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What good can money do?

25 Oct What good can money do?

As part of our Global Citizens Singapore programme, we held a dialogue on “What Good Can Money Do?” on Tuesday, 25 Oct 2016 at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore. In 50 years, the nation has become one of the wealthiest countries in the region in per-capita terms. But are people in Singapore doing enough to contribute to society, not just at home but in Asia and beyond?

The dialogue featured views from Mr. Laurence Lien, Co-Founder, Asia Philanthropy Circle, Mr. Terence Quek, Chief Executive Officer, Emergenetics Asia Pacific and Founding Member, Project Happy Feet, as well as Mr. John Tay, Founder, Soule. They were joined by Ms. Zhang Tingjun, Executive Director, Mercy Relief, who served as moderator for the session.


Social Consciousness in Singapore

People in Singapore are becoming more and more socially conscious, said Mr. Lien. He was previously the CEO of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, which conducts a regular survey that shows volunteerism in Singapore has been on the rise. Singaporeans are also very generous in giving when disaster strikes in other countries.

“The issue in Singapore is that you have big Government and small civil society,” Mr. Lien said. The Government in Singapore does a good job, and that quite often crowds out private initiative.

Many in Singapore also argue that they have no time to volunteer or support a social cause. But there are opportunities for people to act. Even in Singapore, there are issues that fall under the radar, such as mental health or the welfare of migrant workers. Civil society can help deal with issues which are difficult for governments to tackle.


Left to Right: Mr. Laurence Lien, APC, Ms. Zhang Tingjun, Mercy Relief, and Mr. Terence Quek, Emergenetics Asia Pacific and Project Happy Feet

Doing Good Well

But what is the best way to contribute? In recent years there has been increasing interest in social enterprise, running a business with a social mission. However, this is no easy goal.

“I come from the approach that you need to develop your business,” said Mr. Tay, whose online store channels part of its proceeds to helping underprivileged children in Singapore, China and Myanmar. He noted that many social enterprises are driven by compassion, but may not have a sound business model.

“Viability is very low,” agreed Mr. Lien. He was involved in starting the first public fund for social enterprises when he was with the civil service in 2003. However, none of the social enterprises that were funded are still operating today.

Mr. Tay pointed out that if a business is to be sustainable, the product or service must be something customers would still buy even if there was no social mission attached to it.

At the same time, the people involved in the business must also have a sound understanding of what they are championing. Mr. Tay advises a Chinese firm that is developing a line of apparel to support a social cause. He has taken the designers to meet with experts in the field and the people they are trying to help.

Staying on Track

In response to a question on whether charity organisations can grow too big, leading to abuses or loss of focus, the speakers acknowledged this can happen. There are many NGOs who have become huge and well-funded, yet are mediocre in what they do. However, Mr. Quek argued the real issue “is not size, but corporate governance”.


Mr. John Tay presents snapshots of his work to dialogue participants.

Beyond Singapore

Corporate governance is one area where Singapore stands out. The speakers agreed that Singapore has become known in the region for its governance and ability to establish robust systems. In the non-profit space, people are often keen to adopt Singapore models or collaborate on joint projects with Singapore organisations.

“They perceive that our level of excellence is high, and they are very interested to learn,” said Mr. Tay, speaking from his own experience in China.

However, Mr. Quek noted that there is also an increasing sense of self-reliance in many countries. Singaporeans should not think that other Asians are willing to blindly follow Singapore’s lead. For instance, in China, there is a growing sentiment that the nation should be able to take care of its needs with home-grown charity and philanthropy, rather than relying on foreign organisations for assistance.

Ms. Zhang pointed out that there is a fine balance when Singaporean groups get involved overseas. As the Executive Director of Mercy Relief, she has seen the need to be respectful of the local government and put local efforts first. The role of Singapore should be to support and fill in gaps.


SIIA Chairman Simon Tay, Ms. Zhang Tingjun, and our panellists.

Why Do Good?

 A dialogue participant asked the panellists about their personal motivations for dedicating their time, money and effort towards doing good. Why should someone make personal sacrifices on behalf of others?

“Time is a sacred resource, once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Mr. Quek. He also pointed out that the question can be reversed – why shouldn’t someone try to make a difference in society?

“Whatever need I’ve struggled with the most, personally, is what I want to help,” said Mr. Tay.

Mr. Lien added that his work is something he is called to do. There are not enough people willing to do good, and he feels that he is able to contribute.

This Global Citizens Singapore dialogue was possible with the kind support of Standard Chartered Bank, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, and other sponsors. The session was covered by Channel NewsAsia on the morning bulletin of Wednesday, 26 Oct 2016.


Event Details

Date/Time: Tuesday, 25 October 2016 / 5:30pm – 7:15pm

Venue: The Boardroom (basement level), The Fullerton Hotel Singapore

Singapore is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in the world based on GDP per capita. But what are we doing with our prosperity? There is now increasing awareness that it is not enough for Singaporeans to merely do business, there is also have a responsibility to do good at home and in the region as Global Citizens. In light of this, Singapore has seen philanthropy and impact investment flourish in recent years. But there is still a deficit of coordination, innovation and scalability in our NGO and social enterprise space. Can Singapore leverage its economic success and comparative advantage in business to make a positive difference, both at home and beyond?

  • Is Singapore becoming a hub for philanthropy and impact investment? How do we hope to see this space develop?
  • Does Singapore have a responsibility to give back to the region?
  • How can we strengthen sustainability among non-profits and social enterprises?

In-conversation with:

Mr. Laurence Lien, Co-Founder and CEO, Asia Philanthropy Circle and Chairman, Lien Foundation

Mr. Terence Quek, Chief Executive Officer, Emergenetics International-Asia Pacific and Founding Member, Project Happy Feet

Mr. John Tay, Co-Founder, Soule

Moderator: Ms. Zhang Tingjun, Executive Director, Mercy Relief

About Global Citizens Singapore

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) is convening a series of Global Citizens Singapore events in 2016. The events aim to bring together young working professionals, managers, executives and businessmen (PMEBs) who will make up the next generation of Southeast Asian leaders to share perspectives facing the world and Singapore and to nurture them to develop a global mind-set. The series also hopes to set the PMEBs on the path to acquire skill set and take up initiatives they would feel committed to. The SIIA believes that as Singapore and its neighbours continue to develop, it will be increasingly important for people to think of themselves not only as citizens of their own nations, but also as part of a wider community.

In 1972, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam argued that Singapore should become a Global City. To survive and prosper, Singapore would need to have broader and deeper links to the rest of the world. In the years since, Singapore has arguably already become a Global City in many respects. However, Mr. Rajaratnam also warned that the true challenge would not be creating infrastructural links to the rest of the world, but to transform mind-sets – to “equip our people intellectually and spiritually” to live in a Global City.

Who are ‘Global Citizens’?

In the national context, a citizen has rights and privileges. But citizenship also carries an obligation to contribute as a responsible member of society. The SIIA believes that the concept of citizenship must be extended to ‘global citizenship’. The next generation of leaders must think and act as global citizens, empathising with their fellow human beings from different countries and backgrounds.

The target audience for the Global Citizens Singapore events are individuals aged between 25 to 40 years old who are either already influential in their fields or are expected to step up to senior roles in the future. Delegates will primarily be professionals, managers, executives and businessmen (PMEBs) working in the private sector, though a select number of academics, public servants and representatives from civil society groups may also be invited.

The intention is to target working professionals and young leaders who are expected to be at the forefront of Singapore’s development in the near to middle term. Events may touch briefly on politics and security, but the intent of the series is to concentrate more on developmental and societal issues.