Wealthy immigrants in Singapore: Contributing back to society is part of the plan

Singapore has become a top choice for high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) to live in because of its pro-business environment, transparent system, as well as a stable and harmonious society. With increasing numbers of HNWIs immigrating here, many people are curious and concerned about who they are and how HNWIs are contributing to local society and communities. Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Wang Hwee Wen interviews HNWIs from China and Bangladesh to find out about their new lives in Singapore.
Seatrek Trans founder Asifur Chowdhury (in dark glasses) collecting food to be distributed to vulnerable households, 13 May 2023. (SPH Media)
Seatrek Trans founder Asifur Chowdhury (in dark glasses) collecting food to be distributed to vulnerable households, 13 May 2023. (SPH Media)

On my way to Orchard Road from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, my private hire driver was pointing out the luxury car brands he saw along the way — a Maserati, Lamborghini and Bentley ahead, and a champagne-coloured Aston Martin on the left. He suddenly exclaimed, “Wow! A Rolls Royce Phantom! They are probably owned by foreigners. There are so many of them now. Was it ever so easy to see a pink Maserati or a golden Rolls Royce on Singapore roads in the past?”

Although there was no proof that the luxury cars are owned by foreigners, the private hire driver’s intuitive perception and opinion are that of the majority. Indeed, the sharp increase in rentals of luxury houses, the overcrowded international schools, and the sudden emergence of high-end private clubs reflect the influx of overseas high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) to Singapore this year.

The well-heeled do not hesitate when buying luxury homes and cars, and these high-profile actions have caused a stir in tiny Singapore, sending ripples to Singaporeans who now hear of and feel the existence and influence of these HNWIs.

According to data from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the net inflow of funds to Singapore reached S$448 billion (US$333 billion) in 2021, the highest since records began in 2008. In recent years, the number of family offices established locally has significantly increased, almost doubling to 700 at the end of 2021 compared with 400 at the end of 2020. 

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The Maserati Grecale, one of the luxury cars that are increasingly seen in Singapore. (SPH Media)

The property cooling measures announced by the Singapore government at the end of April this year, such as the overnight increase of the Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty (ABSD) levied on foreigners from 30% to 60%, are clearly targeted to curb the rise in residential property prices due to overseas buyers, among other factors.

The government also highlighted that HNWIs may not necessarily be successful when applying for Singapore citizenship. The factors considered in their citizenship applications include their contribution to Singapore, the value creation, the number of local citizens employed, and their commitment to take root and integrate into the Singapore society.

... Koh hopes that these HNWIs, such as technology and innovation tycoons, can bring capital and the latest technology to Singapore to enhance some traditional industries and improve Singapore’s technological innovation ecosystem.

5% to 10% asset allocation for charity

Annie Koh, Professor Emeritus of Finance (Practice) at Singapore Management University who is also a senior advisor at the university's Business Families Institute, said that foreign HNWIs typically move to Singapore with their families. She noted, “Being new here, the priority of HNWIs and newly established family offices is to tackle the issues of housing, education, work and healthcare. The process to integrate with the local community takes time.” 

She explained that Singapore is a small country with limited housing resources, and the housing shortage is exacerbated by the slowdown of construction projects due to Covid-19. Consequently, housing prices have surged, causing increased pressure on middle-class Singaporeans.

On how the family offices that have recently relocated to Singapore can contribute, Koh hopes that these HNWIs, such as technology and innovation tycoons, can bring capital and the latest technology to Singapore to enhance some traditional industries and improve Singapore’s technological innovation ecosystem. She believes that the HNWIs can contribute to Singapore through soft and social capital, and in turn help develop Singapore’s human capital.

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Family offices have sprung up in Singapore with high net worth individuals relocating here. (SPH Media)

Ryan Lin, a director at Bayfront Law, has many clients who are HNWIs preparing to relocate their assets and set up family offices in Singapore. He highlighted that they seek security and stability in wealth and are therefore relatively cautious when investing, mostly choosing low-risk and stable investment projects. They will only proceed with investments in Singapore after a period of observation. 

These clients often ask Lin about the avenues for philanthropy in Singapore as they will usually allocate 5% to 10% of their assets for charity and community welfare after settling in. He explained, “The new generation of wealthy people has its views about charity. Some will seek out and donate in a targeted manner to local vulnerable groups or for specific causes, while others are concerned about environmental protection and want to do their part for planet Earth.”

This year, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) will launch Giving Circles as a platform for these HNWIs and family offices to gain more information, network and contribute to charity. The HWNIs can also use the existing Giving.sg platform to seek collaboration opportunities and contribute to groups in need. Last year, Giving.sg raised more than S$100 million.

Marcus Tang, deputy director of Community Partnerships at NVPC, said that NVPC is happy and willing to provide donation suggestions and assistance to newly established family offices or HNWIs in Singapore. He also encouraged the HNWIs to consider contributing towards developing skills and providing guidance as these bring direct, substantive impact to the community.

A shipping magnate’s commitment to community welfare

Bangladesh-born Asifur Chowdhury has lived in Singapore for 30 years and is now a Singapore citizen. He has set up an office in Collyer Quay with a clear view of Marina Bay Sands. In the distance, one can see numerous container ships, including those operated by Seatrek Trans, the shipping company founded by Asifur. 

He set up a charity fund and began to devote his time, about 40% of his wealth, and his accumulated network and experience over the years to community welfare.

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A general view of Singapore's central business district, including Collyer Quay. (SPH Media)

At its peak seven or eight years ago, the company operated 400 container ships. During the construction of Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, at least half of the cement needed was transported to Singapore by Asifur’s shipping company.

After narrowly escaping a health crisis last year, 60-year-old Asifur started to think about what he wanted to do next. Upon discussing with his family, he decided to shift his life focus to charity. He set up a charity fund and began to devote his time, about 40% of his wealth, and his accumulated network and experience over the years to community welfare.

Transport for migrant workers and meals for families in need

Every Sunday, buses sponsored by Asifur pick up migrant workers from four dormitories to spend their leisure time in Little India. He plans to expand this effort to benefit more migrant workers living in dormitories. Since May this year, his charity fund has also provided free lunches every Saturday to vulnerable families in the Tanjong Pagar district.

Zaobao’s interview with Asifur on a midday Saturday was conducted on his first visit to Tanjong Pagar to help the volunteers deliver the meals, since he started the lunch donation programme. For the first time in his life, he walked into the narrow corridors of HDB rental flats to deliver food door-to-door and chat with the families living there. Asifur was emotional upon hearing the difficulties they faced and sadly sighed, “It is difficult to imagine their plight if you do not come here to experience it for yourself. There are still many people in Singapore who need help.”

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Asifur Chowdhury distributing food in Tanjong Pagar, 13 May 2023. (SPH Media)

Asifur’s son, who grew up in Singapore, has also joined Asifur’s charity work in community welfare full-time. Asifur said, “My wife and I are most gratified and thankful for the simple and compassionate environment in Singapore that our two children have grown up in and fostered the correct values and kind hearts.”

“I realised that I was completely at ease when my eight- or nine-year-old children took the taxi home by themselves late at night after playing at their classmates’ homes. At that moment, I knew this country was the best place for us to live in.” — Bangladesh-born Asifur Chowdhury

In 1980, 17-year-old Asifur first arrived in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore after seven days on his father’s container ship that departed from Bangladesh. As soon as he came ashore, he was immensely attracted to the city, prompting him to consider moving to Singapore in the future to help his father manage his business. Asifur was from a prominent family, which was then one of the top ten richest families in Bangladesh. His father was also the first shipowner in Bangladesh.

After graduating with a master’s degree, Asifur brought his wife and two children from the UK to settle in Singapore in 1993 and help his father manage his company. A few years later, he founded his Singapore-based shipping company and his career soared.

Asifur said that he could have lived in the UK, Spain or anywhere in the world as his wife is originally from the UK. However, having settled in Singapore, he feels that this is their real home. He shared, “I realised that I was completely at ease when my eight- or nine-year-old children took the taxi home by themselves late at night after playing at their classmates’ homes. At that moment, I knew this country was the best place for us to live in. There is no other place in the world where I feel comfortable letting my children make their way home by themselves.”

Helping needy university students who want to be entrepreneurs

In addition to the ongoing donations, Asifur is also working with the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University to help financially strapped university students with their entrepreneurial aspirations. 

He said, “There are many outstanding university students in Singapore who have the ability to make a career for themselves. I hope that none of them will miss out on this opportunity because of poverty.” Asifur also thinks that in addition to financial assistance, he could use his many years of business experience and network to help them.

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Asifur Chowdhury settled in Singapore in 1993. (SPH Media)

As an immigrant who has long integrated with life in Singapore, Asifur reminds new immigrants not to associate only with people from their own countries but to make more local friends and friends of other nationalities. He believes that Singapore is originally an immigrant society and that people who come here should keep an open mind to integrate and accept people from different backgrounds. No matter where they come from, they must ask themselves why they chose to immigrate to Singapore. “When you come to live in a place, you should like and accept it instead of hoping that the place becomes what you expect it to be,” he said.

When she first arrived in Singapore, Zhou enrolled her eight-year-old daughter in a Catholic girls’ school instead of an international school.

Clothing chain founder finds sense of achievement in helping others

Forty-nine years old Zhou Haiyan and her husband, from Shanghai and Japan respectively, have resided in Singapore since 2009. Together with their three daughters, they have since become permanent residents of Singapore.

Zhou and her husband built from scratch a successful clothing chain business in China and Japan. Their company J’S Group has developed, designed and produced popular Japanese brands such as United Arrows, Beauty&Youth and Ships. It employs 1,000 people in its production bases in several cities in China, and its annual volume of garment export is more than 10 million pieces, with an annual export value of over US$100 million.

When she first arrived in Singapore, Zhou enrolled her eight-year-old daughter in a Catholic girls’ school instead of an international school. She believes that her children can integrate with local life more quickly by going to a local school and make many Malay and Indian friends that they have previously never encountered. 

By choosing a Catholic school, she also hoped that her children can learn about other beliefs and ways of life, apart from Buddhism. Indeed, Zhou came to love the grounded and down-to-earth life in Singapore after watching her three children grow up in a simple and natural environment, where they happily go to school every day.

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Zhou Haiyan is originally from Shanghai and is now a Singapore permanent resident. (SPH Media)

After moving to Singapore, Zhou and her husband set up their family office to invest in various areas, including hotels. They have also set up a financial services company that specialises in foreigners’ immigration to and investments in Singapore, including helping HWNIs to set up family offices in Singapore and invest.

Investing in environment-friendly furniture company and giving back to society

Zhou believes that caring for the earth is the duty and mission of humans. During Covid-19, she invested in JOS furniture, an office furniture company that emphasises environmental protection by recycling and reusing office furniture.

She is currently organising a charity project under J.O.E Eco Alliance to build a furniture recycling plant that crushes and compresses old office timber furniture for reuse, essentially reducing carbon emissions.

Zhou initially planned to invest S$2 million to build the plant and an education centre, employing 50 to 100 employees, but the total investments will ultimately be between S$5-10 million, with 200 to 300 employees. The profits from this charity recycling project will be continuously ploughed back into charity as contribution to society.

She believes that as a new immigrant in a place that welcomes all, she must take the initiative to find a common ground to communicate and integrate with the people.

Local integration through home visits

Zhou was influenced by Buddhism in her childhood and learnt to be compassionate to others. After arriving in the country, she encountered many Singaporeans with different backgrounds through the Singapore branch of Tzu Chi, a global Buddhist charity, and began to integrate into Singapore’s way of life.

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Participants at an event in conjunction with the birth of Buddha, Mothers' Day, and World Tzu Chi Day, 14 May 2023. (SPH Media)

During home visits organised by Tzu Chi, she met friends of different ethnicities. The friendliness that she experienced made her feel that she has “truly arrived in Singapore”.

Singapore’s diverse yet cohesive environment makes Zhou feel grounded and at ease. She believes that as a new immigrant in a place that welcomes all, she must take the initiative to find a common ground to communicate and integrate with the people.

Addressing the recent arrival of many new immigrants who have taken up resources in Singapore, such as housing and transport, Zhou said that both the new immigrants and the locals must put themselves in each other’s shoes. The entire process of communicating in order to integrate with each other also requires an inclusive attitude.

Having gone through the experience, she suggested to the new immigrants who may find difficulty in adapting, to keep an open mind and proactively visit hawker centres and coffee shops to learn about the place and its people. “Be bold and venture in to fully integrate,” she encouraged.

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Volunteers from Tzu Chi Singapore were among those preparing food for delivery to various hospitals, 15 June 2020. (SPH Media)

Zhou prepares lunch for Tzu Chi physicians at the home of a friend who is a Tzu Chi volunteer. Busying herself in the kitchen of the three-bedroom HDB flat, she is also relaxed and at home. This is a testament to her remark that “helping others is also our own achievement.”

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "落户狮城 外国富豪献爱心融入社会".

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