Singapore: Why Philanthropy?

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp

By Li Yen

“It’s not just about being able to write a cheque. It’s being able to touch somebody’s life.” – Oprah Winfrey, Host, Actress, Producer and Philanthropist

Philanthropy is a Greek term that means “love of mankind”. According to Investopedia, the earliest act of philanthropy happened as far back as 347 B.C., when Greek philosopher Plato authorised his nephew in his will to draw on the revenues of the family farm to finance the educational academy that he had founded.

Compared to charity, philanthropy involves charitable giving initiatives that are altruistic, long-term and strategic. These are usually achieved through donations of money, property, or work to needy people by individuals or organisations that aim to ameliorate human welfare on a large scale.

Typically, philanthropy tends to address the root cause of the problem. Some say charity is akin to giving a fish to a hungry man, whereas philanthropy is teaching the hungry man how to fish.


‘The Last Point of Any Business Is Philanthropy’

“In any fashion of business, from the point you start your business to (when you’ve built) a multimillion-dollar business, the last point of any business is philanthropy – because you earn so much money, but what can you do with the money? You cannot just keep on eating and enjoying,” opined Azhar Othman, Regional Managing Director of Enercon Asia Pte Ltd, Managing Director of Zaffra Solar Ltd and Chief Executive Officer of Zaffra Innovators & Leaders Pte Ltd.

In fact, many businessmen like Mr Azhar begin the journey of meaningful giving after attaining a certain wealth and realising that contributing to society and helping people with their money give them greater joy than indulging in endless luxury. As famous industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once said, “Wealth is not to feed our egos, but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves.”

Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and the world’s richest man with a net worth of US$90 billion (S$123 billion) as of August 2016 according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, said in a Telegraph interview [1]: “I’m certainly well taken care of in terms of food and clothes. Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.”

Steven Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of Blackstone Group, a global private equity and financial advisory firm, pointed out to Forbes, “As you get older and you have significant resources, you want to spend more of your time doing interesting things with that for the benefit of other people and society.”

Philanthropy and Philanthropic Foundations in Singapore

In Singapore, affluent businessmen, tycoons and scions of notable families are among some of our more famous philanthropists. Many of them establish foundations to open the door for their philanthropic efforts, often setting them up in a family name. Asian philanthropists, in particular, have the mindset of leaving wealth to one’s offspring, and in this case, the establishment of such foundations is another way of leaving a legacy to their descendants.

One of the largest family foundations in Singapore is Lee Foundation, set up by late rubber tycoon Lee Kong Chian. His son, the late Lee Seng Gee, followed in his philanthropic footsteps. Under Lee Seng Gee’s management, the Lee Foundation has made a significant benefaction of S$1 billion towards education, the arts and the underprivileged as of June 2016.

Its generous donations have funded scholarships and bursaries as well as developments that benefit local universities. Besides that, it contributed S$60 million to the construction of the National Library in 2003, as well as a considerable amount to the National Cancer Centre in 2009, according to Singapore Infopedia.

On the contrary, the Lien Foundation, founded by the late Dr George Lien Ying Chow, adopts a forward-thinking and radical approach to philanthropy that goes beyond the traditional donor-sponsor method. The family foundation inaugurated the Lien Centre for Palliative Care, Lien Centre for Social Innovation and Lien Aid, to name a few, and has contributed S$119 million over the years, particularly to initiatives concerning pre-school education, dementia and palliative care, water and sanitation in Asia, and even end-of-life issues.

An example of its initiatives is the Hospitable Hospice, a joint design study commissioned by the Lien Foundation and ACM Foundation. Undertaken by design consultancy firm, fuelfor, it unveils seven radical approaches and 24 key design principles to position hospices for tomorrow. The handbook, Hospital Hospice – Redesigning Care for Tomorrow, launched in Sep 2013, won the acclaimed IDEA 2014 Award in the design research category from the American Design Association. It was also warmly received overseas and distribution requests were made by organisations such as Hospice UK. Currently, the three participating hospices – Dover Park Hospice, Assisi Hospice and St Joseph’s Home – are working with the team to prototype some of the concepts.

Hospitable Hospice, commissioned by the Lien Foundation and ACM Foundation, redesigns the Inpatient Hospice Experience. (Courtesy of Lien Foundation)

As pointed out by Mr Lee Poh Wah, CEO of Lien Foundation, Lien Foundation stands out from other funders or foundations on three fronts:

1.     Lien Foundation takes responsibility for solving niche problems. There is clarity of purpose and priorities.

2.    Lien Foundation does more and better from ideation to implementation. There is a fidelity to performance.

3.    Lien Foundation dares to be different – they are unafraid to work with unconventional players or use unorthodox tools to move their mission. They take sufficient risks.

He asserted, “Foundations as independent funders of diverse public goods can help provide alternative solutions and temper government orthodoxy.”

“Philanthropy is pointless and powerless if you are not thinking deeply about your destination, and designing solutions to get you there. Unfortunately, traditional assumptions about how we ‘do’ philanthropy often gets in the way of progress,” he added.

Foundations that have been established over the decade include Ong Foundation, set up by the two sons of late President Ong Teng Cheong in 2012. It is also the philanthropic branch of ONG&ONG, an architecture firm pioneered by their late parents.

Similarly, property tycoon Chua Tian Poh of Ho Bee Group and his siblings set up the Chua Foundation in 2015 to honour their late mother’s giving spirit, according to an article entitled ‘The new philanthropists in town’ published in The Straits Times. Mr Chua has a net worth of US$1.1 billion (S$1.35 billion) as per Forbes Singapore’s 50 richest list.

Conversely, The Silent Foundation is one foundation that does not bear its family name. The founder, Mr Teng Ngiek Lian, told Coutts Institute Million Dollar Donor Report in 2014: “Doing philanthropic works is a noble cause, and it doesn’t really matter whether it is your family member or anybody else doing it. That is why the foundation does not carry our family name.”

The late Lee Seng Gee once urged Singaporeans to step forward: “What I have done through the Lee Foundation over the years has been but a drop in the ocean. I hope that more Singaporeans will come forward to help the less privileged and to make our society a much better place to live in.”

Fortunately, there are more philanthropy, more foundations, more philanthropy advisors and forums, and more interest in the field as compared to 2005 when he first joined the Lien Foundation, noted Mr Lee Poh Wah. Acknowledging this claim was The Straits Times in ‘The new philanthropists in town’; the article reported that there were at least 40 foundations and charitable trusts formed by individuals, families and corporations in the last decade.

Nevertheless, Mr Lee remarked that the practice of philanthropy in Singapore has yet to fulfil its true potential, and there are few who accorded well the line of Martin Luther King’s quote: ‘Philanthropy is commendable, but we must not overlook the circumstances of injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Firstly, most foundations are reticent about their systems and what they intend to achieve; secondly, there are insufficient industry data and scrutiny by the media as well as academia; and thirdly, working-class folks are giving away proportionately more of their income than the rich, according to Mr Lee.

“The biggest donations are ‘horizontal’ philanthropy where the rich give to rich institutions. Philanthropy that promotes and perpetuates the status quo is generally the norm,” he added.

Leaving a Lasting Legacy – Driven by Compassion, Empathy, Faith and the Need to Change the World

Why did Bill Gates become a philanthropist?

Bill Gates once said: “Is the rich world aware of how four billion of the six billion live? If we were aware, we would want to help out, we’d want to get involved.”

Indeed, Gates’s passion for philanthropy was sparked after witnessing first-hand a TB clinic hospital during his visit to Africa. He felt sympathy and bitterness, and was quoted as saying: “It’s a death sentence. To go into that hospital is a death sentence.” [2]

Hence, he founded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the largest foundation in the world to support initiatives in education and improve people’s health by eradicating disease such as polio and poverty in developing countries. They have been working with partners around the world to fund novel ideas to help farmers and treat infectious diseases with modern and up-to-date science and technology. As of Jan 2013, they have pledged US$28 billion (approx. S$38 billion) to their foundation.

Correspondingly, Warren Buffett, an American business magnate, investment guru and the most generous philanthropist in history, has famously said, “If you’re in the luckiest one percent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 percent.”

Buffett, who does not believe in dynastic fortunes, has donated US$17.5 billion (S$23.9 billion) via the Gates Foundation as of Jan 2013, and as stated by Forbes, he has pledged 99% of his net worth to charity.

Warren Buffett’s philanthropic spirit has set an example for many philanthropists, including Mr Teng of The Silent Foundation. In the same interview with the Coutts Institute Million Dollar Donor Report, Mr Teng said philanthropy is much more than “taking photos with cheques”.

There is also a number of philanthropists who are faith-driven. Laurence Lien told Forbes, “The social teachings of the Church are a guiding light to me.” [3]

Other philanthropists aspire to give succour and strength to the disadvantaged due to a similar misfortune they have faced in the past.

The late Dr George Lien was a penniless boy from China who was orphaned at 10 years old, which developed in him a deep empathy for similar destitute children who were not given educational opportunities.

“Lien Ying Chow was passionate about charity and education because he had experienced extreme poverty and was deprived of formal education. The formation of the foundation in 1980 was the culmination of his lifelong process of conscious giving back to society,” shared Mr Lee.

Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, founder and CEO of Mini Environment Service (MES) and one of Forbes’ 40 Heroes of Philanthropy in Asia in 2014, came from a poor family who could not afford his education. Eventually, he dropped out of secondary school and took on odd jobs to support the family. Due to his background, he empathises with children of underprivileged families and established the S.M. Jaleel Foundation, supporting children’s education. He has donated US$1.1 million (approx. S$1.5 million) to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund over the years, according to Forbes.

Apart from the aforementioned individuals, most of us desire to leave a mark or legacy that will ultimately be remembered after we leave this world.

Perhaps through acts of kindness and charity, we can help to bring about more goodness in the world and let warmth shine upon the lives of many, leaving a lasting legacy.

For Mr Azhar, he set up Zaffra Solar Ltd as he believes his solar business is doing good for Mother Earth. He echoed: “At the end of the day, if I were to leave the world, what is the best gift I can give? To call (me) the richest man in the world, it is good, but it is better to call yourself someone who contributes back to society. Thus, if you notice, most tycoons create foundations.”

People give because it gives some meaning to their wealth. It is self-identification with the needs of others that motivates philanthropy,” said Mr Lee matter-of-factly.

The Joy of Giving Back – Anyone and Everyone Can Be a Philanthropist

It is not only millionaires who are making a difference in people’s lives. Ordinary people are also doing their part on the path of philanthropy. Their compassion has compelled them to help others, and in turn, they have found blessings in their own lives.


It is not only millionaires who are making a difference in people’s lives. Ordinary people are also doing their part on the path of philanthropy. Their compassion has compelled them to help others, and in turn, they have found blessings in their own lives.

New York philanthropist and author of the book ‘Successful Philanthropy – How to make a life by what you give’, Jean Shafiroff, told Epoch Times, “Philanthropy is not just about writing cheques, but it’s about giving of yourself—your time and your knowledge. Anyone and everyone can be a philanthropist.”

‘Successful Philanthropy’ is a practical guide to modern day philanthropy that goes beyond monetary donations. To kick-start your philanthropy journey, Shafiroff believes that one must first find his passion before looking for a fitting cause and charity to contribute to.

“There is great reward in knowing that you are helping to make the world a better place,” said Shafiroff, who possesses great savoir-faire. Every year, the lady hosts numerous galas and events for non-profit organisations.

“Those who give build themselves up in the process because they will feel fulfilled, and those who receive will grow. It’s a great gift to be in a position to give.”

Your philanthropic journey starts through simple acts like “lending emotional support or showing kindness to someone in need”, she opined. (Refer to Infographic 1 for ‘Three Inspirational Ways to Help a Stranger’)

And it builds a more meaningful life, she asserted.

Likewise, Sofia Subri, owner of CAZ Villa and property firm CAZ International in Bali, finds that “giving back to society” and “making a difference in someone’s life” make her happier than earning a million bucks.

Every quarter, Ms Sofia embarks on simple and meaningful projects in Bali like visiting an orphanage and a hospital for the poor as well as mountainous villages to dole out rice, food, diapers and other necessities. She also volunteers with The Red Cross to give motivational speeches to women who are being abused or tortured.

She believes in karma as her mother taught her “giving is much better than receiving” and “the more you give, the more you would get back”.

In high spirits, she said: “It’s worth every penny to see them smile. The moment they say ‘Thank you’ to you, it is a blessing.”

Holding the same view is American businessman Dan Gilbert, founder & chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans. “The feeling that you get that you’re positively impacting people’s lives, or as many people are you can, I think that there’s nothing like that in the world,” he told Forbes.

Singaporean travel photographer Alex Soh cannot agree more. In fact, he thinks that “the more he sees of the world, the more he finds himself to be so little”. Soh’s philanthropic initiatives include The Rice Project in Sri Lanka as well as Project Road in Cambodia.

In his Project Road initiative, Soh galvanised the Lion Club and four like-minded Singaporeans to raise funds and build a 3.7km road in Cham Resh, Cambodia.

“How many times in your life are you able to save another life?” he mused.

At first, Soh thought he was in Cambodia to help the villagers, but at the end of the day, “[the] project not just helped the people, but it has also enlightened my life as well as those students and CEOs who had come alongside with me,” he shared.

“And you become a better person,” he said, smiling. “Do you want to be the top 10 per cent richest people in the world? Everybody would be screaming, yes, I want, but do you know you are already one of them?”

Infographic 1: ‘Three Inspirational Ways to Help a Stranger’


[1] Tweedie, Neil. “Bill Gates Interview: I Have No Use for Money. This is God’s Work.” The Telegraph. 18 January 2013.

[2] Bort, Julie. “Bill Gates Talks About the Heartbreaking Moment That Turned Him to Philanthropy.” Business Insider Singapore. 22 January 2015.  

 [3] A. Peterson, Jane. “Heroes Of Philanthropy: Singapore’s Laurence Lien Seeks to Make Giving a Regional Movement.” Forbes Asia. 26 August 2015.

Subscribe for Newsletter

Scroll to Top