The one gesture of kindness that shaped the path I would take for much of my adult life came just as I was about to embark on my studies at the University of Malaya. Then, I received news that I had been awarded a bursary from Shell for $2,000 a year, for two years. I was grateful, yet at the same time amazed, that a large corporation would be willing to help me realise my dream of going to university.
University was a time when I started to understand poverty and how we could touch the lives of others. Having been on the receiving end of kindness for much of my younger years, I could identify with many of the short-term solutions we were able to provide.
I joined the social services after graduating, but did not stay for long. I was called up by Mr David Marshall, then the Chief Minister, in 1955 and, a few months later, I started a career that has taken me all the way to the presidency.
My own experiences with kindness, both in receiving and delivering it, left me with a strong conviction that all of us have the ability and a duty to help the less fortunate. I have seen ordinary working people face hardship with no solution in sight. That was what made me appreciate a gracious and giving Singapore, where Singaporeans generously give their time and money to help the needy.
I wanted to encourage Singaporeans from every walk of life to be conscious of the less fortunate among us, and to help out in fund raising, volunteering, and in any other way help the less fortunate in all segments of our society. But what is even more heartening is how corporations, not just individual Singaporeans, have given such strong support over the years. It has convinced me that corporations have a critical role to play in fostering a spirit of giving in Singapore.
Retiring from the presidency has allowed me to devote more time and energy to better involve corporations in our community towards this purpose. When I was approached to be chairman of CapitaLand Hope Foundation in 2012, I readily agreed. I was familiar with CapitaLand's philanthropic work. They share my belief in nurturing the growth and development of underprivileged children here and elsewhere, and in breaking the poverty cycle as well as enhancing social mobility through education and empowerment. CapitaLand Hope Foundation was also one of the major donors, contributing
$1 million, when the Education Upliftment Fund was set up to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds with financial support to receive a sound education, in the same way that Shell had given me a boost.
Working with CapitaLand Hope Foundation showed me the potential that corporations have to improve the lives of the less privileged. CapitaLand encouraged its staff to volunteer their time and energy to the community by giving every staff member three days of paid volunteer service leave annually. I am glad to know that this practice is catching on among other organisations. The Civil Service has announced recently that civil servants will be given one day of volunteer leave annually, beginning this year. I hope they will take advantage of it and serve the community.
Singapore's social problems will become more complex and multifaceted as our society matures, and in modern times. We need to become more giving to address these problems together as a nation. I believe that corporations can be a potent force for making our society kinder. At their best, corporations can go beyond just giving money to imbuing the spirit of giving and volunteerism among their staff, and encourage them to carry forward these virtues into their personal lives. This will invariably strengthen the fabric of our society.
Corporations are an indispensable part of the Singapore story as we move towards SG100, just as they have been for the past 50 years. It is my hope that more corporations will evolve from being just engines for our economic growth to also being engines for our social growth.
•The writer is chairman of CapitaLand Hope Foundation and former president of Singapore.