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Singapore Government

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at Credit Suisse Philanthropists Forum 2015

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin at Credit Suisse Philanthropists Forum 2015

Mr Lito Camacho, Vice Chairman Asia Pacific and Country CEO, Singapore, Credit Suisse

Your Excellency Thomas Kupfer, Switzerland Ambassador to Singapore

Professor Tommy Koh, Chairman, SymAsia Foundation Limited

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you, and especially to all our friends from the region and beyond, welcome to Singapore.

We will be preaching to the converted here today, but some of the important themes that we will be addressing are always worth repeating. I will be breaking up my address into three parts. Firstly, we will revisit the idea of philanthropy, what exactly it is and the current state of giving, especially in Singapore; then we will look at how we could possibly organise ourselves to do better to do good; and lastly, how do we recreate this culture of giving within the society.


Firstly, let us start from the beginning. I think all of us are familiar with the word and development of idea around the word “Philanthropy”. But I think it is important that sometimes, we take stock and to actually put it down because we may have different definitions. 

Let us start with the Oxford Dictionary. It defines “Philanthropy” as the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes. But as I was googling the various definitions, I thought that the best opening line was actually found in Wikipedia. It says this – “Philanthropy etymologically (means from the Greek of Egypt) means ‘love of humanity’ in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing what it is to be human on both the benefactors’ (by identifying and exercising their values in giving and volunteering) and beneficiaries’ (by benefiting) parts.”

It is important to consider that, because if indeed it is about transforming not just the lives of the beneficiaries, it is actually also a platform by which we transform the benefactors. Which means by extension, it can transform the different people involved in the process of giving and volunteering. That is the change we can effect - changing society for the better. And of course we can extend it beyond just contributing money, in reality, to include the contribution of time, talent and treasures.

State of Giving
Now let’s take a quick look at the state of giving, there is a Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index 2015 that measures three kinds of generosity. They measure the giving of money, the giving of time and the helping of a stranger. 31.5% percent of global respondents said they had donated money in the previous month, up more than three percentage points from the previous year. There is also a small increase in “helping a stranger”, whilst volunteering time sees a small downturn.

How does Singapore fare in this report? We are ranked 34th out of 145 countries with a 43% score overall, and there is an 11% improvement over the average five-year score in terms of charitable giving. These are all just statistics, but it gives you a gauge as to where we are, and a sense of how we have been doing.

The Individual Giving Survey 2014 complied by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), shows that individuals in Singapore find donating money rather than time, to be an easier way to help others or support causes they believe in or want to support. The donations have risen significantly. Last year for example, individual donations reached an all-time high of $1.25 billion, or a 30 per cent increase from 2008. The same survey also showed that almost one in five persons volunteered. The average number of volunteer hours also grew to 93 hours, as compared to 72 hours in 2012. The percentage of people volunteering regularly also grew.

Is it good? Is it bad? As I said, it is a reference point. I think it is not bad, but we really need to do better, because if indeed the whole purpose and objective of philanthropy is really about transforming society, then we really must always endeavour to do better than before.

We often talk about how important it is to look at values. Many of you in this industry will know that it is important for your businesses. It is certainly important for society. But how do you actually put that into action? How do you actually infuse values into society? You can talk about it, teach about it, but actually it is about putting values into action, by acting it out, by living it out. I suggest that philanthropy is one platform that does this. In fact I do not know of any other platform where you can put such values into action.


Many of you will be familiar with some of these traits that we see - the once-off random monetary donation or where we are sometimes involved in occasional ad-hoc volunteering activity. We move in, we move out and move on. We go round in search of the ‘high’ which we experience when it comes to giving and caring. But we sometimes actually don’t really know the subject matter and certainly we often don’t know what happens to those people we help because we moved on to something else.

When we put on the corporate branding cap, we think of the photo opportunities, we look at the iconic projects, the headline-grabbing events. Are these projects in search of needs? What we often know, is that everyone is coming up with all sorts of interesting and iconic projects to grab the headline. But, what are the needs? Or has the event in itself or activity in itself becomes the end in itself? Do we miss the woods for the trees? Is there wastage through duplication? Are there needs that are falling between the gaps?

As a Member of Parliament in my local district, we have many stakeholders involved. One of the first things that I did was to take stock of who is actually there on the ground helping. There are multiple efforts and actually, a lot of people out there, helping both formally and informally. There are many helping hands, but the hands can be ‘all over the shop’ - they overlap. There are certain groups that are perhaps not getting as much help as they should. Hence, it is really about organising ourselves better to do good.

Organising Ourselves To Do Good
Let me go through some considerations that many of you will be familiar with. Let us take stock of the needs from bottom up. Which means understanding the demand picture. What exactly are the challenges? What exactly are the needs? Where they are? Who they are? What form of help do they require? But let us also understand ‘supply’ - what are the time, talent, and treasures available? By whom? When can they be applied? When you better understand the demand and supply picture, how do you then coordinate? The question is, who does the coordination? Who are the stakeholders that should come together to do that coordination and how do we do this?

You will begin to realise that there will be tactical needs, that is where you have the specific activities that you undertake. For example, simple activities like befriending - visiting the elderly every week, or every other week, visiting them and actually helping them in the maintenance of health and hygiene in the elderly’s households. From simple things like that, to larger scale programmes. But that is when you begin to think about moving from tactical to operational. Where you take a system approach when dealing with issues. We all know that the challenges and issues which people face are complex. Individuals face problems that are difficult, and the truth is we all know we don’t organize our lives, according to the way we organise ourselves functionally.

For example, in the government, we have MSF, then we have MCCY which looks at the volunteering side of the house, we have MND who looks at the housing side of the house, we have MOH who looks at the health side. But for the individual, who does he or she go to for help when they face more than one issue? Will the individuals then go to different agencies? Or do we then task-organise ourselves to provide that assistance and help him in a much more targeted fashion, a much more citizen-centric fashion? I would suggest it is not just about government. All our different stakeholders should begin to think about how do we then take that trans-disciplinary approach and to task-organise ourselves better in terms of looking for systems and solutions.

It is also very important for us as we look at these issues to organise the receptacles. Meaning that the platform, the places that we are going to provide that help, need to be organised to be ready for giving and for the givers to come on board. For example in Singapore’s context, we have a tighter labour market, we are advocating and encouraging companies to be leaner in the way they operate. Which means that they need to transform and adjust the workflows to begin to tap on perhaps the non-traditional labour sources – back-to-work women, temporary workforce etc. Similarly, how do we then begin to organise ourselves and reorganise ourselves to be able to take such manpower on board because of the tighter labour market?

In the same way, the VWOs here will face a similar challenge, because given that there is going to be a flat local labour force growth coming in the next years, where are you going to get the manpower from? I may get you the funding but I might not be able to get you the headcount. Because for that same space, I am looking for pre-school educators, I am also looking for teachers, nurses, and social workers.

The truth of the matter is, we need to begin to think about how we can tap on volunteers. And that is how philanthropy could play a very big part and how we get organisations and staffs to ready themselves for the giving and for the givers.

We also need to make sure that these charitable organisation are accountable to the public and donors. So they need to have great systems, processes, supervision, and accountability. It makes a great deal of difference because as people are willing to step forward, they need to be assured, they need to have confidence that where I am putting in effort, where my money and resources are being channelled to, it is being used prudently and effectively.

Apart from prudency and accountability, it is also about measuring. How do we define the performance indicators? But as you all know, it is very difficult to define performance indicators correctly. It is important that even as we look at maximising the social impact, we need to focus on the process. I think the journey in itself is important, because again we come back to the original purpose – If indeed, our desired outcome is to transform society, in essence to transform lives of the beneficiaries and our benefactors, then the process and the journey actually become important. Because it is not just about delivering that particular outcome of that help, of that assistance. It is also about the experience because we want lives to be changed. And if indeed that is what we have for us to build a better society, then the process and the journey perhaps could be almost as important as the end outcome of helping the beneficiary.

Let us look at some of the ideas that we are trying to put in place. There is the existence of a donor and volunteer management portal which I think is key to connect givers to charities and causes. With such a portal, individuals, corporations and charities can donate, search and match volunteering opportunities, as well as raise funds with ease and convenience. Coincidentally yesterday, I had a briefing by NVPC and NCSS in terms of how we are moving on this front and it is really exciting and encouraging.

Singapore, for example will be launching, our first ever one-stop online platform to give and help, enabling donations, volunteering, fundraising and volunteer-raising on 1 December. It is a digital system which aims to get everyone, company and the communities to connect and come forward to give. But let’s be quite clear, it is a platform, it is technology, it is not a silver bullet, it can’t solve everything but it is a start, to begin to get people together, to get people to collaborate and discuss and see how that evolves.

It is not just about having a virtual platform, it is about networking sessions like this. Forums and conferences like this one today can be organised for them. Apart from meeting and connecting on the online platform, how do we meet and discuss ideas and to identify charitable causes, how do we begin to partner each other? How do we coordinate so that we can be more effective in terms of giving back to society?


The next thing really is about growing a sustainable culture. Because as much as we organise ourselves, we do need an environment and culture that will encourage us to continue to do good and to give back on a sustainable basis. How do we lay that foundation? How do we weave this into our DNA? Depending on how we look at human nature, one could say that they are inherently selfish, but one could also say that the fundamental thing that perhaps differentiate us from other living things is that as humans we have the capacity to be compassionate, to care, to love. But I suspect that we are a bit of both. I guess it is about how we nurture the positive side and do we amplify that within ourselves and also society.

Firstly let’s go with schools. I think schools are important. In Singapore, we have what we used to call the Community Involvement Programme, but now it is called the Values in Action programme, which I think is quite apt. I know it is compulsory, because it requires student to clock up 40 hours or so and they need to accumulate points. But I can tell you frankly is, as a parent, I was quite horrified because I thought giving is from the heart and it shouldn’t be compulsory. But I have fully accepted that if you don’t have some level of structure and compulsion, perhaps parents may not support it. But it is a powerful platform, because if they do it right, imagine every student going through the programmes, even though from the onset, they have been doing it not because they want to. If there is a good learning journey, positive experience, you will begin to ingrain in virtually every student a foundation - the desire to give, the capacity to love and to care. So you have the entire population, generations upon generations, primed and ready to give back to society.

This is when you have to progress to the work place. The NVPC Employee Giving Survey shows that one in two employees is interested to participate in employer-organised volunteering, but only one in five employers in Singapore organises volunteering activities for their staff. This is where I think there is a lot of room for improvement. I hope to see more companies encouraging their employees to volunteer and by providing the platforms and the support such as giving staff paid time off to do good. NVPC will be establishing a formal, national framework that will provide a guide to corporate giving efforts.

For corporates, consider how you can apply your organisational abilities to mould lives? As we all know, to effect change, we need to look at the levers. But, where are the levers? Besides schools, the other important component is actually at our workplace. Corporates, national organisations, CEOs and COOs, and whoever is in-charge of this space, if they believe that this is not just about corporate branding but their contribution to changing society, they will begin to look at things differently. You will think about how to reorganise yourselves and move beyond the usual headline events, to sustainable effective work that will not only benefit individuals whom we are helping but our employees themselves. This can also be a part of your staff engagement strategy because you will not find many activities where colleagues and bosses operate together at an emotively meaningful level. I think it does benefit us in internal engagement and team building.

We also would like to encourage companies to consider donating their abilities, their skills, such as IT, finance, and accounting. But we also know that volunteers fedback that they do not want to do their normal work again. They want to go out there and be hands-on and do good. I think we should look at both. Because for the Non-Profit Organisations, the VWOs, they do need the professional assistance and support as well. So that is something that corporates as well as the professionals can look at, that is to contribute their time in different ways.

And of course the government plays a very important part. I always believe that even as we advocate, we need to lead by example and walk the talk. The Public Service is already being involved in different ways and recently, we also committed ourselves to provide a day of leave for individuals within the government to participate. And of course there are individuals, Ministries, and agencies giving beyond that as well. And I do know of corporates who are giving beyond one day, for their staff to participate, to take time off to give back.

We do still want to encourage more charitable giving in Singapore. This is where some of the structures which we have put in place are useful. For example, as part of SG50, donors will get a tax deduction of 300 per cent for the amount they donate in 2015. This means that for every $1 donated to a registered tax-deductible charity, $3 will be deducted from the donor's taxable income for the year. That has been helpful because we do see a surge in the contributions. The government has also set aside $500 million dollars in matching grants under the national fund-raising and volunteerism movement, Care & Share, in celebration of SG50. So that is something the government can do. And of course government with the agencies, to work with the partners and society.

But the last component, besides school and work, is really our local community. This is something that I feel very strongly about. We have a very strong grassroots organisation, the People’s Association. But, I am not sure whether they are fully embracing our role in community building and to look at the social outreach as being part of the platform. Because again, you have structures and organisations in place. You are well in placed to reach out in many ways. There are ad-hoc organisations, non-profit organisations in the space but I think if they can begin to also harness the grassroots movement, then I think it will also go a very long way.

I would like to add that it is important for us to begin to look at sustainability for projects. As I mentioned earlier, we are sometimes looking for that one-off project because it is not easy making that commitment. As individuals, you know that when you begin to be more regular, your experience be quite different. It is not just time. Emotionally, we begin to be invested and that is something we can sometimes shy away from. I will suggest that being emotionally invested is also when change takes place. Because you are no longer just detached, you actually genuinely care for that someone else. You are actually concerned about how is that uncle doing? How is that kid doing? Is he doing well in school? Is he falling into bad company? As opposed to going in and out, you feel good about it, but you actually don’t really know the people and their real genuine needs. And we know that often times their real genuine needs don’t always translate into glamorous projects.

But that is where I suggest we can begin to see our roles as stewards of society, to begin to move beyond some of these once-off volunteer trends and begin the more structured and sustainable partnerships. It becomes very useful because the Non-Profit Organisation and VWOs can then structure their programmes. The local community can then begin to structure their efforts because they know that someone or some corporates or organisations are committing to a long-term partnership mission. And that allows me to regularise connecting groups. It may not be that same individual coming back every week, but it could mean that particular department, sharing the burden, will be coming back week after week to help.

For example in my district, we try to supplement low-income families by providing free meals. I don’t cook, but we work with organisations like Willing Hearts and we just provide the supply network of volunteers and when you have a large enough pool, you know that you can commit to every individual that you are supporting with a meal every day. At 11.45am every day, we gather at Block 35 and 22 to distribute meals. It may not mean much, but saving a couple of dollars a day every day for some individuals may accumulate over time and will make a difference. And that is where sustained partnerships allow us to begin to work in these areas.

Celebrate and Inspire Giving
We also need to celebrate and inspire giving. How do we create that culture in terms of sharing stories? Storytelling is always powerful. So for example in the Ministry of Social and Family Development, we organise the Volunteers Award annually where we recognise individuals. Similarly, the NVPC awards do the same; celebrating the many wonderful and inspiring stories out there. We often lament about the negativity of social media but the truth of the matter is, there is a lot of positivity out there as well. By encouraging and inspiring, we can move individuals and maybe corporates will begin to think, “Hey I never thought about it that way, perhaps there is a different way of approaching this.” That is when change begins to take place.

I am also very pleased that NVPC will be running a week-long campaign, “Giving Week”, which will be launched on 1 December. It is a nation-wide movement dedicated to giving back, and individuals, corporates and non-profit organisations are encouraged to pledge to do something to help the less privileged.

I would also like to qualify that the once-off activity, the headlines grabbing events, the iconic events remain important. Sometimes, what these activities do is to rally people round, and nudge individuals and corporates to take that first step. But what is really encouraging, is that when we find organisations and individuals coming on board, you will find that many of them actually naturally on their own, begin to move beyond these things that we see. They want to seek that more significant, more sustained experience and that demonstrates the power of this approach and its ability to move and change people.


In conclusion, what I would like to say is that philanthropy is not just for the rich, it is for anyone who wants to do good. All of us can play a part. When we reach out to give and to care with empathy, that is when we reconnect with our own sense of humanity and compassion. That is when we begin to change, that is when we begin to become better people. We as individuals and corporates will add up to something larger. These are our values in action and they define us, they define our society. And if indeed, that is how it works and unfolds, will we not build a better and stronger society? As we celebrate SG50 for us here in Singapore, we start to think about what is next and how do we get to SG100. Perhaps it’s the values, culture, and ethos. These are things that are fundamental and will keep us going for the long haul, to keep us going to SG100 and beyond.

With that, thank you very much and I wish you a very fruitful forum.

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