Developing Philanthropy: What Can China Learn From Singapore?


Having spent four and a half years now doing philanthropy in Singapore, I’m rather familiar with the philanthropic scene in this country. Accompanying a group of leaders from Chinese philanthropic foundations for a study tour here in mid-September 2012 strengthened my understanding and set me thinking further.


Government Vision and Strategies

Government Foresight.  Singapore government leaders are renowned among political circles worldwide for their strategic foresight; this is amply reflected too in their in-depth understanding, as well as their formulation of plans at the top level, in philanthropy. The government regards non-profit organizations as a co-creator, rather than an opposing force, in the building of an inclusive society. At the inaugural Philanthropy in Asia Summit on 10 September, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out that a proactive government and a proactive civil society complement each other. So, the government views international non-profit organizations as a vital part in its building of a global city and in raising its own prominence worldwide; they are not treated as troublemakers. This is clearly seen in the establishment of the International Organisations Programme Office by the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 2007 to facilitate international non-profit organizations in setting up bases in Singapore.

Distinct Roles of Government Bodies. There are many government bodies in Singapore to manage (or more accurately, to serve) non-profit organizations. Examples include the Commissioner of Charities (COC), Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Economic Development Board (EDB), Community Development Council (CDC) and the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). This appears complicated only at first glance. Due to a careful division of work, each body has a distinct role to play. The government bodies are not mired in competition; they can concentrate on performing their individual duties and responsibilities, working in tandem to create an environment conducive for the building of a civil society.

Low Thresholds for Registration of Charities. In Singapore, the registration of charities is an open and transparent process, with clearly stated requirements and prompt responses. The entire process can be completed online. Charities are not required to have a minimum amount of registered funds at the point of registration, which ensures that charities are no longer the prerogative of the rich. This was fundamental in encouraging nationwide participation in charities.

Trust in Market Forces.The Singapore government believes in the power of market options. As such, it chooses not to set percentage limits for administrative expenses, impose minimum percentage levels of donations to be made or even salary caps for employees in the regulation of charities. In so doing, the Singapore government has effectively made irrelevant the very problems that the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs finds challenging to manage.

Adopt Flexible and Practical Policies. The Singapore government puts a lot of emphasis in ensuring that their policies work; they are careful not to implement one-size-fits-all policies and bring about additional workload for non-profit organizations. One example would be the implementation of guiding principles targeted at different levels during annual audits. All non-profit organisations are first divided into two main categories—Charities or Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs), and further categorised into three different tiers based on their annual revenue. Each category is subjected to a different set of annual audit requirements. All organisations can submit their declarations online.

Financial Incentives.Members of public who donate to IPCs in Singapore are entitled to tax deductions 2.5 times the amount of their donations; donations to universities and research institutions attract matching grants of up to three times, based on prior agreements, from the government. The government has thus clear policy directions and use of incentives.

Financial Support.The MCYS established a SGD45 million special fund to enhance the capabilities of charities; the EDB set up an office cluster in Tanglin for international non-profit organisations to use at very affordable rates; the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) introduced the Community/Sports Facilities Scheme (CSFS), enabling non-profit organisations to set up offices in prime districts. Such incentives and measures both intrigued and won the admiration of our colleagues from China.


Mentality and Capabilities of Non-Profit Organisations

Growing in Strength Together. The various non-profit organisations in Singapore co-exist without conflict and complement one another. From traditional clan associations (Hokkien Huay Kuan) to modern social enterprises (Bizlink), from professional aid organisations (Tsao Foundation) to advocates of new ideas (Impact Investment Exchange Asia), from organisations represented by political figures (Singapore International Foundation) to those established by family clans (Lien Foundation), from home-grown organisations that have gone international (World Toilet Organization) to organisations set up by external parties here in Singapore (World Future Foundation), the myriad of non-profit organisations Singapore exist and work together, each playing a different role in their respective fields of expertise, to form a varied and exciting landscape.

Healthy Mindset. During our interactions at the organisations we visited, I noticed that non-profit organisations in Singapore tend toward a moderate but positive attitude; they do not grumble about the government, ostracise others from the same industry or try to force their views on others. Each organisation concentrates only on its own responsibilities. In comparison, Chinese non-profit organisations appear to be somewhat grouchy and disgruntled.

Professional Expertise. In the rehabilitation room for senior citizens in the Tsao Foundation, a self-designed diagram with clear, explicit instructions is put up so that the elderly users can easily know how to do rehabilitation exercises; Bizlink has come up with its own assessment system so that it can quickly assess and determine the degree of the jobseeker’s disability, before arranging for suitable job placements; each of the consultation rooms in North East CDC are designed to have a front door and a back door, the former is to protect the privacy of the person seeking advice and the latter is to safeguard the social worker’s safety. Those unnoticeable details reflect the professional expertise of non-profit organisations in Singapore. These are also the very core values that make up a non-profit organisation.

Wide Pool of Personnel.After decades of development, Singapore has now a comprehensive education and training system for the Non-profit sector, which includes community training, professional courses, advanced training on-the-job, cross-boundary research and visiting scholars. The result is an available pool of personnel within the appropriate age bracket coming from diverse career backgrounds. Some are senior retirees from the public or commercial sector; some are in the middle-aged group in the midst of a career change. There are also fresh graduates trained in the right field of expertise, as well as specialists who can be recruited at market rate. The person recruited has only to meet professional requirements but will not face wage discrimination. 


Trusted and Indispensible Partnership

A stronger and more innovative social management is widely and increasingly recognised as necessary in China. As such, China has been following closely how Singapore has been exploring and implementing its measures in social management. On 21 September, during the inaugural Singapore-China Forum on Social Management, Zhou Yongkang, Member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau and Secretary of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the CPC Central Committee pointed out that, “Besides its astounding economic accomplishments, Singapore has also discovered its own form of social management, rooted in traditional Oriental culture but takes into consideration the needs of modern civilization, to build an inclusive society that enjoys political stability, social harmony and a comfortable living environment.”

How to develop philanthropy? How to handle the relationship between the government and non-profit organisations? How to strengthen the capacity building of non-profit organisations? These are all vital questions in social management in any country. Singapore has been active in probing this topic for many years and is beginning to see the positive results. In my opinion, its successful experience (or so called model) can be attributed to the following: having trusted and indispensible partnership. The government views non-profit organisations as working partners. Given that their goals are the same and they can each concentrate on their responsibilities, they are considered trusted partners. As non-profit organisations strive to upgrade their professional abilities and adopt a practical approach towards solving certain social problems, the government views them as indispensible partners.



Written in Chinese by: Lu Bo

Translated by: Lee Hui Chiao

(The original article in Chinese was published in Lianhe Zaobao on 19 October 2012)