2010/08/15

Philanthropy thriving in newly rich Singapore

SINGAPORE, August 15, 2010 (AFP) - If you want to smell like roses and help the world's less privileged people, part with some of that extra money and give it to Lee Poh Wah.

"Philanthropic money is like manure. It smells if you have too much of it in the bank," said the 40-year-old chief executive officer of the Lien Foundation, one of Singapore's most high-profile philanthropic organisations.

"Its intended use is to fertilise and support ideas that can improve society, so we should spread it wisely," the earnest, bespectacled promoter of "radical philanthropy" told AFP in an interview.

As Singapore celebrates 45 years of independence this month, it takes pride in its transformation into one of Asia's richest societies, and the idea of sharing wealth is gaining broader support.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group in June said Singapore had the highest concentration of US dollar millionaire households in the world, with 11.4 percent of families owning investable assets in seven figures or higher.

Donations to charitable organisations grew from 381 million dollars (279 million US) in 2001 to 687 million dollars (504 million US) last year,   according to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC).

This includes foundations established by wealthy families including the Liens, whose patriarch Lien Ying Chow founded the Overseas Union Bank.

Other wealthy Singaporean families who made their fortunes from banking and trading have also set up foundations involved in a wide range of activities.

Even middle-class Singaporeans are getting their hands dirty by doing volunteer work, said Kevin Lee, NVPC director of sector development.

"Singapore's volunteerism rate has been rising over the past decade. It has risen from 9.3 percent in 2000 to 16.9 percent in 2008. This 16.9 percent, or 590,000 people, gave 45 million hours of their time," he noted.

The NVPC's Lee singled out the younger generation for praise.

On weekends, schoolchildren spread out across Singapore to solicit donations for various charities from shoppers and commuters who find it hard to say "no" to the young fund-raisers.

"Youth volunteering in particular has improved the most over the years. At 23 percent, which excludes compulsory community service required by schools, it is significantly above the national volunteerism rate of 16.9 percent."

Singaporean students are required to take part in mandatory community work to help make them socially responsible.

The Community Chest, a fund-raising organisation that provides social services to the needy, has also seen a rise in donations.

"In 1999, Community Chest funded 123 programmes run by 55 charities. In 2009, 157 programmes run by 70 charities were supported," said Ang Bee Lian, chief executive officer of the NCSS.

Singaporean volunteers are also venturing overseas, giving free services to villagers in less developed Asian countries.

The Lien Foundation has issued funding for groundbreaking projects, from installing floating toilets for Cambodian villagers living on the Tonle Sap Lake to funding a "Quality of Death" index to raise awareness of the welfare of the terminally ill worldwide.

Extending a helping hand to the region's less fortunate also makes great financial sense, said the foundation's chief executive.

"Fundamentally it's because you get twice the bang for half the buck if you do overseas projects. Money can go so much further if you go to a developing country," Lee said.

"The impact is more transformational compared to the work done in Singapore itself."
But Lee said Singapore, with a population of five million, can do more wealth-sharing on a per capita basis, citing the United States as a benchmark.

"Singapore has the highest proportion of millionaire families in the world ... but if I compare the two countries, Singapore and America, and I normalize the population, the Americans give five times more than Singaporeans," he said.