As someone who has lived in both Singapore and Mumbai, I can appreciate both in their uniqueness. Each city has its own unique place in the world, neither lesser than the other.
In 2006, I left behind a slightly laid back, well run Singapore, a city trying to come to terms with its boring and over-regulated image. The Singapore of 2010 that I returned to, as a newspaper put it recently, has “grown up‟. It is a speeding, futuristic looking city. You can see signs of progress everywhere and among the people an almost obsessive desire to get ahead. The famed fines and traffic rules are still there, but you can see that the police force has its hands busy with issues that come with a fast pace of growth.
Surprisingly Mumbai has much in common with Singapore. The India I had left behind was resigned to accept its second rate status in the developing world. Today’s Mumbai has become a city proud of its bustling economy, rearing to get ahead and much like the country, confident of its emergence on the world stage.
The Immigration issue
Although very different in their level of development both Mumbai and Singapore are very much ”go-to” cities, places where people believe ”things will get better.”.
In Mumbai, there is an alluring aura that notwithstanding your education or background, if you were hardworking, you could get lucky. It was an “equal opportunity” city. This attracts opportunity seekers who migrate to the city from other parts of India. They are often seen as undercutting existing employment. This has led to widespread discontent and unrest among the existing unskilled population who have so far been enjoying the fruits of no competition.
This has long been an issue in Mumbai, but the numbers of immigrants are so large politicians can no longer ignore the issue. Attacks on immigrants are now part and parcel of daily life in Mumbai, directed against fellow countrymen from poorer parts of North India.
Singapore also faces an immense immigration issue. Many “locals” worry about the growing number of immigrants who have been accepted by the government as either Singaporeans or as permanent residents. The target of discontent could be anyone: the handymen or construction workers brought in from neighboring countries to cater to the booming construction industry or the highly paid executives brought in for their expertise. Of course, unlike Mumbai things never get too out of control. Most of it discontent is spoken quietly among individuals or discussed muted in few newspaper columns.
Immigrants are a necessity for Singapore, perhaps even more essential than for Mumbai. Inviting foreigners was their way of coping with one of the world’s lowest birthrates and most rapidly aging populations.
Bread and Butter
Singapore has never been known for ”cheap food.” The small nation imports almost all of its fresh food produce from neighboring countries driving up prices significantly.
As a result, food costs are a significant part of my household expenses here in Singapore, much more so than in Mumbai. The tropical temperatures do not allow long storage of fresh produce, enabling frequent trips to the supermarket or wet markets. Food is a very important part of life and a large part of the appropriately named ”cost of living.” Our family of four spends a lot to keep a regular, non-fancy table.
The fact that I had just moved from Mumbai didn’t help. The diverse income segments and the need to woo them all in a democracy has led to a long tradition of government controlled, subsidized food pricing. Unprecedented inflation has toppled governments. Most importantly, unlike Singapore, the double digit wage inflation is quite ahead of the growth in cost of living, enabling more disposable income. In other words, even with lower tax rates of Singapore, I am outside my home country and poorer for it!
On the topic of disposable income, families thirty years ago saved bit by bit to get their children married off. A lavish wedding, where you invited all to pay off your social debts was the one dream celebration of an Indian household. A wedding was the social antenna, the marriage bellwether, the occasion to be one up on your entire fraternity. They were occasions to savor and discuss for years to come. Everyone desired to hold/create a wedding for their children/close family that would henceforth be the new standard for weddings to come.
Increasing affluence has given people the opportunity to make the ”lifetime celebration“ a more frequent affair and what could be a better occasion to show off that income than a birthday party for your little ones? Recently, my six year old was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. Everything about the party, starting from the invite and box of custom made chocolates tells you that no expense had been spared. The bash was at a swanky five star hotel in the suburbs, with two hundred invitees. There were chocolate fountains, different kinds of cuisine and professional entertainment: all elements that are by now mandatory parts of any self respecting birthday party. However, it was the custom labeled return gift, an I-Pod shuffle, which lifted the commonplace ”return gift” to a level significantly above the Joneses.
Social pressures are similar in Singapore but they manifest themselves differently. The bar is always what you don’t have:,the latest BMW coupe, a condominium at the swankiest address in town, or the latest Louis Vuitton bag. Birthday parties are not the highlights but these acquisitions are.
Every weekend, all Singaporeans indulge in property-porn, poring over newspaper advertisements on new construction openings, walking through the show flats, and marveling at the impressive fittings.
Four years back, I lived within striking distance of the famous Orchard Road, near enough to walk to it, far enough to breathe. It had several condominiums but was punctuated nicely with green stretches of land. Come 2010, much of the greenery has vanished and been replaced by tall and narrow sky scrapers, most of them glass monstrosities. Many more are similarly taking up every inch of green space.
Mumbai, like Singapore, is a growing island city where space is at premium. Growth is all vertical. Property prices are high and rising, albeit for completely different reasons.
Mumbai’s population density of 22,000 people per sq km exceeds that of small Singapore by a factor of three. But the mentality is similar. Owning a place of your own in Mumbai is as much a dream as it is in Singapore. Your “own space“ could be just a small hovel or shanty or a flat in any suburb of Mumbai. The desire to own a place in any part of the city in a market tightly controlled by builders and ineffectively regulated by politicians, ensuring that prices will stay high. A 600 sq ft size of condo, in a distant suburb is priced at between USD$100-120,000.
Of course, this is out of reach for most of the city’s residents. So most of them plod on, spending a significant part of their incomes squeezed into tiny rented spaces dreaming of a day when they can afford a roof of their own. More than the rentals, most landlords demand a fat lump sum equivalent to a year’s rent, ubiquitously termed ”deposit.” In the absence of any regulation, this safeguards the owner from renters who might refuse to vacate units or destroy and mutilate them. It also benefits the renter, as it sits in the bank for a year and earns interest which – given India’s comparatively high interest rates – is not insignificant.
On the other hand, 82% of Singaporeans stay in state-provided Housing Development Board flats. What keeps the real estate market fanned and growing is the desire to upgrade; from a rented property to an owned one, from a HDB flat to an executive condominium and from there to a private condominium with its own swimming pool and gymnasium.
Wherever you turn you can see signs of show flat enticing you to invest more than USD 1 million for a mere 600 sq ft of private condominium space. Since space is at a premium, the buildings get narrower, the units get smaller and prices only go north. Builders try to outdo each other on the concept; enticing buyers with high end kitchen fittings like wine chillers and coffee machines from aspirational European brand names like “Kupperbusch” and “Gaggenau”.
Most of the investors – Singaporeans and outsiders – have bought property for its appreciation, not to create a source of rental income. Therefore rent is high, averaging USD 3-4 for every sq ft. And you if plan to be here for the long haul, that is a significant part of your income.
Moving between countries is always an enlightening experience. Among other things, it also teaches you to appreciate things about the country you have left behind. When I left Singapore for Mumbai, I took with me an appreciation of systems that work, roads clean enough to eat off and a daily routine that largely remained unchanged for four years.
On my return to Singapore, I have brought with me memories of a dynamic city, confident that it will only offer a better life to its citizens. I have come from one a growing, global city to another, still unsure of what the implications of that term will be in how people can live.
Vatsala Pant is a management graduate with several years of business leadership experience and a connoisseur of people, places and cultures. She currently lives in Singapore.
Photo by a-n-d-y-l-e-o-s-s