Home big read The Big Read: Can the growing number of ultra-rich in Singapore live in harmony with the average Joe?

The Big Read: Can the growing number of ultra-rich in Singapore live in harmony with the average Joe?

The Big Read: Can the growing number of ultra-rich in Singapore live in harmony with the average Joe?
The number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals with a net-worth of over US$30 million (S$40 million) in Singapore is projected to rise in the next few yearsThey are attracted to Singapore due to its economic hub status, stability, and safety, among other reasons However, sociologists warn that the ultra-rich will be expected to conduct themselves with restraint, and not be too flashy with their wealthAttention should also be paid on how the super wealthy contribute to society in tangible ways such as through philanthropy or job creationIf not, it could lead to societal tension and even increased xenophobia, given Singapore’s egalitarian values 

By Justin Ong Published June 2, 2023 Updated June 2, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — 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 US$30 million (S$40 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 US$30 million (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.” 

According to residents and shopkeepers, Empress Road Market & Food Centre is not your typical neighbourhood wet market. 

Nestled between a Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate and a condominium, it is just a short walk away from Victoria Park, Cornwall Gardens and Woollerton Park — estates which are made up largely of Good Class Bungalows, the largest class of homes in Singapore’s property landscape, with many worth eight-digit sums. 

The Empress Road Market & Food Centre has inadvertently become a melting pot where both the ultra-wealthy and the average Singaporean rub shoulders with each other daily.

Agreeing, Ms Pearlyn Chew, partner for family office and private clients at KPMG, said that other than its economic hub status, Singapore is an attractive place for these individuals because of the city’s excellent quality of life, high standards of education and healthcare, as well as its “strategic geographical position as a gateway for investments in the region”. 

“These factors have given ultra-high-net-worth individuals the confidence that Singapore is an ideal jurisdiction to be based in and influences their choice of domicile, wealth investments and succession plans,” she said. 

Mr Song added in the past couple of years, Singapore has also attracted a new wave of ultra-wealthy for another reason: The perception that Singapore had responded well to the pandemic. 

He said that among the other financial powerhouses in the region, such as Hong Kong and China, Singapore’s handling of the crisis was relatively smoother and its reopening to business was also quicker. 

“Post-pandemic, what happened was that Singapore stood out as being able to manage the pandemic safely, and that got the attention of many who didn’t think of Singapore before.

“They realise it is not just about financial well-being, but also their own physical well-being for themselves and their family,” Mr Song said.


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 Mr Song.

“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.” 

Mr Song said that there are likely many ultra-wealthy individuals or families in the region who want to invest in Singapore and set up companies here, but it is imperative that the Government choose only those who are able to add the most value and opportunities for the average Singaporean.

“Simply put, Singapore can be picky, because there is a queue,” he said. 

Agreeing, Ms Chew added: “Singapore will need to attract ‘top-tier families’ who are dedicated to growing alongside the nation and integrating into its social and economic fabric.” 


Back in 2018, an unauthorised secondary school social studies guidebook, which contained sweeping generalisations about people in Singapore from high and low socio-economic status (SES), generated significant flak online, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong weighing in on the incident during a speech in Parliament. 

The book, among other things, claimed that those of low SES speak Singlish, play soccer or basketball, and eat at hawker centres, while the high SES speak formal English, play golf or tennis, and only eat at fine restaurants.

“Singaporeans were appalled, and rightfully so,” Mr Lee told Parliament. 

He added that while lifestyle choices can become separators in society to show “who is in and who is out”, the general tone of Singapore 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.”

Indeed, the sentiment that the wealthy should not show off their social advantages cannot be more apparent than when looking at online discussions related to the issue. 

Last month, a LinkedIn user by the name of Satwant Kaur had posted on the professional networking platform that those who live in HDB estates are “very different” from “private residence people”. 

She added that it was hard for her to live in Singapore when the Government allows “HDB people” to take up jobs in private residential estates, and that contact with them should be limited. 

The post sparked outrage among netizens, with some calling her post discriminatory and elitist, while others branded the content as hateful. 

The post has since been deleted.

Some Singaporeans whom TODAY spoke to also expressed a similar disdain for individuals who engage in ostentatious display of their wealth. 

One resident at a HDB estate along Farrer Road, which overlooks the Woollerton Park estate, said that he sometimes feels a “tinge of jealousy” when he sees children, whom he believes come from well-off families, walking around near his estate using expensive headphones.

“I’m working so hard just to buy my headphones, but this kid is just walking around with a pair of (branded headphones),” said the 37-year-old, who wanted to be known only as Mr Heng. 

However, the jewellery business owner said that he does not let these sentiments fester, because he rationalises that having such wealth is what he, and many Singaporeans, aspires for.

“In the end, if you want to be wealthy, you can’t hate wealthy people,” he said. “You can’t dislike these people if you want to be them, and you want your children to be them.” 

An aversion to the flashiness aside, some Singaporeans are more concerned with the attitude shown by the ultra-rich towards those around them. 

“I think the (UHNWIs) should not exacerbate their class differences because they have to empathise with those less fortunate around them,” said Ms 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 housewife. 

Sociologists pointed out that the culture of restraint as highlighted by PM 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,” Assoc Prof Chua added. 

Agreeing, NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that such disdain for flashiness points towards an egalitarian culture here, which is the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

“Broadly speaking, most Singaporeans see themselves as middle class and potentially upwardly mobile,” said Dr Tan.

“This in turn translates into a more or less ‘egalitarian’ culture, which would therefore not look upon ‘showiness’ very kindly.”

This is because with most Singaporeans being middle class, they will see those who stick their head out of the crowd as “deviants”, he added. 

Given Singapore’s density, it is inevitable that the ultra-rich will come into contact with the average Singaporean in their daily lives.

Mr Heng, the jewellery business owner, said that at Empress Place Market & Food Centre, he often observes these interactions, such as those between the ultra-wealthy retiree and the shopkeepers. 

By and large, he has had no issues with any of these UHNWIs, and sees them as no different from himself in these public spaces. 

“Everyone still ends up going to the market — if you are a retired uncle who lives in a HDB flat, or a multi-millionaire living in a good class bungalow, you still end up queuing at the same hawker stall,” he said. 

“It doesn’t matter, because (the ultra-wealthy) queue up nicely, it’s not as if they behave in a way that is unpleasant and distasteful,” he said.