Coronavirus: Are Singapore's tycoons extending a helping hand?

Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Beneficiaries include Awwa, Care Corner, Alzheimer's Disease Association and The Salvation Army's Pe
Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis.PHOTO: COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF SINGAPORE
Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Beneficiaries include Awwa, Care Corner, Alzheimer's Disease Association and The Salvation Army's Pe
China's Jack Ma has sent 7.4 million masks to 23 Asian countries.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Beneficiaries include Awwa, Care Corner, Alzheimer's Disease Association and The Salvation Army's Pe
Hong Kong's Li Ka Shing has donated HK$100 million (S$18.4 million) to Wuhan.PHOTO: COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF SINGAPORE
Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Beneficiaries include Awwa, Care Corner, Alzheimer's Disease Association and The Salvation Army's Pe
Malaysia's Lee Kim Yew chartered a plane to transport masks and protective gear to front-line staff.PHOTO: STAR PUBLICATIONS

Their generosity not as visible as other Asian tycoons', with donations mostly kept low-key

Singapore philanthropist Laurence Lien and his family quietly donated $2 million earlier this month to help 17 charities affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

Not many know.

When Indonesian tycoon and Singapore permanent resident Tahir donated $500,000 on April 6 to help needy families here, he wondered why Singaporean billionaires are not doing more.

"I've had a strange observation - I don't see Singaporean businessmen or tycoons responding, at least not yet. So I hope that a small donation from a Singapore PR will encourage them to also participate."

His comments came at a time when tycoons from other Asian societies are making the news for their generosity in this pandemic.

For instance, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has donated 7.4 million masks to 23 Asian countries, while Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing donated HK$100 million (S$18.4 million) to Wuhan. In Malaysia, property tycoon Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew chartered a plane to transport 1.5 million masks and personal protective equipment to the country's front-line workers.

But billionaires here have been "conspicuously silent" during this crisis, said veteran diplomat Tommy Koh. In an opinion piece yesterday, Professor Koh gave examples of average Singaporeans doing what they could to help, but said that "we have, unfortunately, no one like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos among our super-rich people".

Singapore philanthropists contacted said that those here are generally publicity-shy and want to keep their donations low-key. This also means that many who come to wealth may not be inspired to donate, despite regular calls for Singapore's moneyed to do more.

In 2007, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong made an appeal to wealthy Singaporeans to donate at least 0.5 per cent of their income to charity.

 
 
 

He told The Sunday Times he has noticed progress over the years and urged philanthropists to continue to help. It is inevitable that the economic impact of Covid-19 on businesses and individuals will affect philanthropic efforts, he said.

"Sadly, this is the time when donations are actually needed the most," he noted, as beneficiaries have even greater needs than before. "I am therefore heartened to see that many Singaporeans and companies are continuing to look out for the less fortunate in our society."

He added: "The wealthy Singaporeans that I know do donate generously, but they do not seek to profile their donations. It is not in our culture to show off generosity. More importantly, our Government is not wanting in generosity in this Covid-19 crisis."

There are no official figures for how much the wealthy have donated in this crisis. But Singaporeans across the board have been giving.

Donations on Giving.sg, which is run by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), exceeded $9.8 million in the first two weeks of this month (up to April 16). This was four times more than the entire month of April last year.

Some of this was from Singaporeans who chose to donate their one-off payout of $600 as part of the Solidarity package from the Government.

Asked if Singapore philanthropists are indeed less generous than their peers from the region, NVPC chief executive Melissa Kwee said it does not have comparison data, but what will be more helpful is to evaluate whether Singapore has improved over time.

"We know that Singaporeans are moved to give during crisis," she said. The next step is to evolve from a transactional donor mentality - such as giving only during a disaster - to what Ms Kwee calls "a more relational mindset" where people adopt a charity for a year or longer, and donate more frequently.

Ms Kwee declined to reveal her personal donation in this crisis as she wants to keep it anonymous.

 
 
 

Others who choose to keep their donations discreet include Far East Organization, owned by tycoons Philip Ng and Robert Ng, which donated in cash to national relief schemes as well as in-kind to foreign worker communities and front-line healthcare workers at hospitals. Real estate businessman Stanley Tan, who owns GYP Properties, formerly known as Global Yellow Pages, also declined to give details.

Others on the 2019 Forbes Singapore Rich List declined to respond to requests for comments.

Among those who have consistently answered the call for the wealthy to step up is the Lien Foundation, which was set up in 1980 by Mr George Lien Ying Chow, an eminent Asian business leader, banker and hotelier.

Mr Laurence Lien, who is the founder's grandson and chief executive officer of Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC), a platform for regional collaborations among Asian philanthropists, said that his family foundation has committed $2 million to beneficiaries such as Awwa, Care Corner, Alzheimer's Disease Association and The Salvation Army's Peacehaven Nursing Home - all of which are "an essential part of Singapore's social safety net".

"We will continue to monitor the situation and top up the fund if there is a need," Mr Lien added.

Mr Tan, who co-chairs the APC, said that Singapore philanthropists have been most generous in giving outside of Singapore, mainly to Asean nations.

But during this Covid-19 crisis, he believes those with the means should be looking at helping to rebuild "perfectly good SMEs that employ more less-skilled employees and help them restart and restore to their pre-Covid-19 state".

 

This could be in the form of loans, equity or other variations.

This will help stem job losses, he said. Assuming that 20,000 small and medium-sized enterprises each with 10 employees could fail, that is 200,000 job losses.

"Most active philanthropy dollars are in the hands of those with investment and business experience," he noted.

LISTEN TO HEALTH CHECK PODCAST

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline 'Are S'pore tycoons extending a helping hand?'. Print Edition | Subscribe