To live in Dubai or Singapore


Standing in the middle of the metro, the public train transportation in Dubai, after a typical day at work, I felt like I was in “United Nations Central.” I had squeezed into an all-female carriage, designated by law in Dubai where one carriage in every train were for women only while the rest of the carriages were open to both male and female. Amongst the cacophony of conversations, a mixture of languages was heard, English, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog etc.

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(Passengers inside the metro during off-peak hours)

Upon my return to Singapore I overheard a mixture of foreign languages spoken in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) as well. It was also a tight squeeze in the carriage during the after-work peak hours. I recalled the situation was different in Singapore 2 years ago but Singapore has changed. Seeing the current similarities between the cities, I wondered which one is better to live in?

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(Picture of the Dubai Metro -equivalent of MRT)

Both Dubai and Singapore are relatively small cities, both have economies based mainly on trade with little natural resources. Dubai’s oil reserves have greatly diminished, it controls its own economic development and currently needs help from fellow emirate state, Abu Dhabi and in an attempt to integrate themselves into the international system both have evolved from a small town or village to become part of the top 20 global cities in the world today.


Quality of life

There are of course differences. The employment package for us “middle income” foreigners moving to Dubai for work was better than a Singaporean in Singapore, as we had to leave our home country on a permanent basis. The 2-year stint in Dubai felt like a “dream” come true for me and my husband. We stayed in a rented apartment with a rooftop swimming pool just like a condominium in Singapore. We owned a sports car with no COE or expensive petrol in this country where crude oil was found and sports cars were seen at almost every turn of the road. The shopping malls are humongous such that when scoured, can become a person’s cardio workout for the day. There is no income tax and selected areas are tax free from import duties so it was easier for us to save money during our stay in Dubai.

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(Our “luxurious” yet affordable car in Dubai)

In Singapore, although population density is higher, achieving Dubai’s quality of life is possible. Instead of renting, we can own a brand new HDB flat after waiting for 3 to 4 years, with high cost and cash payments for car purchases, we have second thoughts about buying a car and shopping malls are a tad smaller than Dubai’s, containing less space for shoppers to roam. We could enjoy the same things but at a higher taxed cost and achieving these “five Cs” take more effort and/or time to achieve.

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(Picture of the reception and lobby at our apartment. Furniture is designed by Fendi)

Dependence on a foreign workforce

Under the cover of a dazzling lifestyle, problems still exist in Dubai. There are nearly 2.5 million people living in Dubai and foreigners outnumber local Emiratis at a ratio of 11 to 1; the gleaming skyscrapers are built on the backs of labourers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and China. The service industry is unwanted by locals and is thus filled up by foreigners. Every purchase made in Dubai, from the daily necessities at the supermarket or home delivery for laundry or food to the buying of movie tickets is made possible by the existence of a foreign workforce most of whom come from the Philippines, India and China. It is difficult for locals to compete with more experienced foreigners in the job market contributing to local anxiety on their shrinking minority status and expat-led unrest with no trade unions. Of course citizenship here is difficult to attain and residency is subjected to the employment visa. The government has also set up the Emiratisation Programme that sets aside protected jobs just for local Emiratis, though the local population is increasing.

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(The Dubai International Financial Centre -tax free zone-)

Upon my return to Singapore, non-residents (foreigners) account for about 28% of the total population of 5.31 million, a much smaller percentage as compared to Dubai but many have already taken up roles unfilled by Singaporeans particularly in the service and construction industries as well. Yet, Singaporeans still play a major role in the job market for now and in the recent National Budget 2013, the government has increased foreign worker levies and revised dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) or the maximum permitted ratio of foreign staff to the total workforce in a sector. DRC in the services sector, for instance, will be lowered from 45% to 40% of the workforce.

Singaporeans are not left out in the Budget. The Progressive Wage Model (PWM) advocates an increase in productivity together with pay. Through accreditation and licensing PWM ensures workers are equipped with new skills that warrant an increase in job before they get an increase in pay and this progressively goes up a tripartite-agreed in different sector for different kinds of workers. This raises the level playing field of Singaporeans in the job market.

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(Sightseeing at the Burj Al-Arab)

A sense of permanence

With the onset of foreigners coming in and going out of Dubai, the soul is transitory; consisting of flow of people rather than permanent residents. Life seemed superficial. 95% of the inhabitants are temporary with no legal permanence and even for me, friends come and go. There was little engagement or social integration between the state and its residents. Thus, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging there.

As for Singapore, I am a citizen with voting rights and can make a vital contribution to the future of Singapore and its society. I have family and friends here for the long term as well as a house I can call my own in time to come. That is why I have chosen to come back and live in Singapore.

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(We stumbled upon the personal car of Dubai’s Sheikh)

  1. Hi Yan Ping,

    I came across your very informative and interesting blog googling for singaporean experiences in Dubai.

    I hope to tap your invaluable experience in Dubai, to seek advice from you on a potential stint in Dubai.

    I am offered a role in a government authority in Dubai,and recently just received my offer letter. I am looking forward to an overseas stint and the prospect of an expat package is always attractive.

    May I know if it is normal to have basic salary only package? I wasn’t given any transport and housing allowance. I am also surprised to see that it did not include year-end bonuses too.

    There are too much fuzz in the brief one-page offer letter, such as accomodation and rental, utilities bills, phone bills, performance related incentives etc. I should be expecting a detailed contract with insurance and medical benefits shouldn’t I? The letter of offer did state 30 days of paid leave.

    Hope to gain some valuable insights from you! I am a risk mgmt specialist with 5 years of experience in my field. IT would be great if you can let me know whether a 30K AED basic is equitable and enough for me to survive considering i may have to pay for transport and housing?



    1. Hi Charlie

      I am also a risk mgt specialist (Cert. FRM) with 15yrs bank experience and a Masters degree. I have been applying for jobs in Dubai with no luck so far. Any suggestions on websites and recruiters?

  2. Hi Charlie!

    Glad to know you are thinking of going to work in Dubai! Depending on your lifestyle and whether you are bringing a partner along, expenditure a month could take up about 30% to 50% of the basic salary. Variables could include location and size of your apartment, cooking, eating at cheaper places, taking the metro…etc.

    For a typical expat package in Dubai, it is good if the employer includes at least housing allowance unless they give you a house to live in (transport is optional, not a must as cars are relatively affordable anyway, won’t be a problem for your basic)

    More importantly, the contract should at least include a generic clause on medical benefits & bonuses, details should come later. It might be good if you could look out for more opportunities and compare with what you have particularly in the private sector in Dubai as a 5-year relevant experience in the industry required by banks / financial institutions there could offer a better contract especially in terms of housing.

    A few thoughts: Will you be bonded in this contract? You could ask the HR for more details on your concerns, ie typical performance incentive structure, medical benefits etc. Also, a friend once advised me to visit the country at least once to see if I liked it before deciding to move over.

    Hope this helps and good luck in your search :)

  3. Hi Yan Ping,

    many thanks for your reply!

    As advice by you, I have made sure that the key medical and performance structure be included in the contract. While they are not budging on giving bonuses, the medical and insurance parts are taken care of.

    I’m sourcing for housing now and since I’m working near the Airport, I am advised to look at houses in Mirdif. My wife and I were however attracted to 1 bedder near downtown in Business Bay. They cost 60K/yr on average (e.g. apartments like Clayton and Mayfair).

    Would you recommend a new guy to start nearer to workplace or a more exciting place near downtown?

    I was told that driving from Business Bay to Airport would take over 30 mins! That is quite long for a 11KM route.

    thanks for all your advice again!

  4. Hi , Im Sri Lankan and willing to move abroad for a job. Can you please tell me which is nice to work and live from Singapore and Dubai?

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