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Why are wealthy Indians, foreigners opening family offices in Singapore

February 06, 2023 11:06 AM

Singapore: Singapore has seen tremendous growth as a wealth management centre in recent years. In the ten years from 2012 to 2021, assets under management have increased more than three-fold from SGD1.6 trillion (USD1.2 trillion) to SGD 5.4 trillion, according to data from Singapore's central bank, MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore). In just one year, 2021, it grew 16 per cent, the last year's data is available.

Three-quarters of this came from outside Singapore, with just under a third from Asia-Pacific countries. Indeed, some call Singapore the Switzerland of the East.
Recently, the trend of setting up family offices has been growing and has accelerated since the start of the pandemic and Singapore has managed to take a large slice of this market as well.

Family offices are privately held companies set up to manage the wealth and investments of the uber-rich. These family offices are usually set up with the objective of managing the financial and investment needs of affluent families or individuals including providing financial solutions, budgeting, insurance, charitable giving, wealth transfer and succession planning, and tax services.

Family offices are different from traditional wealth management in that they offer a total solution to managing the financial and investment needs of an affluent individual or family. Between 2020 to 2021, Singapore has seen the number of family offices set up in the city-state climb from 400 to 700. No data is available for 2022 at the moment but anecdotal evidence suggests that this trend continues to grow.

Chung Ting Fai, a lawyer who helps set up family offices, told Reuters that in late 2022, he had one enquiry a week from people who want to move at least USD20 million into Singapore. That's up from about an enquiry a month in 2021, while in January this year, he received two enquiries a week.

In October last year, Bloomberg reported that Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani ranked 10th richest man in the Forbes billionaires list for 2022, is establishing a family office in Singapore. The office will be set up by Reliance Industries, the billionaire's firm.

It is being believed that opening a family office in Singapore will help Ambani achieve his greater goal of turning his retail-to-refining business global. It will also help him buy assets abroad.

He is in good company. The likes of ultra-rich individuals like hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio and co-founder of Google Sergey Brin have chosen Singapore to establish their family offices. So have British inventor James Dyson famous for his bladeless fans and hair dryers and vacuum cleaners, and Zhang Yong, founder of China's Haidilao hotpot restaurant chain.

As it started to significantly ease COVID restrictions, being the leading Asian country to do so, Singapore has seen a fresh wave of affluent foreigners looking to park their wealth here. This is especially so among the Chinese as they became disenchanted by their government's draconian COVID policies. These mainlanders have become impatient and are keen to look at alternative destinations for their wealth.

Although China has now abandoned its zero-COVID policy, these wealthy Chinese are expected to continue to explore options outside of their home country, in part also due to concern about President Xi Jinping's common prosperity drive that aims to reduce inequality.

Besides the Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese citizens are also looking to set up family offices in Singapore. What attracts ultra-rich foreigners to Singapore to set up family offices is its tax-friendly regime and comparatively safe and secure environment. It is also seen as politically stable with clear transparent rules and an incorruptible system. Singapore also is an international financial centre which allows investment firms the ability to offer their clients a varied range of products and investment opportunities to suit their needs.

The arrival of the wealthy is leading to Singapore's resident population growing again after many expatriates left at the height of the pandemic. In 2022, the island received 30,000 more permanent residents and 97,000 more foreigners on work or long-term visas, lifting its population to 5.64 million.

However, the flood of the global rich squeezing onto the tiny island is causing some pain to the local population. Prices of cars, housing and other goods have escalated significantly. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong signalled in August last year that the wealthy may face more taxes to boost inclusive growth.

Singapore's new residents have sent rents surging 21 per cent in the first nine months of last year. Home prices have also jumped over the past two years with mainland Chinese buyers continuing to be the top foreign buyers of expensive private properties.

The steep rise in golf memberships is but one sign of how the price of the symbols of affluence on the island has gone bonkers. Accordingly to the membership brokerage firm, Singolf Services, the membership cost to Singapore's prestigious Sentosa Golf Club has more than doubled since 2019 to reach SGD 880,000 (USD 665,000) for foreigners.

Desmond Teo, Asia Pacific family enterprise leader at consulting firm EY commented to Reuters that the inflows of money support Singapore's financial services sector and startups, creating a "rich ecosystem" that makes the country more attractive to new stakeholders. "When you hit a certain critical mass, the critical mass itself is an attraction," he said.

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