Shanghai and Singapore are both Asian hubs of finance and marketing. While the second city of the Chinese mainland dominates as a gateway to China’s robust manufacturing industry, Singapore remains central for those involved in logistics, and the shipping of those goods across the world.
Executives from each of these industries may find themselves with the opportunity to move to one metropolis or another, or to switch between them.
While similar in some ways, the two cities vary significantly for the most part. Shanghai is the cultural capital of the Chinese mainland proper. As cosmopolitan and international as it might seem, it is still China.
And like any other Chinese city – Shanghai is grappling with the rapid transition from a closed Communist society to a far more open and financially aggressive one.
On the other hand, Singapore’s Chinese culture has had time and distance to merge and shift in a melting pot with other Asian languages and traditions. Singapore’s development into a world-class city has also been quite quick – but it has not been as drastic as Shanghai’s.
Here are few key considerations when deciding between the two:
Singapore has four official languages – English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. Besides Singlish, the dominant local dialect that is a mix of expressions and grammar from each of those mother tongues, English and Mandarin are used most commonly.
Business is conducted in English, and most everyone you encounter in the city – from taxi drivers to work associates – will be able to engage with you in English.
This is not the case in Shanghai, where Mandarin still reigns dominant, and Shanghainese – the local dialect – takes second place.
English learning is becoming more and more common among Chinese people, with most young children starting from preschool age. However, many older and less educated people in the city can neither read nor speak any English, and have a hard time understanding Mandarin as spoken by a learner.
When you first arrive in Shanghai, prepare to repeat yourself to the taxi driver several times. English language does exist in pockets throughout the city, especially those areas where more expats are likely to live, and with some effort, you will pick up Mandarin faster than you expect.
Cleanliness and Order
Singapore prides itself on its reputation as a clean and orderly garden city. The civil code is rife with rules to make the city a clean and pleasant place to live – including regulations limiting smoking areas, prohibiting littering, preventing loud late night gatherings, and even penalizing jaywalking.
The metro systems employ workers to ensure that passengers waiting to board the next train queue up in an organised manner.
You may have had someone tell you that in Singapore, chewing gum is illegal. Well, that is only half right.
It is not illegal to have or to chew, but starting in 2004 – as a part of the effort to keep the streets free of discarded and sticky clumps – it became against the law to sell. While that might seem a bit extreme to some, it is a testament to the nation’s commitment to a clean living environment.
A move to Shanghai means preparing to brave the refuse. There is a different sensibility about public space and garbage. People spit and drop their trash on the sidewalks, and do not clean up after their pets’ waste. It’s not unlikely that you’ll find yourself sitting next to someone on the metro who is clipping their nails.
It may sound terrifying, but the chaos does create a sense of spontaneity and excitement. If you can find the humour in it, there is great sense of freedom.
Range of People
Visas for foreigners are hard to come by in both locations – but work passes are almost impossible for foreigners to attain in Singapore. Because of the small but highly educated local population, the burden is on employers to prove that a position could not be held by a Singaporean – but must be filled by that particular foreigner.
As a result, the expat population tends to be very senior in their business roles, making for an older and more settled population – generally higher educated, more conventionally employed, and farther along in their career path.
This competition is not so robust in China, where English or another language skill is often enough to qualify for the “expert certificate” required for a residence permit in Shanghai. So, a large percentage of the expats in Shanghai work as English teachers.
Increasingly tourism-friendly visa policies, like the recent shift to grant 10 year visas to American citizens, means that it is increasingly likely for individuals to move to China first and find employment once already there. This makes for a younger, more mobile expat population.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that you will encounter significantly more ethnic diversity in Singapore than in Shanghai. The mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Caucasian languages and traditions in the Lion City is a stark comparison to the relatively singular profile of Shanghai, as over 90% of the population is Han Chinese.
The government of the People’s Republic of China is doing what it can to change Shanghai’s worldwide reputation for poor air quality. Every winter, in the height of factory production and coal burning to heat the city’s countless apartment buildings, photos of the thick smog blocking the famous Shanghai skyline make their way across the internet.
Though some progress is being made year to year, before moving to Shanghai – it is important to prepare for the way air quality will impact your life.
Purchasing masks and in-home air filters is a must, and there will be the occasional day where schools and offices will be closed because the pollution impedes visibility.
Singapore only faces poor air quality for a season. From about August through late October, ocean winds blow smoke from Indonesian Palm Oil plantation fires northwards. Over the last few years, it has been particularly bad – forcing the citizens of the normally blue skyed Garden City to don their own masks.
Cost of Living
Cost of living varies drastically between the two cities. Singapore has a reputation as being one of the world’s most expensive cities, while Shanghai is known as one of the least.
According to the Cost of Living calculator, an individual would need the equivalent of only $4875 per month in Shanghai to live the same life as they would on $8300 in Singapore.
While the contrast is less drastic when it comes to food, clothing, and transportation prices – the largest difference between the two cities comes in terms of housing.