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KEITH CHUA

As Trustee for the Mrs Lee Choon Guan Trust Fund, Keith Chua has continued to support various initiatives in education and healthcare, emulating the way his great-grandmother actively supported the needs of her time. While areas of need have changed over the past 100 years, giving in relevant and strategic ways is one of the guiding principles that Keith has applied to all areas that the Trust supports.

How did your philanthropy begin?

First, I was fortunate to grow up in a home environment where both my parents were extremely generous individuals. My mother would respond to requests for help on almost every occasion, as far as I can recall. The second part is the legacy that my great-grandmother left, Mrs Lee Choon Guan. As I’ve gotten to know more about what she did 100 years ago, it has certainly encouraged, inspired and guided me in terms of my own philanthropic development. A key part in how I engage with philanthropy today is through the Trust that has passed down through the generations; currently I’m a co-trustee of that charitable Trust. I would say the third element is my faith. I think many religions guide their followers to practice generosity and to help others in need.

What were your main motivations for becoming a philanthropist?

I have tried as much as I can, as a parent, to pass along to my children the qualities that have been imparted to me. That’s one of my motivations. Besides the quality of generosity, which I’ve mentioned, I would add two others: frugality and compassion. And in continuing the legacy of my great-grandmother, I have looked at how she approached philanthropy in her time and have tried to include some of her practices in what we’re doing today. 

For example, one of the areas that my great-grandmother focused on 100 years ago was improving the infant mortality rate among Chinese immigrants in Singapore. She addressed this need by providing support that would bring about better training for those caring for the women and children in the migrant community. Fast forward 100 years and we were approached to co-fund an initiative to help address the issue of infant mortality in Cambodia by providing facilities in a children’s hospital and the sharing of medical expertise.

My great-grandmother also focused on education for women and girls. Around 100 years ago, education was still quite limited for females, and so this was a key area for her. And now the charitable trust has participated in developing the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP) at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Business School.

I’m also motivated by my faith, as I mentioned – by the opportunity to practice it in tangible ways, to help those who are in need of help and to show compassion.

What is the focus of your philanthropy and how did you identify it?

Education is one of the areas that we are currently focusing on. When we partnered with the NUS Business School to set up the centre, I took a very simple approach.  Typically, business schools teach students how to create wealth and contribute to the economic development of societies. I think it’s fitting that while we teach our students how to create wealth, we also teach them how to give it away and how to use it for worthy causes. 

Beyond that, there’s value in researching philanthropy in Singapore. We don’t have much in the way of tertiary-level research in philanthropy as it relates to Singapore at the moment – quite often we base our philanthropic models on some of the Western experiences. After 50 years of independence though, I think we’ve developed philanthropic models that are helpful for our community, and would also be helpful for the wider community beyond Singapore.

We also focus on health care, such as the initiative in Cambodia. We’ve also given to arts and culture; the values that we can draw from culture form a key part in shaping our society. For example, Peranakan culture – my family comes from that heritage – brings with it a high level of generosity and an interest in caring for others.

Is your family involved in your philanthropy, and do you hope that future generations will sustain or develop it?

When I think about my own introduction to philanthropy, my parents could impart to me their values, but it didn’t necessarily follow that I would enact them in the same way that they did. So I have to accept the fact that, in the end, my children will make their own decisions. What I can do is to give them as much guidance, information and encouragement as possible. It takes time and they will have to grow into it themselves. I’m pleased to say that my older daughter, through her own choice, is actively involved in the area of philanthropy. The rest of the children also have a reasonable level of interest in this area. I’ll continue in my role of encouraging and guiding them, while accepting the fact that they have to choose how it will be a part of their lives.

In recent years, we’ve organised visits to see charitable works in other countries, and I’ve had our children come with us on these visits, so that we can share those experiences with them. And we also take them along to local events, like charity dinners, so that they can see some of the charitable work that’s happening locally

What benefits does being involved in philanthropy bring to you? And what do you enjoy most about philanthropy?

As I have gotten to see first-hand the needs of various communities, I have been personally changed by that. If anything, philanthropy has, I hope, made me a more compassionate and caring person. And I think that having brought our children to see and engage with some of these needs, it has had an impact on them as well, and will probably have a positive influence on how they see their roles in society and in philanthropy.

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I have looked at how my great-grandmother approached philanthropy in her time and have tried to include some of her practices in what we're doing today.

What are your experiences and expectations of working with organisations you support? 

My involvement ranges from one extreme to the other. I would not differentiate between someone who makes a gift, and someone who makes a gift and engages. It’s all valuable. It’s wonderful if an individual, when presented with a request to give a donation, responds by giving a gift. That should be encouraged and embraced.

Of course, there are other degrees of involvement, including visiting and seeing the work. And then more active engagement, such as in the case of our working closely with the NUS Business School and ACSEP, where there’s the opportunity to influence the direction of the centre. 

There’s also the question of whether the initiative itself would benefit from engagement. For those who do engage, it’s important to be able to separate the funding aspect and the objective of the charity. We need to be able to avoid using funding as a means of directing the work – to not use funding as a means of putting pressure on the charity. It’s important to respect the objectives of the charities as we engage. 

Have you ever been particularly pleased with a donation?

I’m happy with most of the individuals and charities that we’ve supported. Rather than call it a ‘favourite’, I am hoping that the future impact of ACSEP will be substantial. One of the more recent initiatives of ACSEP has been a course at the business school entitled ‘Learning through Giving’. It teaches the students how to evaluate charities as a means of determining or quantifying the work of the charities; as part of the process of deciding which charities would be worthy of donations. The response of the students has been quite encouraging.

The charities and social entrepreneurs they’ve identified as part of their evaluation have then received specific donations that we’ve funded. So it’s not just a theoretical exercise; the results of the students’ efforts are that these charities do get donations.  For me, engaging the students in a practical way is quite valuable – they learn business skills and at the same time learn that they can make a difference by supporting a particular cause.

We were also approached by a principal in a local school who saw a need for a complementary programme to teach mathematics to students who were weaker in the subject. So the school developed a programme that could provide a simplified version of mathematics, but they required funding to pilot it. We’ve now gone through the pilot phase and some of the benefits of that teaching continue to be applied. It’s another example of where private giving can help to pilot some initiatives that could eventually help to contribute to a more broad-based application.

What are your plans for developing your philanthropy in the future?

The current areas of support will probably take up a good part of our time and resources for the foreseeable future. I’m looking at extending these areas where there are opportunities. Besides ACSEP, we also support a community engagement programme that is being run at the College of Alice and Peter Tan. And so we’ll continue to work with NUS, specifically in the areas of community development and philanthropy. We’re also looking at working with the social work department to help support some of the programmes there.

We will also continue to work with schools. We’ve supported school programmes, particularly in terms of adding performing arts facilities. And we’ll continue to be open to supporting programmes that focus on health care, like the one in Cambodia.

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Philanthropy is something that everyone can participate in. It’s not just about giving resources, but taking a comprehensive approach: it’s giving resources, time, compassion and love for others.  

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learnt?

I’m basically a businessman and entrepreneur. And business tends to be quite results-oriented, driven by indicators. I think a business approach to philanthropy is helpful, and it’s good to have good financial practices and governance. Still, the approach to finances must still relate to the sector we’re involved in. For example, I’ve found that you may not be able to put a dollar value on helping somebody. It’s good to try to be efficient, but I would put care and compassion above issues like financial efficiency. In some cases, you might need one-to-one support, and extended care to bring about results. And if you were to try to put a financial model on that, it would be very difficult to provide that care. So I think we have to come up with our own approach to philanthropy, in terms of what would be our points of reference and evaluation. 

The second lesson is that philanthropy does involve taking risks to some extent. So, it’s up to the individual if he or she wants to do a lot of research and evaluation before making donations. In the end, though, these outcomes are not something that you can necessarily guarantee. But if you’re driven by care and compassion to start with, then you can support it along those lines. The outcomes you see might not mean that you haven’t achieved some benefit – you probably have.

What advice would you give to others who have the capacity to give at this level and are at the beginning of their philanthropy journey?

I don’t think you need to think too hard before starting to give. I think you can start to give and be guided by what interests you.  Along the way, determine to what extent you want to be engaged and involved with your beneficiaries. It’s probably easier to learn along the way than to try to evaluate too much before you take the first steps.

Are there any other thoughts on the experience of being a major donor that you would like to share?

The common misconception about philanthropy is that you have to be ‘well to do’ to be a philanthropist. I think we need to try to correct that belief. Philanthropy is something that everyone can participate in. It’s not just about giving resources, but taking a comprehensive approach: it’s giving resources, time, compassion and love for others. 

To borrow the tagline from a regional airline, “Now everyone can fly”. I’d like the tagline for philanthropy to be, “Now everyone can give”. 

What are some of the key challenges and opportunities for philanthropy in Singapore?

I think Singapore can increasingly become a very generous society. In fact, it is already a generous society, we see that in several ways. When there are public appeals for specific needs, we see an outpouring of generosity. I think, by and large, Singaporeans reply to requests for help quite willingly. So I think we have a wonderful base from which to build a culture of generosity and philanthropy. 

I personally would like to see philanthropy as a core value that our society can be identified with at some point. And perhaps with what we are doing through initiatives like ACSEP and many others, we could see that evolving. Caring and compassion do not have to replace anything in people’s lives, people can continue to do what they enjoy and this can be an additional part of their lifestyles.

What is needed to help grow and strengthen philanthropy in Singapore?

The various initiatives that are already in place are works in progress. I think if we look at how these initiatives have helped to increase participation in philanthropy, we would see a gradual increase in tangible giving and a similar increase in volunteering. So we need to allow these initiatives to grow and develop. I would say that, as with all things, these initiatives may need to be tweaked as we go along so that they can remain relevant to how our society is evolving as well. 

I’m not sure there’s much to add at this point. Some things you cannot teach – caring and compassion must evolve in each individual. We can encourage it through increased awareness of needs, for example, but every individual has to develop their own way of caring for someone else.