Hong Kong expats drive unprecedented demand for Singapore school places

Expatriates fleeing Hong Kong’s draconian pandemic restrictions are struggling to secure places for their children at Singapore’s top private schools, prompting some families to think twice about relocating to the rival financial centre.

International schools across Singapore told the Financial Times that they had received multiple times more inquiries than normal but were unable to meet the unprecedented demand.

Many international businesses are making plans to move staff from Hong Kong, where schools were closed again in January as the territory tightened restrictions. Companies including JPMorgan and Bank of America have considered relocations as border closures and tough quarantine measures make travelling from the city to meet clients almost impossible.

But growing waiting lists at Singapore’s schools are complicating those plans.

“It is very, very tough. The market is incredibly hot,” said Daniel Beatty, Asia general manager for nutrition group Glanbia, who relocated from Hong Kong in September and is trying to secure a secondary school place for his son.

“Families are saying: ‘Right, if we cannot get kids into places in Singapore . . . we’re planning to go to the UK or Australia.’”

Singapore-based Tanglin Trust School, a non-profit with 2,800 students and annual fees of up to S$46,965 (US$34,600), received as many applications in January and February as during the whole of last year, according to Craig Considine, the chief executive.

For every one place at the junior school there were about 15 families interested, he said.

“Gaining a place in a good school is a big driver” for those considering whether to relocate, said Considine, adding parents may move somewhere elsewhere if they could not get their child into the right school.

The Canadian International School, which has about 3,200 pupils across two Singapore campuses and charges fees of up to S$41,700 a year, has already received about seven times more inquiries in 2022 than in the previous six months, according to head of communications Michelle Sharp. As many as 10 families are after every one place in the most oversubscribed year groups.

The Perse School Singapore is receiving as many as 30 inquiries a day, said Benyna Richards, the principal. But she said there was no waiting list after many expats left the city-state last year before it loosened its Covid-19 restrictions.

Classrooms in Hong Kong, however, are quickly emptying, with rising demand in Singapore mirrored by the falling value of Hong Kong school debentures, a type of advance loan paid for priority admission.

Debentures for Harrow Hong Kong dropped to about HK$3.3mn (US$420,000) this year on the secondary market from a peak of more than HK$5mn in 2019, according to brokerage agencies.

International schools in Hong Kong have also reported higher staff turnover this year amid the city’s tough Covid-19 regime. While the government’s decision this week to reintroduce face-to-face schooling in April might ease some pressure on expatriates to leave the city, the territory remains committed to zero Covid.

For Hong Kong expats unable to sell their debentures to another family, the move to Singapore could be costly.

One Hong Kong expat who did not want to be named said they would be HK$150,000 worse off when they relocated to Singapore as they did not give enough notice to reclaim their debenture for the rest of the school year.

“It is a costly exercise. It is not for fun,” the person said. But “we just can’t deal with any more home schooling. I work in finance, I don’t have the time to help sit and mentor [my children].”

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