Is grocery shopping in Singapore expensive? How about eating a meal at a hawker centre? Of course, if we were to compare the prices now and two or three decades ago (in almost every country), we’ll realise that things were a lot cheaper in the past – it’s called inflation, by the way.

Luckily for Singaporeans, food and grocery prices in Malaysia – the former’s neighbour – are a lot more affordable (for Singaporeans). Malaysia is also just a drive of an hour or two (depending on the traffic, it can go up to three or more hours, though) or commuters could even take a bus or railway train. How convenient!

Not “cheap”

Because Singapore’s currency is a lot stronger than Malaysia’s, Singaporeans feel like as if everything is cheap in Malaysia. This is especially for food, groceries, services (such as massage, facial treatments) and of course, car petrol.

So whenever a Malaysian friend, colleague or relative talks about rising standards of living in Malaysia, Singaporeans would snap back and say, “But everything is SO cheap in Malaysia! Look at the Macdonald’s filet-o-fish meal – it’s only RM9, that’s like less than S$3!”

Well, if Singaporeans were to compare it that way – by comparing the prices after converting the currencies, the filet-o-fish meal is indeed cheaper in Malaysia. But what Singaporeans fail to notice is that the wages in Malaysia are a lot lower – even before conversion. (Here’s one among many reasons why Malaysians want to work in Singapore.)

source: tradingeconomics.com

A local Singaporean financial blogger, AK, admits that he committed that mistake too. This is a short excerpt from his recent blog post (emphasis mine):

We are always saying how things are cheaper across the Causeway and I do it too. I have said it often enough to get rebuked by some of my Malaysian friends:

You Singaporeans only find it cheap because of the strong S$. Life is actually very difficult for common Malaysians, you know. And you people come here and drive prices up. You think the people in Johor like higher prices?”

Yes, AK’s friend was a little harsh if those were the exact words and tone of his or her message. Nevertheless, the key idea is that Singapore’s food and grocery prices are actually considered low as compared to Malaysia’s. Let me explain.

It is not fair to convert the prices in Malaysia to Singapore Dollars if we want to make an objective comparison of food and grocery prices between the two neighbouring countries. We need to consider the purchasing power of Malaysians. Not every Malaysian who works in Singapore lives in Malaysia.

A fairer comparison

Therefore, as AK suggests, we have to make a fair comparison by looking at the average wages of Singaporeans versus that of Malaysians. He found out that (emphasis mine):

“…an optometrist makes about RM4,000 in Malaysia but an optometrist (also) makes about S$4,000 in Singapore. The former pays RM9.00 (0.225% of his salary) while the latter pays S$5.00 (0.125% of his salary) for the same meal.

It’s almost two times more expensive to eat the same meal for Malaysians drawing a salary in their home country. So how is this even cheap for Malaysians?

In fact, it’s very expensive for the average Malaysian to buy a filet-o-fish meal as compared to an average Singaporean. The same is true even for hawker food.

S$6 for fishball noodles?

fishballmeeFishball noodles (Meepok dry); Source: Delishar.com

If you’ve ever been to Johor Bahru to eat hawker food, a bowl of fishball noodles would probably cost about RM6 or at the very most, RM9 (less than S$3) for a large bowl with extra toppings. Yes, it is indeed cheap for average Singaporeans.

Now, imagine paying S$6 to S$9 for a bowl of fishball noodles. Impossible, right? Singapore hawker centres would probably charge up to S$5 for a really large bowl but definitely not up to $9. But Malaysians have to pay RM6 for an average bowl.

What’s worse, food inflation is expected to increase even more in the coming months. Again, Malaysia’s food inflation (4.5 percent) is going to increase at a faster pace than in Singapore (2.5 percent), according to Trading Economics.

Apart from food and groceries, other items are expensive for Malaysians, too – remember, average Malaysians earn lesser than average Singaporeans even before conversion. And that isn’t going to change anytime soon.


source: tradingeconomics.com

Note that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in Malaysia has never been below Singapore, even since a decade ago.

So what’s the whole point?

Singaporeans (often) don’t realise and cherish the privilege of working and living in Singapore. Above all, Singaporeans have the convenience of crossing the border to visit the Johor Bahru for some weekend grocery shopping and family meals.

The key takeaway from this lesson is that the living standards in Singapore are by no means ridiculous, considering we’re one of the richest in the world.

Indeed, owning a car and house in Singapore is expensive but daily life expenses should be manageable for anyone who saves prudently.

On a social level, Singaporeans should learn to appreciate their Malaysian counterparts more, too. It is a known fact that Singapore’s workforce is heavily dependent on foreign talents and Malaysians make up a huge percentage.

The grass is always greener on the other side but in this case, not many Singaporeans would want to draw an average salary in Malaysia and be subjected to the rising cost of living, would we?

Meanwhile, many Malaysians are willing to go through the trouble and hardship of working in a foreign country away from home, like this girl.

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