Developing Philanthropy: How Can Singapore Seek Greater Heights?


After my article ”Developing Philanthropy – What can China learn from Singapore?”, was reported in the media, it caused a big stir amongst industry insiders in both China and Singapore. It is especially so in the China Philanthropy Research Institute of Beijing Normal University, China. An internal seminar and a public lecture revolving around this topic have been held and there is even a plan to publish a collection containing this article and others from visiting fellows. From these reactions in China’s philanthropy sector, the enthusiasm to learn from Singapore is evident.


Singapore’s achievements in philanthropy are obvious to all; it can certainly act as a role model in this field. However, Singapore’s philanthropy is not perfect and there is room still for development and improvement. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out during the Asia Charity Summit in September that between 2006 and 2010, the individual donation amount in Singapore had tripled, reaching 0.3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The participation rate for voluntary work had also increased from 15.5% to 23.3%. In the U.S. however, individual donations amounted to more than 2% of their GDP and the participation rate for voluntary work between 30% and 40%. The difference is significant.


The World Giving Index released by UK-based Charities Aid Foundation had also proven this point. Among the 153 interviewed countries, Singapore was ranked 91st two years in a row (2010 and 2011). Compared to how it leads in world rankings in areas such as finance, trade, logistics, liveability, the disparity is obvious.


Past scandals involving local charity organizations, starting from the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to Venerable Ming Yi and even the City Harvest Church has aroused public outcries and severely sapped the trust that the public has in charity organizations.


Therefore, in what way can Singapore’s philanthropy improve to attain greater heights? Personally, I have been involved in Singapore’s philanthropy for four and a half years and have the following suggestions:


1‹ÛInclude Philanthropy in Our Singapore Conversation. Based on international experience, developing philanthropy helps to portray correct values, build public consensus, narrow the poverty gap and ease social conflicts. Therefore, it is necessary to revisit the role of philanthropy in the new stage of social development, with national development and future planning in mind. Currently, the nationwide “Our Singapore Conversation” is in full swing. The main objective of this dialogue is to seek public views, review existing policies, and seek a consensus in how the country should continue to develop. I would suggest including philanthropy as one of the topics in the national dialogue. Through nationwide participation and interaction between officials and the public, a full discussion can be held on which ideas to promote, which policies to change and which sector to revise.


2‹ÛFocus on building the image of “Asia’s Philanthropic City”. Philanthropy can be used as part of Singapore’s new branding on the international stage. New statutory bodies can be set up and philanthropy can be developed in the way as has been done with the developing of economy and tourism. Specific measures include strengthening the publicity in this area, widening the presence in this in neighboring countries; organizing or hosting related international conventions, awards events and international training courses; increasing bilateral or multilateral visits; and encouraging international organizations to set up regional headquarters in Singapore.


3‹ÛRank Charity Organizations. For charity ratings, the U.S. is equipped with the Charity Navigator and Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau with Star-rating. Singapore is trailing slightly behind in this aspect. Although the inaugural Charity Governance Awards was recently issued on 6th November, it still lack a comprehensive, authoritative assessment from the government or a third party organization on the whole, as well as an evaluation system or evaluation result that is publicly recognized. Based on the experience of the U.S. and China, doing this will not only help the public choose rationally when it comes to donations; it would also encourage charity organizations to be more self-disciplined, resulting in greater growth of the industry.


4‹ÛCreate newspaper columns and specialised journals on philanthropy. It is said that the maturity of a sector/industry in a country can be judged from the number of related media references. Taking China as an example, within the last few years, dozens of journals on philanthropy have been published. Almost every well-known magazines and portal sites have created dedicated columns or weekly issues on philanthropy. China Central Television (CCTV) is also considering setting up a philanthropic channel. Up to now, there has not been any professional media on philanthropy in Singapore; the existing media coverage on charity by various media lack scope and depth. The media seems to give maximum coverage when there are scandals exposed, but few when it comes to promoting a charitable culture.


5‹ÛSet up specialized studies in universities and groom high-end talents. Based on my own research, which are not complete:  only the National University of Singapore (NUS) is grooming undergraduate students at present for bachelor degree in social work, and some relevant modules were newly offered by NUS Business School. There are no undergraduates’ studies related to philanthropy and social enterprise, not to mention Masters Studies and PHDs in this field. In terms of academic research, *National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) each has but a new research centre in this field. In terms of grooming high-end philanthropic talents, Singapore not only falls behind developed countries in Europe and America, it is even falling behind developing countries such as China and cannot meet the needs of the local employment market.


6‹ÛPolicies to urge immigrant investors to carry out philanthropic works. Ever since the Singapore Government launched the Global Investor Program (GIP), many immigrant investors has become new members of Singapore’s society. These people tend to be rich or they have free time on hand or maybe even both. Encouraging these immigrants to carry out charity works requires specially designed system and innovative policies. For example, can we include the donations given by these immigrant investors in the GIP? Can we request them to take out a portion of their GIP investment profits for charity? In this way, on the one hand, we can change the “money is everything” mentality that the immigrant investors have to a certain extent. On the other hand, this will help the new immigrants create a more favourable social image, helping to foster better relationships between the new immigrants and the local residents. I have discussed these thoughts with  heads of numerous organizations and although they generally agree with me, implementation seems to be difficult.


7‹ÛPolicies to encourage foreign charities and professional service providers to settle in Singapore. A few months ago, a charity research center affiliated to a famous university in the U.S. and a listed company from France that provides fundraising services for non-profit organizations met with me. They are both interested in Asia’s rapidly growing economies and societies and would thus like to set up their branches, expanding their businesses here in Singapore. However, they hesitate to do so due to the high start-up costs. After repeated weighing, they decided to give up the idea eventually. If Singapore’s government can employ the same incentives and approaches in attracting international research organizations, i.e. giving specific foreign charity organizations and professional service providers certain proportion of financial reimbursements or tax rebates within a stated time duration, I believe that these organizations would definitely settle down in Singapore. This will bring about prosperity of the third sector, thereby enhancing Singapore’s central position as “Asia’s Philanthropic City”. 


8‹ÛEnhance the income level for practitioners of charity. When it comes to increasing human resources for local charities, they commonly face problems, namely “Hard to Find, Hard to Recruit and Hard to Retain People”.  The remuneration package is the crucial factor here. The assumption is that the Singapore government would prefer to utilise market forces to regulate Employer’s remuneration policies and not interfere directly into this area. Alternatively, would the government consider increasing the practitioner’s actual income through an increase in his  personal tax threshold, tax rebates and tweaking the Central Provident Fund (CPF)  contribution rates, etc? In so doing, this might increase the competitiveness of charities in the human resource market. Perhaps various major financial groups can also consider setting up a special fund to reward excellent practitioners or subsidise the needy practitioners?


During the National Day Rally on 26th August, PM Lee Hsien Loong called for Singaporeans to be “big hearted and tolerant to build a friendly environment”. On one hand, he is happy to see “an increase in the number of people doing charity and more youths concerned about social welfare instead of just themselves”. On the other hand, he is worried that “we are slowly losing the kampong spirit” and he even called out for us not to “become an ugly Singaporean”. It is evident that a country’s philanthropic development is not an inevitable outcome of economic development. Philanthropic growth requires not only leaders’ encouragement and appeal; it also requires practitioners’ thoughts and actions. Therefore, we must look at areas of lack when we sum up past experiences; gather our thoughts and ideas, and work together to bring Singapore’s philanthropy to greater heights.



Written in Chinese by: Lu Bo

Translated by: Ryan Teo

(The original article in Chinese was published in Lianhe Zaobao on 9 November 2012)