The new philanthropists in town: Not just about writing cheques,but also strategic giving

Miss Rebekah Lin, 31, daughter of ex-minister Lim Hwee Hua and Tembusu Partners founder Andy Lim, manages Jia Foundation.
Miss Rebekah Lin, 31, daughter of ex-minister Lim Hwee Hua and Tembusu Partners founder Andy Lim, manages Jia Foundation.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Fund manager Teng Ngiek Lian, 66, has donated $50 million to the endowment fund of his Silent Foundation, to help those without a voice. It funds charities to help foreign workers, among other causes.
Fund manager Teng Ngiek Lian, 66, has donated $50 million to the endowment fund of his Silent Foundation, to help those without a voice. It funds charities to help foreign workers, among other causes. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Ho Bee Land’s chairman, Mr Chua Thian Poh, 68, and his brothers started the Chua Foundation, an endowment fund of $10 million, to honour their mother Seah Sar, who died in 2014 at the age of 93.
Ho Bee Land’s chairman, Mr Chua Thian Poh, 68, and his brothers started the Chua Foundation, an endowment fund of $10 million, to honour their mother Seah Sar, who died in 2014 at the age of 93. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Dr Oon Chiew Seng, 100, set up Singapore’s first home for dementia patients, Apex Harmony Lodge, and hopes to get another home started.
Dr Oon Chiew Seng, 100, set up Singapore’s first home for dementia patients, Apex Harmony Lodge, and hopes to get another home started. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Insight looks at the new faces sharing their private wealth for the public good, and how the scene has changed

From self-made tycoons to a trailblazing centenarian to scions of illustrious families, a growing wave of philanthropists is emerging to fuel giving-for-good in Singapore.

At least 40 foundations and charitable trusts, set up by individuals, families and companies, that give money to charitable causes were registered as charities in the past decade.

This is about three times the number in the decade before that, a Sunday Times check of the Commissioner of Charities' public records has found.

Those established over the past decade include:

  • Silent Foundation: Started in 2010 by Mr Teng Ngiek Lian, who has been described as one of Singapore's most successful fund managers. His firm, Target Asset Management, did so well, he was able to donate $50 million to his foundation's endowment fund.
  • Chua Foundation: Set up just last year by one of Singapore's richest men, property magnate Chua Thian Poh of Ho Bee Group, and his siblings, with an endowment fund of $10 million.
  • SM Jaleel Foundation: Started in 2010 by school dropout Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, who went on to become boss of a company with an annual turnover of more than $100 million, Mini Environment Service Group, which builds and runs dormitories for foreign workers. Mr Jaleel has donated about $5 million to his foundation since it started.
  • Ong Foundation: Established in 2012 by the two sons of the late president Ong Teng Cheong.
  • Rose Marie Khoo Foundation: Registered as a charity in 2009 by the children of the late philanthropist Khoo Teck Puat and named after their mother, Rose Marie.

And then there is the Dr Oon Chiew Seng Trust, which was registered as a charity in 2014. Remarkably, its doctor founder is 100 years old. Dr Oon set up Singapore's first home for dementia patients, Apex Harmony Lodge, and hopes to get another home started.

  • Foundation v charity

  • A foundation or charitable trust is set up by a donor or a group of donors to give funds to charitable causes. It is registered as a charity so the foundation's income is not taxable, says Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the Charity Council, which advises the Commissioner of Charities and promotes good governance among charities.

    Usually, the donor will give an initial sum to set up an endowment fund for the foundation. This is invested and the returns are used to fund the foundation's work. The initial sum may be at least $10 million, says Mr Ee.

    The endowment model allows the foundation to fund activities on a long-term and sustainable basis. Among other requirements, the donor must assemble a board of directors to oversee the foundation's activities, hold regular meetings and have its accounts audited.

    A charity, on the other hand, is a non-profit group helping those in need, such as the National Kidney Foundation, which provides subsidised dialysis for needy patients, and the Singapore Children's Society, which runs services to help children in distress.

    Unlike foundations, which make donations, charities typically have to raise funds from the public, foundations, companies and other sources.

The increase in foundations and charitable trusts dovetails with a call made in 2008 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who urged successful Singaporeans to give "a significant proportion of their wealth to some larger purpose they feel committed to".

Indeed, a difference that has emerged compared to long-established foundations is that, increasingly, the newer groups are moving away from cheque-book philanthropy.

More are strategic about their giving, identifying certain causes to support or working with established groups to initiate or improve services and programmes.

Another change is that some of the newer foundations are not named after the founder or his family name, like the Lee and Shaw foundations. There are now the likes of the Silent Foundation, Binjai Tree and Jia Foundation.

Their founders say their group's work is not about them alone - they want it to continue even after their death and they hope to attract others outside the family to join them to make a difference.

More of the new rich giving

The established foundations around since before the turn of the century tended to be set up by patriarchs and community leaders with an inherent sense of duty to share some of their wealth with society.

Take the Lee Foundation, arguably Singapore's largest family foundation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described its chairman Mr Lee Seng Gee, 95, who died last month, as a "rare, selfless and humble individual who contributed to Singapore throughout his life". The late Mr Lee's father, rubber tycoon Lee Kong Chian, started the Lee Foundation in 1952.

But nowadays, with the Government's efforts to promote philanthropy, the growing ranks of multi-millionaires and the buzz behind corporate social responsibility, more of the new rich have started foundations in the past decade, observers note.

The head of Credit Suisse's philanthropy advisory Asia-Pacific, Mr Bernard Fung, says: "The self-made businessmen feel that society expects them to give back. It will look odd if they don't do philanthropy."

Some also want to instil a sense of social responsibility in their children.

Dr Mary Ann Tsao, chair of the Tsao Foundation which was started by her grandmother, says: "Many business families feel this moral responsibility to share some of their wealth so there is not so much income inequality in society."

Others also want to honour a family member.

Ho Bee Land's chairman, Mr Chua, and his brothers started the Chua Foundation to honour their mother, Seah Sar, who died in 2014 at the age of 93.

Mr Chua's daughter Weiling, 33, who helps to run the foundation, says: "My grandmother was always telling us 'don't forget the underprivileged'. So the foundation is a way to instil a sense of duty in us and to continue her spirit of giving."

Miss Chua says her grandmother had 14 children and took on sewing jobs to make ends meet, especially when her husband's small lighterage business was not doing well.

Yet, she was always looking out for others around her, and when life got better, she visited the old and the sick in homes regularly.

From that humble beginning, her son Mr Chua went on to make the Forbes Singapore's 50 richest list. His wealth is estimated to be US$1.1 billion (S$1.35 billion).

As for the Ong brothers Tze Guan, 49, and Tze Boon, 47, they set up the Ong Foundation as a family foundation and as the philanthropic arm of Ong & Ong, the architectural firm started by their parents, the late Mr and Mrs Ong Teng Cheong.

The Ong Foundation has given $250,000 in the past three years to health, arts and educational causes which their parents championed.

Besides families and individuals, more companies have also started their own foundations in the past decade, boosting the number of such groups here.

Among the corporate bigwigs that have started foundations in recent years are DBS Bank (DBS Foundation), Keppel Corporation (Keppel Care Foundation) and Wing Tai Holdings (Wing Tai Foundation).

There is also a growing number of donors who have started charitable funds parked under groups like the Community Foundation of Singapore and the SymAsia Foundation.

Both charities manage their donors' funds and disburse them to each donor's chosen causes, thus saving the donors the cost and effort of starting their own foundation.

A sum of at least $200,000 is required to set up a charitable fund with the Community Foundation, and 82 funds have been formed since it was set up in 2008.

And at least $1 million is needed to do so at SymAsia, which is initiated by private bank Credit Suisse for its clients. It has about 30 charitable funds set up since its formation in 2011.

In the past three years, donors with these two foundations gave a ballpark figure of $80 million to charitable causes.

The growing number of well-heeled donors coincides with an overall trend of Singaporeans catching on to doing good by giving. Charities received $2.5 billion in donations in 2013, up from $1.8 billion in 2009, according to the latest annual report of the Commissioner of Charities. The money came from wide-ranging sources, from the man in the street to foundations to companies.

Tax write-off 'not the main driver'

Of course, cynics may say that much of this magnanimity has a pragmatic purpose - a tax write-off.

However, Charity Council chairman Gerard Ee, who is also the president of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, points out that there are no tax benefits, such as tax deductions off the sums donated or reductions in the amount of estate duty payable, to setting up a foundation. In fact, estate duty or inheritance tax was scrapped in 2008.

However, for donors who set up charitable funds under the Community Foundation or SymAsia, if they donate to a charity with "Institutions of a Public Character" (IPC) status, they get 2.5 times the sum donated deducted from their taxable income.

But tax incentives are not the main driver of giving, says Credit Suisse's Mr Fung. Singapore donors give as much to foreign causes, where they get no tax benefits, as they give to local IPCs where they get the 2.5 times tax deduction, he says.

Singapore's philanthropists tend to give quietly. Indeed, many of the new breed declined to be interviewed or say how much they donated to start their foundation.

Those in the know say they do not want to be swamped by pleas for donations or worse, to be seen as bragging.

Of those who agreed to be interviewed - about a dozen - donations by their foundations could range from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $10 million a year.

Over the past 10 years, the Lien Foundation, for example, has given $119 million to fund projects in eldercare, water and sanitation and early childhood education.

The Khoo Teck Puat Foundation and the estate of the late Mr Khoo donated more than $360 million in the past decade, a figure that includes big one-off donations.

Focus on strategic giving

The practice of philanthropy has evolved with time. It is no longer just about giving money to charity, but ensuring the money given makes a difference or meets unmet or under-served needs.

Take the Binjai Tree, set up by UOB chairman Hsieh Fu Hua in 2008. Its focus includes supporting those afflicted by mental illness and aiding marginalised groups, such as foreign workers.

To provide more support to those caring for a loved one with mental illness, the Binjai Tree helped to start a charity, Caregivers Alliance. The Sunday Times understands that Mr Hsieh's two children had suffered from depression, hence his passion for the cause.

While the traditional causes of education, healthcare and welfare remain popular with philanthropists, the newer players are also giving to a broader range of interests such as the arts, environmental conservation and animal protection.

But what has not changed is this: the culture of keeping wealth within the family.

Government leaders have long encouraged the wealthy to give back to society, to give the poor a leg up and to build social cohesion.

Yet so far, no Singaporean Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame) - philanthropists who have pledged to give the bulk of their wealth to charity - have emerged.

Credit Suisse's Mr Fung estimates that the new Singaporean philanthropists are giving just a fraction of their wealth, 10 per cent or less.

He says: "They are giving the fruit of the tree and not the tree itself."

The Asian mindset of leaving wealth to one's kin, making sure descendants are well provided for, is still very entrenched, say observers.

Besides, the Government has done a good job of taking care of citizens, such that philanthropists do not see the need to give very large sums to meet pressing needs such as widespread poverty, notes Mr Laurence Lien, chairman of the Lien Foundation.

However, Mr Lien, 45, says he does know one or two self-made businessmen with tens to hundreds of millions to their names, and these Singaporeans plan to give the bulk of their wealth to charity.

"They have a strong belief that their kids would be better off without having to rely on their wealth and having the option to not work for a single day in their life," he says. "But they are very rare."


$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 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.

READ MORE HERE


Pioneers in eldercare, pre-school education


Dr Mary Ann Tsao (left) and Mr Laurence Lien. ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI, DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

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.

READ MORE HERE


Long-time givers: Who's who


(From left) Khoo Teck Puat, Lee Kong Chian and Tan Chin Tuan. PHOTOS: ST FILE

Singapore's new foundations might be up-and-coming, but they are little match for the deep pockets of the long-established groups.

Take the Khoo Teck Puat Foundation. The foundation and the estate of the late Mr Khoo have given more than $360 million to charity in the past decade, its spokesman told The Sunday Times.

This includes $100 million to build the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun and $80 million to fund medical research at the Duke-NUS Medical School.

READ MORE HERE


One is 100 years old, one is just 31


Miss Rebekah Lin (left) and Dr Oon Chiew Seng. ST PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, LIM WUI LIANG

At the grand old age of 100, Dr Oon Chiew Seng is still not done with work, and believes she has unfinished business.

After retiring as a gynaecologist at 75, she volunteered to set up Singapore's first home for dementia patients, called Apex Harmony Lodge, in Pasir Ris. Right up to her mid-90s, around the time she stepped down as its chairman, she was at the home every day, interacting with patients and being actively involved in its operations.

Dr Oon, who is sharp as a tack but a little hard of hearing, says: "After I stepped down from the home, I still felt I should, and can, do more."

READ MORE HERE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Not just about writing cheques,but also strategic giving'. Print Edition | Subscribe