OPINION – Escape from Macau

Macau Business | April 2022

Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Macau used to be very appealing to expatriates from across the world. Its low tax rate (and zero tax for low-paid expatriates), blends of cultures, business opportunities, life style, history, unique features and a host of other attractions fuelled an ongoing supply of foreign nationals to this small, unusual city. It is an interestingly idiosyncratic place in which to live. For many expatriates, Macau has been home, in many cases reaching back more than one generation. This is perhaps unsurprising, as people here are typically exquisitely polite, a delight to be with, and very accepting. Its acceptance of differences in values is an example to countries across the world. Macau is a safe place to live.

Many expatriates here are not motivated by selfishness and personal gain; rather, in a spirit of altruism and commitment, they serve Macau, work hard, and contribute to its development as members of a shared community. However, since the pandemic, the question is raised as to how long Macau’s appeal will last. For many expatriates, particularly the moderately and higher paid, Macau has lost its erstwhile lustre. They compare the business environments and living conditions of their home countries, or indeed other parts of the world, to those of Macau, and Macau is found wanting.

For expatriate employees, the experience of ongoing job insecurity and short-term contracts, endless contractual and immigration/work-permit difficulties, lack of transparency, infinite bureaucracy, obscene prices of accommodation for rent and purchase, an increasing sense of surveillance, and being squeezed out of the market by apparently preferential treatment being given to its next-door-neighbour, has set them thinking about whether Macau is really what they want out of life. It’s just too difficult to stay in Macau.

For expatriate families, the limited real choice of high quality education at school and beyond is a major problem, as are opportunities for a widely enriching life and open society for their children. The sacrifice of creative, critical thinking, self-expression, questioning and argument to a narrow compliance culture in the name of a harmonious, if ill-defined, social stability is too much to bear. Why do so many expatriates send their children abroad to study, or pay huge sums of money for both local international schooling and concomitant make-up private tutoring for the very same children?

The absence of a clean, stimulating outdoor environment with countryside, grass, forests and clear waters becomes intolerable after a while; cement, steel and concrete encroach not only upon the environment but upon the minds and the hearts of expatriates, so they leave. As the poet Yeats wrote: ‘Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart’. Is this all that Macau has to offer? Its cramped up environment all too frequently cramps up the mind.

For expatriates in Macau, the monstrous difficulties, hardships, and challenges that they experience in travelling is enough to persuade them that living in Macau is not worth the candle. Consider, for example, Macau’s quarantine arrangements; I would love to know how many of those hundreds in quarantine each week actually have the virus after the first week in quarantine and/or have changed in the second, third and fourth weeks of quarantine/self-isolation from showing an initial negative test result to showing a positive result. Why are Macau’s quarantine arrangements so out of step with those in many other parts of the world? I think I know the answer. Why put up with it when it is easier and better to live elsewhere, and where travelling is so effortless and non-punitive? Earlier this year a local newspaper carried a disquieting item indicating that expatriates were leaving and preparing to leave Macau; they can’t take it any longer.

An exodus of expatriates upsets the very essence and identity of Macau as a multicultural, international, and richly diverse, tolerant community and emergent business world. Is Macau prepared to take the hit of losing its international flavour? Is it prepared to be just another grey city with a few quirky remains of a fascinating history? What a loss that would be.

Macau’s businesses, society, community and identity need expatriates as part of their lifeblood and identity; why make life so difficult for them? What steps are being taken in Macau to attract and retain expatriates? Does Macau really want them to leave?