Jillian Wong is a 26-year-old Singaporean who works for a design website. Not too long ago, she visited New York and asked to meet with me so we could talk about the culture of money in Singapore.
You’ve lived in Singapore all your life?
Born and bred, yes.
You’re reading sites about the culture of money in the U.S. What makes you interested in that?
In the U.S., there is so much more consumption going on, but then again, in Singapore, people also spend a lot of money on eating and shopping. One of the things I like is finding out how other people spend their money. I wanted to meet with you to talk about the culture of money in Asia.
I have some sense of that, as an Asian-American. I know that buying and owning jewelry is a huge thing there.
Yes. And there are similarities between New York and Singapore. Both are big cities, but Singapore is more of a city-state. People are very status-conscious. Walking around here in the U.S., I notice that people don’t flaunt as much. There is a lot of emphasis on flaunting brands back at home.
Can we talk about what you do? How much do you earn?
The thing about my job is that I recently started in September. So I’m on probation, which means that I get a basic monthly salary of about $450 dollars.
What does it mean to be on probation?
Probation periods are pretty common, actually. When you are on probation, you don’t get benefits.
Employers want to test you out to see if you’ll work out, and they can pay you a minimum amount of money while doing so?
Do you not have that in the U.S.?
Not really. If you’re hired to do a job, you start with your full salary, and not a probationary one.
This is so interesting to me. Because it’s true: sometimes people don’t work out. Employers here will delay benefits like a retirement match, but they would never pay someone a few hundred dollars instead of their full salary for the first few months.
It’s common back home. You browse any job and there will be a probation period of three months. During those three months, you don’t get benefits. You really have to show the employers that you’re really up for the job. I don’t like the idea of a probation period because, firstly, it sounds very negative. It makes me feel like I did something wrong.
How much of the $400 a month you make are you able to use to pay your bills?
I don’t need to worry about rent because I live with my parents. In Singapore, and most Asian countries, as twenty-somethings, we usually stay with our parents until we get married or have enough money to move out. And you don’t really have a choice because property prices there are insane.
Young people move out and get roommates here. Is there not a roommate culture?
Not amongst the locals. It’s something that occurs among foreign students. My expenses are pretty low, since I don’t have rent to pay. I pay for transportation on subways and buses: $50-$80 dollars a month. And then food, which is about $100 a month both to eat out and at home. And also I give my mother $200 a month.
Half of what you earn while you’re on probation goes to your mom? I know in Asian cultures, we’re expected to financially support our parents. Are you expected to help your mother?
Yes. It’s an unspoken rule. The minute you start earning money, you need to start giving money to your parents. If I were earning more I would give more, but right now, it’s what I can afford.
It doesn’t seem like you have a lot leftover!
And this is my second job. My first job was as a project manager with a digital agency. I lasted 10 months in that position and saved up quite a bit, which is why I don’t feel like I’m in a pinch right now. I have a buffer of savings.
I was earning about $2,300 a month, and after the reduction for pension, $1,840.
And you were living at home?
And you were giving money to your mother then too? How much?
So you were able to save much for yourself.
Yes. And during my first job, I was actually pretty frugal. I brought my own lunch to work nearly every day. I was probably the only one at my office to do so. My coworkers were constantly flabbergasted.
They were shocked by that? Why?
Because in Singapore it’s actually really cheap to eat out. There are these things called hawker centers where you can get a decent meal for under $5. We have these centers that are essentially street carts where you can find Singaporean street food. And they are all over the island. There were a lot of these food courts near me.
How much were you saving by eating out?
Not a lot, because I really minimize my expenses.
So your lunches were like a dollar?
I usually brought Nutella and bread, and leftovers. So after giving money to my mother, and deducting for food and transport, I was saving about $1,500 a month. Which is a huge chunk of my salary.
What were your saving for?
I was saving for a trip to Barcelona, but also just in general.
Why did you leave that job?
I realized that I wasn’t suited to a career in project management. Going into the position, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was fast-paced. I guess I was grateful to experience agency life, and you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. It’s really similar to an account manager role in which I worked for both internal teams and clients. You get wrecked from both sides. It was stressful. I knew I wasn’t cut out for it and thought I’d better get out, before it’s too late. I was actually thinking of working there at least a year, but I found that with my schedule being what it was is—I was working until 8 or 9—it was better to just leave and do a proper job search. It took me about two months to land my current job. And this job could not be more different than my previous job.
Is it better?
Yes! The money is not as good now, but once I’m confirmed, I can earn a decent salary.
I’m expecting to earn slightly more than what I did previously, so aside from getting a basic salary, I’ll have bonuses built in. I’m not sure how much it will be with my basic salary and bonus and combined, but it should be in the range of $2,400 to $2,500 a month.
You know, as a writer, you don’t go into it to earn a lot of money, but you can make some money.
What are the benefits?
After being confirmed, I expect to earn 14 days paid leave. It’s a small company with a startup environment. There are no health care benefits. If I am sick and need to go on sick leave, my medical expenses will go uncovered.
How does retirement work?
We have a CPF, that is our social security savings plan. It’s basically a retirement fund that provides for your housing and medical needs. The moment you start working they deduct money from your salary. There is an employer’s contribution and an employee contribution. The employer contribution is about 16 percent. And employees contribute 20 percent.
That 20 percent contribution is mandatory?
Yes. You can’t opt out.
When can you access the money?
You can get it when you hit 55. But there is so much criteria to fulfill. The government has made it so that it’s really hard for Singaporeans to access it. You need to have a minimum amount set aside first. Basically your money gets locked up, and you may or may not be able to access it. The age will probably get raised as well. They will raise it to 57 or 60. Our population is aging, and it’s a huge concern. You need more money set aside, so we’ll raise the age limit.
Well, 55 sounds so young to me!
It’s also not a realistic retirement age.
Are there people who have no money to retire on?
I don’t think we have the same problem as you do in the U.S. We all have a CPF, but the thing about Singapore is that the cost of living is so high, so people feel like they have no choice to keep working and slave away. Sometimes I feel like that people back home are just working in order to survive and get by and not really enjoy what they’re doing.
What’s the cost of an average rental? Or a one-bedroom apartment?
I can’t really give a proper estimate, but let me try. It depends on where you’re renting. In the central business district. A unit? Really expensive. Maybe $3,000 a month. But even in neighborhoods further away, just a room can cost about $800 to $2,000 a month. It’s crazy. I’m so glad I don’t rent.
Do you have student loan debt?
We do have it, but not to the crazy extent that I read about on your site. I have some debt, but it’s not from a bank. My mom paid for my studies and I have to pay her back. I owe her $24,000, and I have yet to pay her back. But I’ve told myself once I’m confirmed I will start seriously paying her back.
Does Singapore have a prominent credit card culture?
Definitely. There is a credit card culture back at home, but not to the extent here. I don’t have a credit card. You need to be earning a minimum of $30,000 per annum to get one, and I’m not earning that right now. You can’t get a credit card without income. I should probably tell you more about my background. I come from a single-parent household. My parents got divorced when I was seven. My mom has been bringing up my brother and me single-handedly for the past 20 years. So for me, money is a huge concern.
Because you didn’t have a lot of it?
It was definitely tight. We weren’t destitute. We had help from relatives, and we stayed with my aunt and uncle and then moved in with my maternal grandparents, and moved out in 2003 when my mom bought a flat. We’ve been in that flat for 10 years. The flat was important to my mom because it’s the single biggest purchase she’s ever made.
Is it all paid off?
How was she able to buy it without having to take out a loan?
She basically had to work after the divorce. She’s a shipping executive at a logistics firm. She’s 57.
And not retired yet at the retirement age of 55?
No. I know she wants to. She says she wants to retire and not work, and I feel bad for her because it hasn’t been easy for her since the divorce, and life is really stressful here. At the same time, I don’t think it’s possible for her to retire soon. My student loans were an unexpected expense for her, because my dad was suppose to cover the cost of my studies. There was a recession in 2008, and according to him, he lost his job, and he told me that he couldn’t pay for my schooling, and he told me I would have to ask my mom. My mom was really upset about it because this was $24,000 that she had not budgeted for.
Where did she find the money?
Probably savings, but I’m not sure. I feel a certain amount of guilt because it’s my education and she paid for it, and the reason she paid for it was because my dad lost his job.
Does he have a job now?
He didn’t offer to help pay for some of it now?
I did follow up with him a few times. He did eventually get a job. I broached the subject, and asked him if he could help, and he said no. I’m sad to say that our relationship deteriorated because of money. We were never close, and he never really fulfilled any of his fatherly duties. My mother shouldered much of the burden of raising my brother and me.
How old is your brother?
And does he live at home too?
Yes. He’s actually in the national service—he’s in the military. In Singapore, all males, once they hit the age of 18, they get drafted in the military for two years. He’s finishing in March of next year. He wants to go to art school.
How does your mom feel about that?
She wants to make sure that there’s financial aid. The good thing is that the school he wants to go to does offer aid. I went to an expensive private school that did not have any scholarship or grants whatsoever.
Is it common for children to live at home for extended periods of time?
You live with parents, or you rent a place of your own if you have lots of money. Or you hit 35, and you apply for a flat as a single person.
We have crazy rules. The thing about flat ownership is that it’s really hard to rent or own a flat if you’re a local, because Singapore is so small and there is not a lot of inventory. And the culture is such that people just live at home with their families well into their 20s and 30s. It’s generally how a lot of Asian societies operate.
So there’s not a lot of inventory available for anyone who’s single.
There’s this thing called a BTO—a built to order flat—where the government sets aside a certain number of units in a certain neighborhood, and if you’re eligible, you can apply for a flat. But only if you’re a part of a couple! Because the government is pro-family. And they only give priority to families or couples.
What if you’re single?
You have limited options. You can only apply to a flat in certain areas. And only certain type of flats—one- or two-room flats, which are really tiny.
So they segregate single people to areas like they’re these sad, “other” people?
Sort of. You’re limited to certain neighborhoods and very often, it’s not where you want to be. It’s far from town and from other amenities. And to top it off, you can only apply when you’re 35. Because that’s when you’re at an age where you may have a reasonable amount of money. But yeah, flat-ownership in Singapore is a very complicated affair. When you apply for flats as a couple, you basically put down a payment of $10,000 in cash. And in any event that the couple doesn’t get the flat, they don’t get their money back. Flat ownership is really tied to the idea of marriage. I really feel that a lot of people in Singapore get married just for the flat.
And not love.
I feel like people do that here in New York too. To save money.
A little bit! But also, it sounds like it’s a lot easier to be a single person living on her own here.
A very common joke back at home is that the way to propose isn’t to get down on bended-knee with a ring, but to say, “Do you want to apply for a flat?” And that’s the proposal. That’s the equivalent of, “please be mine forever.”
What’s social life like and the costs associated with that?
We go out to dinner, and drinks, or a movie. Movies cost $7.50 to $10. Eating out can be really cheap if we go to a hawker center. Or I can go to a nice sit-down place and have a decent meal for about $20. And there’s no tipping culture, so what you see is what you get.
You know how much we love talking about tipping here.
Yes, I know! People have very strong feelings about tipping in the U.S.!
What are your larger goals? Save money, pay back your mom? Get to a place where you no longer have to work?
For me, it’s kind of hard to envision my future, especially in terms of housing. I’ve given up on ever owning property on my own. And it’s really convenient to live with family. I’m saving a lot. But after 26 years of living with family, I want to have my own space, but to do that is just so hard.
Here, living at home with your parents after college is usually due to being unable to find a job. Once young people get jobs here, they’d rather get their own place or live with roommates.
Back at home, that’s virtually non-existent. This is something a lot of my peers and myself are frustrated about. We all want to be independent and to have the freedom to do what we want. But we’re hampered by lack of space and lack of money.
Do you imagine getting married?
I don’t know about getting married. In Singapore it’s hard to socialize. It’s a very insular society. Everyone is so reserved. It’s fairly uncommon to go out alone back home. Everyone goes out with family or friends. It can be tough to socialize if you’re totally new to Singapore and form friendships. So I can’t envision myself getting married. The last place you can form lasting relationships is in school. After, you’re surrounded by coworkers. Among my circle of friends, we just find it out of reach.
To get married?
Yeah, sadly. Just the amount of money it would cost, and, I mean, it’s also about finding that person.
What about online dating?
It’s not as big. But we do have matchmaking services, where they set up lunch dates. Something low-risk. But in general, there’s a social stigma. Singaporeans would much rather meet organically through friends. Which is how most people meet partners. Through friends. I could probably live at home for the next 10 years, or even longer.
And then, when you’re 35, you can apply for a flat.
Yeah, in a crappy area where all the sad single people live. And I’ll have to get lots of cats to complete the image!
Photo: Tiberiu Ana