A couple of weeks ago, a major expat website released a survey of the best countries for expats to live in. You know which country topped it? Taiwan. On the InterNations Expat Insider Survey, Taiwan placed first due to quality of life and personal finances (affordability), both areas of life that it is very strong in.
In contrast, Hong Kong and mainland China dropped down the rankings, with HK falling 18 places to 44th. That certainly looks dire, but it is not that surprising given all the issues that HK has been coping with.
So did I make the wrong choice to move to Hong Kong to work? Well, no.
Because while it’s great to see Taiwan holding down the top spot on that survey, that doesn’t mean Taiwan is ideal to live and work in. To live in, yes, but to work in, not quite. Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that most of the respondents to this survey may be well-to-do professionals who get nice expat packages such as housing subsidies and so on. In that case, Taiwan would be great to work in. However, as an expat in a more regular job with slightly higher-than-average salaries and the same benefit packages as locals, working in Taiwan isn’t that good.
First though, why is living in Taiwan so good? The reasons are many – an affordable and accessible health system that covers everything from doctors to dentists to surgery, public safety, low cost of living especially in transportation, food and the aforementioned health system, and very polite and helpful people. Expats, even those who can’t speak Mandarin, can live relatively comfortable lives, save money, and enjoy good food and so on. The local health insurance system is extremely affordable (monthly premiums being roughly US$40) and provides coverage for both private (not all) and public hospitals and clinics and even Chinese medicine clinics. There is no need for foreigners to get expensive private medical insurance because as long as they are working in Taiwan, they are covered by the health insurance.
All of this is why I’ve said several times to people who asked, Taiwan is a comfortable and convenient place to live, especially compared to China and even Hong Kong.
However, when it comes to work, there are several factors that mitigate how great Taiwan is. Salaries are extremely low, the job market is limited, and so are opportunities to rise in companies. In addition, Taiwan is not a very international place, though Taipei is quite decent, and there is a very local mindset and not much knowledge or awareness of the wider world that constrains how Taiwanese companies operate.
Salaries haven’t budged much from many years ago, and fresh university graduates can earn starting salaries even less than those from 17 years ago. Things are somewhat better for expats, who by law have to receive at least about NT$48,000, which is still only roughly US$1,600 (and my first job’s wages didn’t even reach that). Fortunately, aspects of daily life like eating out and transit and apartment rents, even in Taipei, can be ridiculously cheap, especially again, compared to Hong Kong.
However, if low salaries can be bearable, there are not that many different type of jobs available for foreigners with English teaching, technical writing, and marketing making up the vast majority. Meanwhile, in the workplace, it is difficult for foreigners to get promoted, because of language and local working culture. There is no corporate ladder for expats to climb in local companies. Many Taiwan companies that operate in overseas markets are focused on China to a very heavy extent. Even at larger companies that are very active in many international markets, like a networking company I worked in, there were roughly 10 expats and only two, including my boss, were managers, and even then it was only one level above.
Taiwan could do much better when it comes to being more internationalized and attracting more expats.
Improving relevant work and immigration policies for foreign professionals would be a good start.
Unfortunately, Taiwan seems to continue to want to do things on the cheap. One proposed measure to attract more expat white-collar workers is to lower the requirements, including scrapping the NT$48,000 minimum salary. Now while this might sound like it will be easier for companies to hire foreigners, the question is why would expats be lured by even lower salaries than those being offered now? Perhaps those from less developed countries like the Philippines or India might be ok with low salaries, and this would indeed be beneficial to Taiwan. Though I’m not sure that engineers or IT specialists, for example, from those countries would indeed be satisfied and willing to relocate to Taiwan for salaries less than US$1,600. Even a government minister said earlier this year salaries were too low to attract expats, though the unspoken question is what is the point of lowering the salary requirement in the first place.
Companies also need to consider other markets beyond the local one and China, and with the government’s new “going south” policy which supports firms in expanding into Southeast Asia and India, there may be a greater need for expats and hence, more jobs.
It is good that Taiwan got some recognition for being a great place for expats but it’s still got some ways to go.Still, getting more expats to come to Taiwan would be beneficial. Taiwan itself is not a very diverse society, and neither is the expat community, which is mostly Western and male. In this sense, Beijing and Shanghai have much bigger and broader expat communities. So yes, Taiwan is very convenient and rather pleasant for expats, but it isn’t the land of honey that being termed the best place in the world for expats might cause one to think it is.