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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

The Asian Tigers: A Tale of Ups and Downs

The Asian Tigers feature some twists and turns, as Hong Kong moves up 15 ranks and South Korea drops 14. Singapore and Taiwan, however, offer a more balanced view of expat life.
  • All four Asian Tigers hit the top 10 for personal safety and transportation infrastructure.
  • Expats often find settling in an issue, though this isn’t the case in Singapore and Taiwan.
  • With the exception of Taiwan, expats are dissatisfied with work and leisure throughout the region.
  • When it comes to the Family Life Index, it’s time for Singapore to shine.

Personal Safety Is a Plus

Taiwan and Singapore still offer expats a great quality of life, ranking third and fourth respectively, while Hong Kong (28th) and South Korea (37th) don’t even make it into the top 20. Out of all the topics that factor into the Quality of Life Index, all four Asian Tigers rank in the top 10 for both personal safety and transportation infrastructure, with Singapore landing in the top 3 for both.

Performing consistently well, Singapore also ranks among the best for safety and security and travel and transportation in general — coming second and first in the respective subcategories. One German expat highlights that “you can go out at any time to almost any place without having to fear anything” as something he really likes about life in Singapore.

You can go out at any time to almost any place without having to fear anything in Singapore.

Unfortunately, the same cannot quite be said for Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, which, despite ranking highly for personal safety, fall short when it comes to peacefulness and political stability. Hong Kong in particular lands in the bottom half for these two factors, coming just 52nd out of 64 destinations for peacefulness and 42nd for political stability. A quarter of respondents (25%) rate the special administrative region negatively for peacefulness, while just over half (51%) are happy with its political stability. However, please note that the Expat Insider 2019 survey was conducted in March, before the protests against Hong Kong’s contentious extradition bill began.

Despite all four Asian Tigers ranking in the top 10 for at least one factor in the Digital Life subcategory, not all of them can compete with Singapore’s great result (3rd out of 64), especially not South Korea. The latter ends up in a below-average 41st place, the lowest among all the Asian Tigers. Though landing in an impressive fourth place for the ease of getting high speed internet at home, South Korea places a very poor 62nd for the ease of getting a local phone number. Just over half of expats (55%) are happy with this factor, compared to 86% worldwide

There’s No Place Like Home? Taiwan Proves Otherwise

With regard to the ease of settling in, only Singapore and Taiwan make it into the top half of the rankings, coming in 11th and 14th place, respectively. Both do particularly well for the ease of settling down abroad, while Taiwan also outranks its Asian counterparts in the Friendliness subcategory, coming in fourth place across the board. Almost nine in ten expats (88%) are happy with the general friendliness of the population, while over four in five (85%) are satisfied with the friendly attitude towards foreign residents. “The people of Taiwan are very helpful and have your best interests at heart,” says one expat from South Africa. It’s clear that the friendliness expats encounter in Taiwan has a positive effect on their life, and it might even be one reason why 86% are satisfied with their life abroad in this destination, with 34% saying they could not be any happier (vs. 75% and 16% globally).

The people of Taiwan are very helpful and have your best interests at heart.

At the other end of the scale, Hong Kong (42nd) and South Korea rank rather poorly in the Ease of Settling In Index, with South Korea doing especially badly in 61st place. In fact, this Asian Tiger ranks below average for all aspects of ease of settling in, coming in the bottom 10 for three out of four subcategories. With regard to feeling at home, expats are clearly not satisfied, as South Korea ranks just 61st for this factor; only two in five (40%) agree it is easy to get used to the local culture, while less than half say they feel at home in it (49%). One US American respondent even thinks that “the culture is unwelcoming and sometimes downright mean-spirited towards foreigners”.

The culture in South Korea is unwelcoming and sometimes downright mean-spirited towards foreigners.

All Work and No Play: Hong Kong and South Korea

Taiwan is the clear winner among the Asian Tigers in the Working Abroad Index, placing eighth overall. Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, however, all place below the top 20 — or even below average (41st, 23rd, and 51st, respectively). Taiwan’s best results come from the Career Prospects & Satisfaction subcategory, where it ranks 5th out of 64 destinations. Although it comes in eighth place for job satisfaction, expats seem to be even more impressed by their career prospects, ranking Taiwan second for this factor: just about one in nine respondents (11%) rate it negatively, compared to 24% worldwide.

Hong Kong and South Korea do rather badly in the Working Abroad Index, though, especially in the Work & Leisure subcategory, where they rank 60th and 64th, respectively. Both receive very poor results for working hours, with just 44% saying they are satisfied with their working hours in Hong Kong, and 46% thinking the same about South Korea (vs. 62% globally). Their rankings for work-life balance are just as bad (60th and 63rd, respectively) — one US American expat goes as far as to say that “work-life balance is non-existent” in Hong Kong.

Singapore shines brighter than the other three Asian Tigers regarding economy and job security, ranking eighth for this subcategory. However, the country lands in 44th place for job security but is saved by an impressive third spot for the state of its economy. In fact, 52% of respondents agree that the economy is very good, more than twice the global average (24%).

Opposites for Cost of Living

Both Singapore (16th out of 64) and Taiwan rank in the top 20 for personal finance, but only Taiwan makes it into the top 10, coming in sixth place. Although 22% of expats have an annual income of less than 12,000 USD (vs. 13% globally), almost three-quarters (74%) are happy with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). Moreover, almost six in ten (58%) agree that their household income is more than enough to cover daily expenses (49% globally). This positive response could be partly due to the fact that Taiwan is also the top-ranking Asian Tiger in the Cost of Living Index, coming in eleventh place. In fact, over seven in ten respondents (73%) are happy with the cost of living in Taiwan, which is a huge leap from the global average of just 47%. “The cost of living in Taiwan is cheaper compared to, for example, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong,” says one expat from India.

Speaking of Hong Kong: It ranks worst out of all four Asian Tigers for both personal finance and cost of living, even coming in last place (64th) for the latter. In fact, Hong Kong has ranked in the bottom 10 for its cost of living since 2015. Of those who took part in the Expat Insider 2019 survey, 24% think that the situation is very bad, compared to just 7% globally. Despite preparing for the expenses of life in Hong Kong, one Canadian expat was still rather shocked: “The cost of living is among the highest in the world. I knew this coming here, prepared for years mentally and financially, and yet it’s still a shock.”

The cost of living is among the highest in the world in Hong Kong.

Luckily for expats looking to live in Hong Kong, 46% have an income of at least 100,000 USD per year (vs. 20% globally) — which might also help to explain why 63% of expats are happy with their financial situation and why 51% agree that their disposable household income is more than what they need.

Singapore Still Shines for Expat Families

Of the four Asian Tigers, only Hong Kong and Singapore received enough responses from expats raising children abroad to be included in the Family Life Index. Singapore hits the top 10 once again, ranking 8th out of 36 for family life abroad, while also making it into the top 10 for several subcategories — for example, quality of education (2nd) and family well-being (4th). Just one factor featured in the Family Well-Being subcategory — children’s health — scores below the top 10, with the remaining ones all impressing expat parents. Singapore even ranks second worldwide for children’s safety, with nearly all the respondents raising children there (98%) expressing they are happy with this factor. Moreover, 86% of expat parents in Singapore are satisfied with their family life in general (vs. 79% globally).

Family life in Hong Kong does not seem to be as good — it only lands in 27th place out of 36. Despite this low ranking, it seems that expat parents are particularly happy with the quality of education, as Hong Kong is ranked third for this factor, beaten only by Singapore (2nd) and Finland (1st). Unfortunately, this high quality comes at a cost: Hong Kong comes in next to last (35th) for the affordability of education. Moreover, less than half the expat parents (46%) agree that education options are numerous and easily available, with 17% stating they don’t think so at all (vs. 53% and 9% globally).

Further Reading