How Bad is the Business of Doing Good in Singapore

The CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre calls non-profit work in Singapore tough, but is elitism, class division and status getting in the way of doing good?

As a private counsellor, I constantly prowl for kindred spirits in the helping profession. They are other social entrepreneurs like me or corporate leaders in the social service sector. I do this to network but counselling can be a lonely endeavour—you are “selling” something people need but nobody wants to admit they are “buying.” Making connections is my way of feeling a greater sense of belonging in a space few understand.

One of these kindred spirits I successfully sought was the Singapore Kindness Movement’s (SKM) Dr William Wan, but at a time when he found himself vulnerable and embroiled in the E-Pay brown face saga. He immediately recognised this loneliness and pointed to an article on Today, written by his SKM board member Melissa Kwee.

Kwee, who is also the CEO for National Volunteer Philanthropy Centre, describes how lonely and difficult it is for social leaders like her to make a difference in a non-profit environment she calls “messy, slow-moving and complex.” She lists persistence, resilience and empathy as qualities she admires in other leaders, and calls for a collaborative policy-making approach and joint ownership of problems as the way forward.

“If leaders find the going tough, what chance do social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens with no influence and access to resources have?”

Preferring to remain anonymous, a social entrepreneur immediately took issue with the article’s elitist posturing. In Kwee’s recount of the familiar tale of young bright-eyed workers entering the social service sector only to be disenchanted, the entrepreneur retorts, “Only young workers do good? What about mature workers who leave their lucrative careers to be a NGO leader?”In fairness Kwee does mention the likes of late social worker Teresa Hsu and family violence service centre, PAVE, a ground up initiative of social workers who persisted and made it work.

But the remark exposes a disconnect. Moreover, it raises the question that if leaders find the going tough, what chance do social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens with no influence and access to resources have?

The Many Helping Hands Approach to addressing social issues was conceived by the government in 1997 to promote self-reliance through partnerships with concerned citizens, corporations, community organisations religious groups and family members. It’s been 22 years now but how far have we come?

Just last month the Samaritans of Singapore revealed that the number of people taking their own lives rose across all age groups, except for the elderly. What’s more shocking is how young teenage boys taking their own lives reached a record high last year. This frightening trend does not take into account the many stories told in the privacy of counselling rooms, which are not part of statistics and won’t make headlines.

As social leaders grapple with the complexities of government funding and policy making, do they need to pay more attention to other sources of help in these concerned citizens? Their names bear no clout nor influence, which deprives them of corporate identity and access to resources, but they dare greatly and show up. Armed with a wealth of life and work experiences they bravely enter the social service as employees, or attempt to make their mark as social entrepreneurs.

“Pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at economic growth of a vulnerable nation.”

One of them is my ex-classmate, a 44-year-old father and HDB dweller, who quit his IT job just so he could train full time to be a counsellor. His unhappy childhood spurred him to develop a second career as a counsellor to help others. I also know of a single mother in her 40s, who works for a major aviation company. Her bitter divorce drove her to self-fund her counselling studies and speak to her CEO about incorporating counselling as a company best practice. There’s also the 65-year old unmarried male caregiver to his dementia-stricken 99-year-old mother. For the last three years, he has hardly left his home and lives day to day just to see his mother smile and say, “sedap” when he feeds her lunch. What a treasure trove of experiences he could share with health professionals and caregivers as our society greys.

None of them are young and bright-eyed. They are driven not by wealth or status but by powerful lived experiences of personal trials and triumph to do good. But can they do more? Can they be part of bigger discussions? Or do they continue to be invisible because they have not “made it” like the late Teresa Hsu or the folks at PAVE?

According to Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and expert on Singapore politics, society and culture, the Singapore model of development and governance is described as pragmatic. He explains that pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at economic growth of a vulnerable nation, but it also dehumanises and has little patience for intangible values.

“Our hang-ups on paper qualifications and stuffy corporate cultures eventually broke their spirits and killed off all motivations.”

Despite the best of intentions, the non-profit sector is not spared these fig leaves. Board members’ absence from board meetings and key activities are not uncommon. High turnovers at charities are attributed to low salaries and burnout, but how much of it is poor leadership? A HR manager of a faith-based charity once asked me just 10 minutes into an interview, “What would you do if I were to refuse your asking salary?” I also cannot fathom why a chairman of a charity would choose to drive his Porsche convertible to a fund-raising gala. He seemed more interested picture-taking with VIPs for his Facebook page than engaging with beneficiaries.

The names of those three individuals mentioned earlier will never see the light of day. Our hang-ups on paper qualifications and stuffy corporate cultures eventually broke their spirits and killed off all motivations.

Kwee counts hope, persistence, resilience, empathy as worthy qualities that keep her going, but for social entrepreneurs like us we choose just one—vulnerability.

According to social scientist Dr Brene Brown of Ted Talk fame, vulnerability is the courage to embrace uncertainty, but with the goal of engaging, sometimes through hard but honest conversations. In her New York Times best seller, “Daring Greatly,” Brown says that if leaders expect real learning and change, then we must get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, must continue to cultivate strong support networks and learn how to shut out the noise and keep daring greatly.

Can all players, both big and small, be more vulnerable and connect better to have these uncomfortable conversations for real change to happen? Connection makes us social beings but real connection gives us purpose and meaning in life, especially when we aim to help those in need. Along the way, and if we are lucky, we will feel less alone too.