SINGAPORE, June 3 — It was a typical weekday morning at Empress Road Market & Food Centre — a neighbourhood wet market off Farrer Road — where a 68-year-old retiree was spotted buying a bouquet of flowers.
She was dressed casually, save for a pair of branded shoes and watch which only the eagle-eyed might have noticed.
It was hard to tell that this woman belongs to a group known as ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs), defined as individuals with a net worth of at least S$40 million (RM136 million).
Speaking to TODAY later, she revealed that she lives in a bungalow at Woollerton Park, just a five-minute-walk away from the market.
She shared that she is a retired legal counsel from Malaysia, who used to deal with clients from Europe and the United States.
It was only later in the interview, and only under the condition of anonymity, that she revealed that her net worth is more than S$40 million, though she would not say how much her actual net worth is.
“We dress up only when we go for events, otherwise, we are really down to earth, we dress simply,” said the retiree.
“It’s about humility, you want to be able to get along with everyone, and not to show off that we are three steps higher, (because) we are not,” she said. “It hurts people unnecessarily.”
“We had opportunities that enabled us to do better than others.”
The retiree is one among a growing number of UHNWIs in Singapore.
According to a report by real estate consultancy Knight Frank released late last month, Singapore’s population of UHNWIs saw a 6.9 per cent increase to 4,498 in 2022, up from 4,206 in 2021.
This, even as the global population of such ultra-rich individuals declined by 3.8 per cent in 2022, compared to the year before.
The report also predicts that Singapore will witness a 17.7 per cent growth in its UHNWI population to around 5,300 by 2027.
Why it matters
Economists said that the ultra-wealthy are drawn to Singapore due to well-known factors such as the island’s continuing stability, even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lack of an explicit wealth tax compared to other jurisdictions.
Certain government incentives for the UHNWIs to expand their business activities here also serve as a magnet for them.
From an economic standpoint, the Government has signalled that the ultra-wealthy who come here should preferably create jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and on a large scale.
For one, the Government has tightened requirements for eligibility to the Global Investor Programme (GIP), which allows individuals to apply for permanent residency (PR) under the scheme.
The GIP, first introduced in 2004, used to grant PR status to eligible foreigners who invest at least S$2.5 million in a new or existing business, but this figure has been raised significantly to S$10 million, inclusive of paid-up capital, since March this year.
The higher investment requirement is indicative of how seriously the Government views the UHNWIs’ potential to contribute to Singapore’s economy, said CIMB Private Bank economist Song Seng Wun.
“Clearly, the Government wants to see track records,” he said. “If an individual says that he can contribute to the Singapore economy, then show me.”
However, the most effective way that these UHNWIs can help Singapore is not just in creating jobs for Singaporeans, but also in helping the less-fortunate.
Should their businesses create jobs only for the upper-middle class for instance, this would mean that only one segment of society progresses, while others are left behind, said Mr Song.
“Finding the balance is making sure that not just one or two segments of society benefit, but across the board, including the lower income benefit as well,” he added.
This can be done through not only creating jobs for diverse segments of the population, but also via philanthropic work and setting up of charities or scholarships for the less fortunate.
The big picture
Despite the economic gains, having a significant number of UHNWIs among the population may, from a sociological perspective, give rise to several challenges.
Given Singapore’s size, sociologists said it is inevitable the ultra-rich and the average Singaporean will interact often, and there is a risk that some of these encounters may not be pleasant.
While the ultra-wealthy retiree appeared to get along well with the shopkeepers at Empress Road Market & Food Centre, not all of the ultra-wealthy are as friendly, said the stall owners.
Though most of their high-net-worth customers treat them with respect, there are a few “bad apples”, they added.
For instance, Chan Teck Chye, an owner of a vegetable stall at the market, said that there are some affluent customers living around the area who behave rudely.
He claimed that some of these customers would also engage in name-dropping, boasting about their connections to well-known people, or turn snobbish by saying things like “do you know who I am?”
However, Chan added that such rude customers are few and far between.
Singaporeans whom TODAY spoke to said it is imperative that the UHNWIs do not flaunt their wealth, and also treat those around them with respect regardless of financial status.
“I think the (UHNWIs) should not exacerbate their class differences because they have to empathise with those less fortunate around them,” said Sandra Choong, a resident at d’Leedon, a condominium along Farrer Road close to several landed property estates.
“Maybe they can’t help to wear branded goods and drive nice cars, but at least they should not put down others, the way they talk is the most important,” said the 44-year-old.
It is hence important for the UHNWIs here to note that there is a prevailing “culture of restraint” in Singapore, said sociologists.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament in 2018 that the general tone of Singapore regarding the flaunting of wealth is “one of restraint”.
“We must discourage people from flaunting their social advantages. We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well-off and privileged,” he had said.
“We should emphasise our commonalities, not accentuate our differences.”
Sociologists pointed out that the culture of restraint as highlighted by Lee is one that is traditionally prevalent in Asian societies such as Singapore.
Associate Professor Vincent Chua, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at National University of Singapore (NUS), said that the flaunting of wealth is not widely accepted in Singapore due to the presence of a “communitarian ideology”.
“As opposed to the ‘rights’ of individuals to get rich and flaunt their wealth, the emphasis here is more weighted towards the ‘duty’ that one has of preserving social harmony between groups.”
He said that this is why the ultra-wealthy are “relatively well-hidden” in Singapore.
“Standardisation is valued over standing out from the crowd,” Chua added.
Choong, the housewife, said that while the ultra-rich in Singapore are generally restrained in how they display their wealth, this might not always be the case in the future.
“I’m very worried, because in social media, you see a lot of people get influenced by the rich flaunting their riches, mainly from overseas, or even local influencers,” she said.
An increased culture of showiness here would lead to an accentuation of class differences, which could “tear at social cohesion”, and also stir feelings of envy, said Chua.
However, sociologists said that while it is good to maintain a “veneer” of social harmony by ensuring that the ultra-rich are more discreet when displaying their wealth, this should not be the only focus.
Instead, one should also keep an eye on whether the ultra-wealthy here are spending their time and money in ways that can improve the lives of the average Singaporean, said sociologist Shannon Ang from Nanyang Technological University.
“None of these outward displays of wealth really tell us whether the rich are putting the bulk of their money towards the good of society, such as whether they are creating jobs, whether they are paying their taxes, whether their presence produces a net benefit for Singaporeans,” he said. — TODAY