The new philanthropists in town: Pioneers in eldercare, pre-school education

The Tsao Foundation brings medical care to the homes of the elderly after Dr Tsao learnt that many seniors found it difficult to leave their flats to visit a doctor because of their ailments. Today, the foundation provides services to about 14,500 pe
The Tsao Foundation brings medical care to the homes of the elderly after Dr Tsao learnt that many seniors found it difficult to leave their flats to visit a doctor because of their ailments. Today, the foundation provides services to about 14,500 people. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The Lien Foundation was set up by the founder of OUB, Mr Lien Ying Chow, in 1980. Today, his grandson Laurence leads the foundation to fund research, advocacy and projects in areas such as eldercare, water and sanitation and early childhood education
The Lien Foundation was set up by the founder of OUB, Mr Lien Ying Chow, in 1980. Today, his grandson Laurence leads the foundation to fund research, advocacy and projects in areas such as eldercare, water and sanitation and early childhood education. ST PHOTO: LIM WUI LIANG

Advances in care for the elderly and in pre-school education in Singapore owe much to two charitable foundations whose work and research caught the eye of the authorities and led to changes.

The Lien Foundation, which practises what it calls "radical philanthropy", got Singaporeans to think about end-of-life issues and boosted palliative care.

Itspearheaded innovation in early childhood education, such as developing a programme to screen and help children with mild developmental problems in pre-schools. The Government later adopted aspects of this and rolled it out nationally.

The Tsao Foundation, set up in 1993, is a pioneer in eldercare services, bringing medical care to seniors in their homes and funding research on ageing issues.

Its founder, the late Mrs Tsao Ng Yu Shun, lived in Hong Kong, but wanted to start a foundation to help the elderly in Singapore stay healthy and independent. Why Singapore? She admired the way the country was run. Plus, she felt that her granddaughter, Dr Mary Ann Tsao, a paediatrician working in America, would fit in as Singaporeans spoke English.

Dr Tsao's father is Tan Sri Frank Tsao, a shipping tycoon who founded the privately owned, Singapore-headquartered IMC Group.

Dr Tsao, 61, and a Singapore permanent resident, says: "My grandmother also felt while giving money was good, it was better to put in the effort to do something."

In the early 1990s, Dr Tsao pounded Housing Board rental blocks to understand what poor and elderly Singaporeans needed, and learnt that many, restricted by frailty or illness, found it tough to leave their flats to visit a doctor. So she hired a small team of doctors, nurses and social workers to go to their homes.

From there, the foundation has grown to about 100 staff today, running clinics and homecare services, and has its own training and research arms.

It serves about 14,500 seniors and its expenses came up to $8.3 million last year, of which $2.1 million came from the Tsao Trust. The rest came from fees, donations and government grants.

Sociologist Angelique Chan says the Tsao Foundation placed ageing issues on the agenda when little attention was given to them in the early 1990s, adding: "It is a leader in developing homecare for the elderly."

As for the Lien Foundation, it was set up in 1980 by Mr Lien Ying Chow, who founded Overseas Union Bank. The late Mr Lien donated almost half of his massive wealth to the foundation.

For the first 20-odd years of its existence, it was just "writing cheques to educational causes", says grandson Laurence Lien, 45, who took over as chairman in 2009.

"I felt we needed innovation in the social sector," he says. "We fund research, advocacy and projects in areas where people don't want to touch, perhaps as they are afraid of upsetting the Government."

And these research and advocacy efforts have led to change. For example, in 2012, it commissioned a study that ranked Singapore 29th out of 45 countries in standards of early childhood education, highlighting affordability and quality as weak areas.

That catalysed changes, with the Government setting up the Early Childhood Development Agency to regulate and raise standards in kindergartens and childcare centres.

In the past decade, the Lien Foundation, which has three staff, spent about $119 million on areas like eldercare, water and sanitation, and early childhood education.

Chief executive Lee Poh Wah says: "Philanthropy is pointless if we don't think deeply about the problems and finding solutions to them."

Theresa Tan

An earlier version of the story stated that the founder of IMC Group is the late Mr Frank Tsao. This is incorrect. The founder - Tan Sri Frank Tsao - is alive. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Pioneers in eldercare, pre-school education'. Print Edition | Subscribe