Friday, February 20, 2009

Singapore vs Cambodia cost and standard of living

This is the longest time I have spent in Singapore since moving to Cambodia in mid- 2006 and I find myself settling into a routine that is making it hard for me to want to go back to Cambodia. I’ve been home for almost a month now and I’m conscious that I have written only one entry during this time. I have just been really enjoying myself this holiday.

Singapore is clean, efficient, wired and comfortable. Everything works as you expect it to and it is not as expensive as people think. Big-ticket items such as houses and cars are very expensive but eating out and transportation is comparable to Cambodia, sometimes even cheaper than Cambodia. (The Internet is one thing that is definitely cheaper! I’m so happy to be able too watch Youtube videos uninterrupted on cable broadband at 100Mbps. We pay the equivalent of USD56 a month compared with USD60 for 128kbps in Cambodia!)

Just yesterday I met some friends at Holland Village in the west of the island. I live in the northeast. The trip required a bus, then the train and another bus and took me a little over half an hour. The public transportation is all air-conditioned. For the entire trip I paid about SGD3.30 or USD2.10. In Cambodia, USD2 would get you a tuk tuk to travel 10mins. You can take a motorbike, as I do, because it is cheaper, but not by much. For that distance I’d have to pay at least USD1, going through the heat and dust and/or smog. I’ve written about this before, how the lack of public transport (and other shared services) means individuals end up paying more.

Food is very reasonable in Singapore, and I can get my favourite boneless Hainanese chicken rice for as little as SGD2 (about USD1.35). In the Old Market in Siem Reap, one dish costs 2000 riels (USD0.50) and rice is another 1000 riels. For the same amount of chicken meat, I would have to pay a comparable amount in Cambodia (chicken is cooked with bones in Cambodia), if not more. Many varieties of fruit and vegetables are surprisingly cheaper in Singapore than in Cambodia, even in the supermarkets. We bought a kilo of fresh, medium-sixed, prawns the other day for SGD5.90, or less than USD4.

In this regard Singapore is like the US or any other developed country. Things are often much cheaper than in a developing country simply because there is so much competition. Also, there is so much stuff on sale, if it doesn’t sell, retailers will keep lowering prices to get stock to move. So if you are willing to wait or know where to look, you can get really good quality things at reasonable prices.

On the contrary, imported things are so rare in Cambodia, retailers can charge a premium and still find buyers. I am constantly shocked at how expensive some things are in Lucky. And I would never buy electronic goods in Cambodia; they’re often double what we pay for in Singapore.

Then we have places like second-hand shops. Australian-owned Cash Converters is one place where you can purchase second-hand cameras, coffeemakers, irons, or pots and pans at low prices. Singaporeans throw out so much useable stuff, you can always find something interesting. Golf clubs are a case in point: many Singaporeans think buying a branded club will help their swing, then they find out otherwise, or lose interest or upgrade their clubs yet again.

I often think I should start a second-hand shop in Phnom Penh. There are always things to pick up every time an expat leaves. And all the money would go to funding an anti-child trafficking group like Riverkids.

Of course if you are looking to eat well in Singapore, you can. The second night I was home, friends took me to have dinner at an American styled restaurant at the Singapore Flyer. There, a burger costs SGD16 (about USD10.50) and the cheapest bottle of wine, SGD50 (USD33), excluding a 10 per cent service charge and a 7 per cent goods and services tax. (Alcohol is notoriously expensive in Singapore because of government taxes. Cigarettes are prohibitively expensive too, about USD7 a pack, or seven times that in Cambodia.) On Siem Reap’s Pub Street, a burger, albeit much smaller, is about USD3.50 and a bottle of wine, maybe USD15. Of course you can get really expensive stuff in the posh hotels in Cambodia.

I’m also enjoying swimming and cycling regularly here in Singapore. My parents live in what’s called a condominium—apartments with shared facilities like a pool and gym and sometime tennis courts. Many Singaporeans pay to live in condos but do not have the time to use the facilities, so I get to use a pool that is almost always empty. I also really enjoy biking on smooth, paved roads. I used to be a bike enthusiast, cycling from home to university, a journey that usually took about an hour. My friends and I would also go “hill biking” (no mountains in Singapore!) on Bukit Timah Hill. My Trek bike is old now but was expensive, and I did not take it to Cambodia because I am sure it’d get stolen.

Because I have am on a budget, I don’t swim in Cambodia, although expat friends do pay USD5 a time to use some hotel’s pool. I rarely cycle. We walk most of the time in. Recently I was talking to a Singaporean friend about horse-riding lessons (USD20 an hour) in Siem Reap. He said it was cheap, and it is, for a Singaporean, but I have not been able to bring myself to pay USD20 an hour because that is what most Khmers would take about 2 weeks to earn.

After this trip, though, I have made some decisions about living in Cambodia. I’ve concluded I need to spend money occasionally on things that make me happy, such as swimming. I’ve also decided to go for at least one horse-riding session. I feel I need to do these things because otherwise Cambodia is too much of a struggle. I feel deprived. I think people need little pleasures in life, whatever it may be (for me it is the Internet and swimming).

I’ve tried to live ascetically in the close to 3 years in Cambodia, but as an Australian expat friend pointed out—the whole point of why we are here is to lift the lives of Cambodians to our standards, and not to live as a poor Cambodian. She said this in the context of water heaters. She, like many of my expat friends, does not have a water heater, so she showers in cold water. Me too, when I live and work in the workshop in Phnom Penh. I guess we think: if our Cambodian team-mates can live like this, so can we. I also think we do it out of guilt because we think ourselves no better (morally, I mean) than a Khmer, so we don’t deserve better.

But I think my friend makes a good point, that moving to Cambodia does not mean expats have to give up what are basic necessities back home. It's not about being morally better, and so deserving better, but about what you are used to. The feeling of deprivation stems from not getting what you’re used to having. You won’t miss what you don’t know. So while many Cambodians do not think about having hot showers and would probably prefer cold ones, it is harder for a foreigner who showers in warm water his/her whole life. Still, one has to draw the line as to what constitutes basic necessities. For me, it's air-conditioning. It's something I can do mostly without.


Tanya said...

That is sage advice from your friend, something we have done from the beginning. Even when we were student parents and living on 16000NZD yr with rent taking up more than half our weekly income we still had a slush fund built into our budget. In those days it didnt pay for much more than lollies and a bottle of wine every now and again but it kept us sane! Now we do with out aircon and have never had a maid but spend on internet and travel.
As for Singapores public transport system...unparalleled and set to get even better! I even miss the morning squeeze and the evening crush.

K.K. said...

Yes, I've talked about it again and again... with my friends here in Cambodia.. How is it possible that Cambodia home to 14 million peole, most of whom get about $40 a month is equally expensive or in some cases more expensive than Singapore??

This is a big gap. And of course, many people have appealed to the government to do something about it.. the electricity cost, the internet cose and some basic necessities should be cheaper in this poorly economic country... but some people can say that there aren't many competitors in Cambodia... that's why things are expensive.. msot products are more than ofen exported from neighbouring countries...

last but not least, Cambodia is a country without clear measure... It seems to me it's going to take good leadership and much more hard work.


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