Waves of Good

Singapore’s early history was notable for the individuals who contributed toward uplifting their communities. That spirit of giving has continued into the present, in new forms.

By Evonne Lyn Lee and Kim Lee with additional reporting by Stella Danker

It was a momentous occasion for secondary one pupils assembled on their first day at Chinese High School, which was founded in 1919 by Tan Kah Kee and became an independent school in 2005. PHOTO CREDIT: SPH-ST

“Even those who were just marginally better off were known to share food, shelter and clothing with those in greater need.”

— Keith Chua, Advisory Board chairman of the Asia Centre for
Social Entrepreneurship

Look around and you might notice hawkers giving a hot meal to the poor and infirm in their neighbourhood, residents who choose to buy newspapers from an elderly person in a heartland market, or volunteers jogging hand-in-hand with the visually impaired. Such acts of kindness are not uncommon across Singapore. Giving has shaped much of Singapore’s multi-cultural social landscape where many individuals and corporations seek to do good. Our migrant-philanthropist forefathers showed the way by donating towards nation-building and strengthening community ties. Their legacy inspires new generations, modern-day champions  who don’t let lack of personal funds or want of high society connections stop them from helping. Technology and social media allows them to crowd source resources. As easily, a schoolgirl in Singapore can bless another schoolgirl in a needy community half the world away.

In 1952, Naviroji Mistri’s generous donation of almost S$1 million went into building Mistri Wing, where the National Heart Centre stands today. PHOTO CREDIT: THE MISTRI FAMILY

Spreading the Good
Philanthropy is a time-honoured practice  among successful entrepreneurs because acts of benevolence can become powerful catalysts of positive  community change. Singapore’s early immigrants had grand dreams of making it good and building better lives here for their children. Tough times taught them resourcefulness, resilience and compassion. The 1950s, 60s and 70s saw various foundations established to channel private resources towards improving the lot of society. Today, with the proliferation of volunteer organisations, charities and cause-focused events, the will to do good is sinking roots deeper across Singapore’s society.

A glimpse at the legacies left by successful migrant entrepreneurs — Tan Tock Seng, Naviroji Mistri, Tan Kah Kee, and Syed Omar Al-Junied — offers an insight that giving is entrenched in the psyche of our young nation, which turns 48 this year. Their legacies still stand large in education and healthcare, and are an integral part of Singapore’s foundation today.

Making Life Better
Tan Kah Kee, one of Singapore’s most  eminent philanthropists, was best known for donating to public education. Before migrating to Singapore, he established a school in his hometown of Jimei village in Xiamen. Here, Tan founded five schools, the most well-known being the Chinese High School. He also donated money to Anglo-Chinese School. He gave sacrificially, in good times and bad. Even when his business was assailed by financial difficulties from 1926 to 1937, Tan faithfully financed Amoy University in Xiamen, China. In his last days, he donated $20 million to education to  Fukien, (Fujian) a province in southeastern China.

Tan Keong Choo standing next to the wax model of his uncle, the late Tan Kah Kee, at the opening of the Tan Kah Kee story exhibition at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 2002. PHOTO CREDIT: SPH-ST

Like Tan, Loke Wan Tho of the Cathay Organisation continued the largesse of  his father, tycoon and philanthropist Loke Yew. Loke gave generously to state, charities, institutions, nature conservation, and even struggling individuals. The Loke Wan Tho Memorial Foundation, set up in 1972, continues his legacy today.

Naviroji Mistri, fondly nicknamed ‘godfather of the poor’ is a trained engineer from Bombay, whose single donation of S$950,000 in 1952 helped build the Singapore General Hospital’s Mistri Wing — two pediatric wards for sick children. It opened in 1955, two years after his death. Compelled to help those who could ill afford hospital fees, he said,

“I could not bear to think of sick children, and their mothers lying on the floors of hospital wards… because of the  shortage of space and funds…I thought  it was my duty to do something for Singapore’s children.”

Today, Mistri Wing houses the National Heart Centre.

The highly respected Ridzwan Dzafir once sat on the Singapore International Foundation board. PHOTO CREDIT: YAYASAN MENDAKI

Spirit of Service
Singapore’s early do-gooders inspired the late Ridzwan Dzafir. “We must be more ambitious, more competitive, like our migrant forefathers,” enthused Ridzwan, who dutifully served among the Malays to empower the disadvantaged through excellence in education. Yayasan Mendaki, a self-help group for the Malay community, was jointly set up in 1981 by the government and community leaders with Dzafir as its first Chief Executive Officer.

Playing peacemaker amongst earlyChinese traders was Tan Tock Seng,  descendent of a Hokkien immigrant. He started out as a poultry and vegetable hawker before setting up a shop at Boat Quay and prospering. Tan was regarded as ‘Captain of the Chinese’ for mediating disputes between migrants.

An influential community leader, he was the first Asian to be appointed Justice of the Peace in Singapore in the 1800s. Tan also gave many beggars the dignity of a decent burial. His most notable charitable act was the princely gift of $7,000 in Spanish currency (a huge amount then) to build the Chinese Paupers’ Hospital. It was renamed Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and is one of  Singapore’s oldest hospitals.

Dr George Lien worked his way up from a monthly salary of $10 to become one of Singapore’s richest men. PHOTO CREDIT: LIEN FOUNDATION

All in the Family
While some focused on their ethnic communities, others supported different causes. The Aljunied family felt socially responsible to improve life for others.They donated land, time and money to Singapore’s multi-religious society — to Christians, Muslims and fresh Chinese immigrants. Their giving spanned three generations — Syed Omar’s legacy was continued by son Syed Abu Bakar Omar and grandson, Syed Abdul Rahman Omar. The family contributed land for the erection of Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in Chinatown, St. Andrews Cathedral in the city, Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Thomson Road, and established a foundation for Singapore’s multi-racial communities. Like the Aljunieds, the Lien family has a big heart. The late Dr George Lien  Ying Chow (businessman, banker and hotelier) donated almost half his wealth to set up the Lien Foundation in 1980, which has supported causes such as early education, eldercare, water and sanitation. Carrying on his legacy is his wife Margaret, who recently made a personal contribution towards the $500,000 Respectance Fund to help families of terminally-ill patients who have opted to spend their remaining days at home with loved ones to defray the cost of day-to-day living expenses. The fund also helps next-of-kin who have lost their breadwinners to terminal illnesses.

Dr Lien’s aspiration for “our younger generation to strive for a better future for our nation” lives on with grandson Laurence Lien, who took over the chair of Lien Foundation in 2009. Today, Laurence, 41, walks in the footsteps of his grandfather who once said, “I must do more, leave something so that people will know that I have tried to do good here.” Laurence is also CEO of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). The NVPC, set up in 1999, fosters acts of good by working with schools, communities, corporate organisations and the public sector.

Stimulating Volunteerism

Today, the spirit of giving is still apparent among individuals and organisations in Singapore. Prof Robbie Goh, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore (NUS), observed, “There’s a strong network of community organisations — clan and selfhelp groups, religious and para-religious organisations — which are very active… The combination of such enforced and institutional factors in a relatively small country like Singapore, probably creates a more positive influence for doing good, more so than in many other societies.”

To stimulate the young to give, volunteerism programmes have been integrated into the national educational curriculum. Adds Prof Goh, also a volunteer Second Vice President with the Metropolitan YMCA,

“Compulsory volunteerism in schools, although programmatic and forced, nevertheless gives students an introduction to serving others.”

He is referring to the Community Involvement Programme (CIP), which encourages social responsibility in students through participation in community work. To cultivate young changemakers at tertiary level, the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme and the University Scholars Programme engage students in community issues here and in Southeast Asia. The university’s College of Alice and Peter Tan also emphasises community service.

Last May, a $100 million National Youth Fund was established to champion community and social causes. Its objective is to fund social enterprises or kick-start new initiatives to ingrain a strong culture of volunteerism and social participation in the young in the hope that volunteering continues after they leave school.

NVPC CEO Laurence Lien believes that volunteerism can help to build Singapore into an engaged, compassionate nation.

On the corporate front, Lien feels that “more organisations can include a social mission, engage their staff in employee volunteerism and augment sustainable efforts through converting ad-hoc programmes to more long-term ones.” What started out as a few good men making a difference has become a nationwide landscape of doing good. Schools incorporate volunteerism into their formal curriculums while organisations promote corporate social responsibility programmes. Some of the bastions of good in the past have endured, like the Shaw, Lee and Ngee Ann Foundations while more recent additions include the Singapore International Foundation, Lien Foundation and many ground-up initiatives. All these avenues make it possible for people to do more good now than ever. Says Lien, of the environment today, “Anyone can easily lead do-good initiatives in their communities. Everyone…can be the catalyst to drive the change they want to see.”


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