On any given night at the new W Singapore Sentosa Cove, a glittering glass structure trimmed in neon and flanked by private marinas, sleep comes secondary to pretty much everything else. Positioned squarely at the center of one of the island-nation’s most exclusive neighborhoods—you pay a toll to enter—the hotel offers views of the South China Sea, $8 million residence suites, and one of the most popular Sunday night parties in town. It has been packed since its October launch.
The W represents just a sliver of the new Singapore, which is quickly becoming the prime destination for the ultra-rich from around the globe who come for low taxes, investment opportunity, and a quality of life that includes a sophisticated, if oftentimes excessive, nightlife scene and top notch shopping. According to a 2012 report from Boston Consulting Group, Singapore now has the highest percentage of millionaires in the world, with 17 percent of its resident households holding $1 million or more of disposable private wealth—up from just 3 percent in 2010. Ten in every 100,000 households qualifies as “ultra high net worth,” defined as having more than $100 million in private financial wealth. Much of this new influx of cash has been at the hands of a growing expat community eager to take advantage of Singapore’s prominence as a major financial center: The U.S. Embassy in Singapore reports that some 100 Americans opted out of U.S. citizenship in Singapore in 2011, almost double the number in 2009.
“We are seeing money going to Singapore; we are seeing people going to Singapore,” says Manhattan international tax attorney and CPA Christopher J. Byrne, who points out that as Switzerland faces new, stricter tax regulations and calls for transparency, Singapore is quickly becoming the world’s top center for offshore wealth. “These are educated, global citizens who are maybe fed up with higher U.S. tax rates, or the threat of them, and worldwide taxation, and who want a safer haven than Europe which, of course, is on the ropes.” Most clients, he says, choose to invest in private equity and hedge funds, but property is becoming a draw, too, especially for Americans who are exempt from the country’s surcharge on the purchase of residential property by foreign nationals. Top individual income tax rates are 20 percent, there are fewer regulatory hurdles, and unlike the U.S., Singapore does not tax capital gains. “The tax regime is reasonable, the legal system is fair,” says Byrne. “It’s a very appealing place for global businesspeople.” Recent new residents have included Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Australian retail and property magnate Brett Blundy, who join longtime resident American investor Jim Rogers, among many others. Jet Li lives here, as does author Tea Obreht.
“Singapore is an island of commercial stability in a sea of ambiguity,” says entrepreneur Hugh Mason, who moved to Singapore from the UK in 2009 to invest in local start up companies. “Southeast Asia is where the next billion people are coming online and where economic development is booming. Singapore is a hub not just for transport but also for telecoms and commerce. And it’s one of the few places where you can sign a contract and expect to get paid.” (Corruption, says Mason, is very rare.) Singapore would seem, indeed, the new land of opportunity. “Singapore is awash with cash for investment,” he says. “It’s given me the ability to build a regional business in a way that I just don’t think would have been possible in Europe.”
But perhaps most of all—and why so many people are opting to relocate rather than just merely invest—is that Singapore is a pretty great place to live: clean, safe, and conveniently located, with good hospitals and schools; a place where the affluent can feel both secure and stimulated. There is plenty to spend your money on, whether your tastes skew towards the African ostrich skin-covered seating and $26,000 cocktails at year-old nightclub Pangaea or the more eclectic boutiques of the SoHo-like Tiong Bahru. The subways are air-conditioned and spotless and the water is drinkable. “For people who want to leave the country they’re living in for financial reasons, maybe you’d go to the Cayman Islands or Belize in the past,” says Byrne. “That’s good for about two weeks, and then you realize you have nothing to do besides play golf. In Singapore, you have that—plus a business life.” Adds Mason, “Despite the fact that the island is so small that it takes only 40 minutes to drive from one end to the other, we haven’t been bored for a minute in four years.”