore’s poorest).

So the good news is that we’re number one; and the bad news — that we’re number one at something bad — isn’t quite so bad after all, I think.

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