The Expat Factor

It’s a commonly held belief that Caucasian expat guys get better service, can get away with anything, and steal all the women. But is this just an urban myth or is there some reality to this? We pitted two guys against each other and got them to perform a series of tasks to see how each one fared. Our two guinea pigs, one expat and one Singaporean, hit the streets and discovered that all is not what we thought it would be.
(Left) The Expat: Thorsten Tripp
Do you think Caucasian male expats have it better in Singapore than everyone else? “I’m not sure. This city is open, friendly and even when I first arrived, I was approached and asked if I needed help. Maybe if you are a typical expat and act arrogant then you would get better service, but I try to be better than that. I think if you’re a foreigner you have to play by the rules.”
What do you think will happen during the experiment?
“They will rip me off at Newton for sure. I once had an experience where I ordered three prawns, some Hong Kong noodles and one plate of kailan there and they charged me $78. I think it’s easier [to avoid getting ripped off] if you know the prices and can speak a bit of Singlish. But I still definitely pay more. In the real estate market they definitely try to push the prices up as well.”
(Right) The Local: Craig Monteiro
Do you think Caucasian male expats have it better in Singapore than everyone else? “At first glance, yes. But if you dig a little deeper you find it’s not so easy for them here. For instance, dealing with local contractors can be difficult; if you use local jargon you can get a better deal. It will take new expats longer to figure out that using a term like “auntie” or “uncle” is what we do here, not “excuse me.” Expats find it more difficult to be street smart about the local ways unless there is someone to show them.”
What do you think will happen during the experiment?
“I think out of all the tasks the expat will have an easier ride for three. Service-wise he will get a lot better service. It will be an eye-opener to see if he gets approached when he’s lost as well. I think he will be. If I were to stand with a map I don’t think any Singaporeans would come and help. Singaporeans are helpful to foreigners but we’re shy about talking to locals. We tend not to volunteer information because we don’t want to seem kaipo.”
The Job Market
The Test: So first things first, we’ve gotta know about the cash situation—do expats earn more money than locals simply because they’re Caucasian? We sent resumes with equivalent experience levels to three recruitment houses to see how Craig and Thorsten fared. Of the three, two responded.
Recruitment house A estimated our expat could expect a salary in the range of $150,000-170,000 a year plus bonus, from the experience listed on his resume. Recruitment house A also contacted our local and aggressively attempted to secure an interview with him, but refused to disclose a salary price range until he first disclosed his current salary.
Recruitment house B estimated our local could expect an annual salary of $120,000-140,000 based on his experience. They did not contact our expat.
Verdict: Things here turned out as we’d expected: Our expat completely steamrolled our local and was offered a starting salary of $30,000 more, (albeit the numbers are from different recruitment houses).
House Hunting
The Test: Since we don’t see that many white folk out in suburbs like Serangoon Gardens or Bukit Panjang, we wanted to find out if there were any obstacles that prevent locals and expats from mingling in the same neighborhood.
We had both our expat and our local call up the same real estate agents to enquire about housing rental prices. Both first called an agent for a property off Farrer Road, a largely expat condominium that had been advertised as “Expat’s Choice.” When contacted the agent quoted the same advertised price to both our volunteers, and then went on to immediately ask what race our volunteers were. When questioned about why, she said that the landlord did not want certain ethic groups in her apartment. The agent didn’t try to push either of our volunteers into a higher price bracket.
Our volunteers then both contacted another agent in regards to a condominium in Toa Payoh that is largely housed by locals. In both cases the agent quoted the same price to both the expat and the local, and was friendly but didn’t try to push either of our volunteers.
Verdict: Contrary to our expectation, we were surprised to find that neither of the estate agents took our volunteers’ nationality (as opposed to race) into consideration. So does this mean we can expect to see more expats in Tampines then?
Tourist Attraction
, The Expat FactorThe Test: Street food is our national pride and joy, so what better place to test out our treatment of foreigners than at the iconic Newton Food Centre? We sent our volunteers to Newton to order the same meal and see if there was a price and service difference. The pair were only seated about 20 meters away from each other, the items they ordered were roughly the same size, yet they received quite different bills.
Our expat was approached by between five to six hawkers. Our local was approached by between six to seven hawkers who were initially aggressive, but then backed off when he took awhile to order. Neither experienced any up-selling once they ordered. Here’s the shocker: Despite ordering the same food, and neither party bargaining, the expat was charged $28 more than the local!
, The Expat Factor
Verdict: We did expect a price difference, but even we, the street-wise folk at I-S, were shocked by this one. Thirty dollars can buy you quite a few big fat drinks, which our expat would certainly need after being ripped off so blatantly.
At Your Service
, The Expat FactorThe Test: So we all know Singaporean service is not quite up to standard and we’re convinced it’s even worse if you’re a local. So to test the waters, our guinea pigs went to a number of establishments to find out just how service standards differ for foreigners and locals.
High End Retail—Our volunteers separately went into a well-known high end retail store in Paragon. In both situations the store was either empty or had very few other customers. Both our volunteers walked around the store for around 10 minutes and were ignored while the service staff chatted among themselves. Eventually our local was approached by someone who was heading into the store’s office to answer the phone and happened to pass by. The sales staff asked a few questions about what our volunteer wanted to purchase, offered some suggestions, but didn’t try to close the sale. Our expat left the store after 10 minutes because he was not approached.
Mid-Range Retail—Both our volunteers went to a well-established electronics retailer in Ngee Ann City to enquire about LCD televisions. Both were shown exemplary service: They were approached immediately by helpful staff, they were provided with the information they needed, and the staff didn’t try to up-sell them. In both cases the staff spent over 10 minutes with our volunteers. Our local was shown televisions in the price range of between $1,999-2,400 for a 34-inch television suitable for an HDB flat. Our expat was shown televisions in the price range of between $3,000-3,500 for a 40-inch television.
Tourist Area Retail—We sent our volunteers to the same camera shop in Lucky Plaza to enquire about a digital camera. In both cases the store was crowded with foreign sailors. The expat was given very minimal service. He was shown models priced between $150 and $300 but as the shop was busy the staff didn’t try too hard to persuade him to buy. His transaction lasted about five minutes.
Our local waited in the middle of the store for about five minutes without being approached for service. Eventually he managed to make eye contact with a staff member and was shown a camera priced at $599. The staff showed him how it operated, and tried to bargain him down to $570. When our local still looked disinterested, the staff took him aside to a quiet part of the store and asked if he was a sailor from the ship that had recently arrive in Singapore. When our volunteer mentioned that he was actually a local, the price dropped to $512. The sales person was quite pushy and actively tried to close the deal.
Bar Service—On the same Saturday night we sent our two volunteers to the same two bars to have a few drinks and check out the scene. In the first bar (one frequented by both expats and locals) they received the same service. In the second bar (one frequented mainly by locals) their experiences were quite different. When our expat arrived there was no queue to get in, and he found it easy to obtain bar service the entire night, despite the bar being packed. When our local arrived there was quite a long queue outside the bar. One of the staff approached him and told him a way he could bypass the queue so he wouldn’t have to wait too long. But once inside, our local found it more difficult to get a drink. He was not approached even when he stood at the bar and made eye contact—after several minutes of waiting he was only served when he asked someone if he could have a drink.
, The Expat FactorTaxis—Throughout the experiment our volunteers took cabs from the same places at roughly the same times. Neither had a problem with flagging cabs from the side of the road or with taxi drivers taking them the wrong way.
Verdict: Our service experiment yielded mixed results. We were right that service standards are pretty poor no matter who you are—whether in a bar or in an expensive branded store, service was often not initiated; our volunteers had to ask for it, if they received it at all. But we were surprised that there didn’t really seem to be any difference in the type of service our volunteers received—apart from the massive savings in Lucky Plaza, of course.
Helping a Stranger
The Test: So our professional service staff might not want to help out their customers, but we also wanted to test whether people in the street were more responsive to foreigners or to locals. We reluctantly acknowledge that we’re pretty self-centered people, but we’d like to think that we will put on a smiling face for visitors—just like we enthusiastically did during IMF. To find out if this is true, we made both our guinea pigs stand in Orchard Road for 15 minutes on a busy Saturday holding a map and looking perplexed to see how long it would take for someone to offer to help them. In both cases the street was quite crowded with lots of people shopping and hanging around. After exactly fifteen minutes one of the promotional staff from a stall nearby, who must have seen our volunteer standing there for some time, came and asked our local if he needed help. No one approached our expat, although several people walked past and then turned back to stare at him.
Verdict: Again, we Singaporeans managed to surprise ourselves. Our volunteers found that, far from being welcoming, we were only willing to help a stranger after they’ve been floundering for quite a long time. That is, as our expat found, if we help at all.
The Singles Scene
, The Expat FactorThe Test: Time for the crucial test—can our boys really complain that the local talent pool is shrinking because of those darned expats? To help us suss out the theory that expat guys have more luck picking up local girls, we sent our two volunteers to two bars to try out their luck. In the first bar both the volunteers were equally unsuccessful. But in the second bar (one packed with locals and very few Caucasian foreigners), there was vast difference. Throughout the same night our expat was approached by between five to seven local girls, all quite good-looking, trying to strike up a conversation with him. One girl even dragged him across the bar to where her friend was standing and then asked if she could kiss him. Our local was not approached.
Verdict: Maybe it’s a stereotype, but given the vast discrepancy between their experiences, it’s difficult not to conclude our expat really was a magnet for Singaporean girls, and not just the SPGs.
The Analysis
The Expat: “Very interesting results, as I said, we get ripped off in Singapore! But even if Craig got the better deal, most of my friends (locals and expats) like Singapore. For the things we get, it’s still worth the price we have to pay. Sure, it is sometimes a disappointment to feel that I get treated differently, but to be honest this is how many other countries treat foreigners, including my own. And being a foreigner does also have its benefits. There are always two sides to the coin.”
The Local: “There were a few surprises—I thought I would have to really turn on the local thing to get a bargain but I didn’t really have to, and as an Asian I would have thought no one would come and help me when I was lost. But I really never thought that the margin would be so much at Newton—we are supposed to be a clean, safe and honest country. As locals we might save more money, but we don’t get as much attention from the local chicks, so I guess we should just go and find a Vietnamese wife!”
We’d love to say this myth is busted, but our experiment yielded mixed results. From what we saw we’d say we were right about two things: Expats have a higher earning potential than most locals, and they seem to have a better success rate Singaporean women. And the flip side is that being local seems to help the pocketbook. But in many situations, contrary to conventional wisdom, our expat and local didn’t seem to experience many differences in treatment at all. So maybe the expat factor is not as important as most people think. While there is still a gap in treatment, it seems to be getting smaller.