Slicing the donor pie

The new philanthropists in town: $50m fund for 'the overlooked, unloved, underdog causes'

Mr Teng, the sixth of seven children of a clog maker, says: "I came from nothing. And I wouldn't be where I am without the help of so many people, so it is only right I give some back to society." His endowment fund, Silent Foundation, aims to aid th
Mr Teng, the sixth of seven children of a clog maker, says: "I came from nothing. And I wouldn't be where I am without the help of so many people, so it is only right I give some back to society." His endowment fund, Silent Foundation, aims to aid those without a voice - such as by funding charities helping foreign workers and by promoting environmental conservation.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Never in his wildest dreams did fund manager Teng Ngiek Lian, 66, imagine he would make it this big in life. And so he has given a "quite substantial" part of his wealth to needy causes.

He has donated $50 million to the endowment fund of his Silent Foundation, which he set up in 2010.

It is so named as it aims to aid those without a voice - such as by funding charities helping foreign workers and by promoting environmental conservation and animal protection, among others.

Mr Teng, the sixth of seven children of a clog maker, says: "I came from nothing. And I wouldn't be where I am without the help of so many people, so it is only right I give some back to society."

Growing up in Terengganu, Malaysia, he had to fund his own higher education. He worked as an accounts clerk by day and studied at night to qualify as a certified chartered accountant.

Mr Teng, now a Singaporean, worked his way up to become the managing director at Morgan Grenfell Investment Management Asia and at UBS Asset Management (East Asia). Then, 20 years ago, he made the decision to go from being a salaried employee to starting his own investment firm, Target Asset Management - and made his multi-millions.

He grew its flagship fund, Target Asia Fund, from just US$5.5 million in assets in 1996 to US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in 2010.

When he approached his 60th birthday, he started "asking what is life all about". He decided to do philanthropy "seriously and do it well".

"I was an underdog and so I want to fund the overlooked, unloved and underdog causes," he says. "I'm not doing this to clear my conscience, but to make a difference."

Among the Silent Foundation's initiatives is that of giving minority races a leg-up. For instance, it created the Silent Minority Compassionate Bursary to help students from minority races finish their education when their families meet a crisis.

So far, it has given out about $4 million to charitable causes.

Mr Teng says: "I'm inspired by the good example of (legendary American investor) Warren Buffett, who said he will leave enough for his children to do anything, but not enough that they will do nothing."

His younger son, Matthew, works as an investment manager at his firm. His elder son has just completed his master's degree.

Mr Matthew Teng, 36, says: "I have no gripes with my father's philanthropy as long as we have what we need. There's nothing we want or need that we don't have enough of, but there are a lot of people who are not so fortunate."

Also giving to a specific cause are Mr and Mrs William Bird. They pledged $1 million, through the Community Foundation of Singapore, for outings for frail seniors to attractions such as Gardens by the Bay and the zoo.

Mr Bird, a Briton who is now a Singapore citizen, is 70 years old. He made his money from the logistics business. His and his wife Mary have three grown-up children.

While visiting some elderly people whom they helped, the couple realised that such seniors felt lonely and isolated, as they were unable to go out.

Mr Bird says: "We were affected by the fact that the seniors had such a poor quality of life, and thought more could be done for them to enjoy the golden times of their lives."

Each year since the Outing for the Elderly Fund was set up in 2010, about 1,600 elderly people a year have benefited. They especially love to visit supermarkets, where they are given $20 to buy whatever they want.

Mr George Phua, a 79-year-old resident of the Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens, was taken to a Giant supermarket last month. He was delighted to buy his favourite coffee and chocolates. He tells The Sunday Times: "It's wonderful."

Theresa Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline '$50m fund for 'the overlooked, unloved, underdog causes' Slicing the donor pie'. Print Edition | Subscribe