Philanthropy Lights Up the World

Last week’s announcement by the world’s second-richest man, Warren Buffett, that he was giving away the mind-boggling US$31b, out of his estimated fortune of US$44b, naturally created a stir globally. This is, by far, the largest benefaction that the world has ever seen.

What is most surprising however, is that he is giving this stupendous largesse to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded by the legendary Microsoft Chairman, who is the richest man on earth with an estimated wealth of US$51b. The Foundation, which has assets of almost US$30b wholly funded by Bill Gates himself, supports mainly educational and medical projects world-wide, especially in the poor countries, in order to uplift the lives of their needy.

To most people what Buffett has done would seem ludicrous and puzzling, but to this entrepreneurial genius it makes logical sense because “Bill and Melinda will do a far better job in terms of maximising the good that comes out of the money than could happen if it were dropped into the (US) Federal Treasury”. As a bonus, the Gates’ would devote much of their time to the foundation work, with expert help from professional staff. Buffett would, of course, have a say in the types of projects his donation should be expended. Another plus factor is that, Bill Gates at 50 is 26 years younger than Buffett and therefore his money should be in safe and capable hands for a long time to come.

The munificence of these two top-ranking billionaires has won them well-deserved accolade as it sets a new standard in wealth management and philanthropy. It is indeed a clarion call to their fellow super rich everywhere to follow their examples. It is common knowledge that the wealthy in United States has had a long history of giving a large part of their fortune to benefit worthy causes. Some of their legacies had resulted in the establishment of renowned American institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation, whose names they proudly bear.

The Singapore press lamented that there are no Buffetts and Gates here and in Asia despite their growing affluence which has produced more and more billionaires. They pointed out that Asian do-gooders tend to donate only a small portion of their wealth to the community, and preserving the bulk of it for their own families. This is true not only in Asia but also the rest of the world. To mitigate this criticism, it must be borne in mind that Asia, in particular China, has had a long tradition of philanthropy dating back centuries, albeit on a lesser magnitude than in the US. Also, the number of rich people in Asia as a percentage of the population is much smaller than in that country. Further, until recent times, there were not many Asian billionaires.

In Singapore, supporting charities has always been a way of life with some of its leading millionaires. Among the past illustrious benefactors are Tan Kah Kee, Aw Boon Haw, Tan Lark Sye, Lee Kong Chian, Runme Shaw and, more recently, Yong Loo Lin, Tan Chin Tuan, Lien Yin Chow and Khoo Teck Puat. Some of the above had also set up foundations so that their families can carry on their good work indefinitely. The most prominent of these are the Lee Foundation and Shaw Foundation, which have, to date, given several hundred million dollars each for deserving needs.

One reason the Asian rich do not match the generosity of their US counterpart is, in my view, due to their belief that helping the needy is, primarily, the responsibility of government, with them playing only a secondary role. Conversely, deep-rooted family ties dictate that the bulk of their hard-earned fortune should be retained within the family to benefit their descendants.

Hot on the heels of the magnificent deeds of Buffett and Gates, and perhaps inspired by them, Hong Kong’s Lee Ka-Shing, who is the world’s tenth-richest man, with estimated wealth of US$18b, had publicly declared that he would give one-third of his fortune to charities through his foundation, and called upon his fellow Asian rich to adopt a culture of philanthropy. While the laudable precedents set by Buffett, Gates and Lee will certainly shine as a beacon of light with enduring impact, their achievements are, in a sense, less unique than that of Singapore’s Tan Kah Kee, the indefatigable lifelong champion of education.

Tan emigrated from China’s Fujian province to Singapore in 1890 at the age of 16. Through sheer determination and industry, he found an early niche in the business world. By age 21, he had already begun his philanthropic career by funding a school in his native Jimei. His wealth grew exponentially in the following decades. By 1919, he had become one of the richest men in Asia with a net worth of $12m, a colossal fortune then, and his diversified business empire in Singapore, Malaya and elsewhere in this region employed more than 10,000 workers.

Tan gave away millions, mainly by endowing schools and colleges in China and also in Singapore, his adopted home. He founded Xiamen University and for many years single-handedly financed it until it was finally taken over by the Chinese Government. He believed passionately that only through education can an economically backward nation like China raise the living standard of its people, a vast number of whom were too poor to afford it. Even when his business empire declined drastically, and ultimately collapsed, because of the onslaught of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, he doggedly continued to support his educational projects in Fujian, albeit with greatly reduced financial resources and with the spontaneous assistance of his close Singaporean friends and relatives.

Tan had always eschewed publicity and, despite the repeated urgings of his admirers to have some of his favourite projects named in his honour, he steadfastly declined to accede to their well-meaning proposals. The fabulously rich anywhere would usually commence their philanthropic journey after they have amassed their fortunes, and after ensuring that their own families are well provided for. Not so with Tan. He championed education all his life, in both good and difficult times, and he gave practically all he had to it, leaving hardly anything for his own large family. When he finally retired to his native Jimei in the early 1950s, after spending most of his life in Singapore, he devoted a large part of his time to helping to chart the development of the schools and tertiary institutions founded by him until shortly before his death in 1961 at the age of 87. He left his entire estate of more than one million renminbi, a substantial sum then, to his beloved educational institutions there, with nothing whatsoever to his own family.

It is unlikely that Singapore, or perhaps the world, would see the likes of the inimitable Tan Kah Kee for many years to come.

Lam Pin Foo
June 30, 2006

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