Wealth Should Benefit the Community

One of the perennial social problems that confront mankind since ages past is the unequal distribution of wealth in all communities, some more glaring than others. We may envy those who live in luxury, and sympathize with others who have to toil all their lives and yet earning barely enough to feed themselves and their families just to survive. There are, of course, many factors contributing to these hard facts of life. Human beings are born unequal, with differing intellectual abilities, aptitudes, opportunities, family circumstances and educational attainments.

This stark reality will always be with us and is reflected more acutely in the less developed societies. It is, of course, the responsibility of any government to do its utmost to make life better for its poor and needy, the handicapped and the lesser educated citizenry. However, its efforts and financial resources alone cannot resolve these social ills and it needs the support of the community too.

In this regard, it is of tremendous help that all major religions, including Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, have made it their avowed missions to exhort and expect their followers to share their wealth with the poor and needy in ways that will bring some comfort to them and to help restore their dignity as fellow human beings.

As an example, Christian missionaries, charity donors and volunteer workers are universally admired for their zeal and devotion in setting up schools, hospitals and other charities to benefit those in need. One shining example is the saintly Catholic nun, the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who had devoted her entire life to taking care of the poor and needy in the most fearsome slums in India. She also founded a religious order whose nuns and volunteer workers are now spread in many countries where their services can help brighten the lives of those under their care. Mother Theresa’s enormous contributions had rightly earned her a Nobel Peace price. In Singapore, the Christian missionary-run schools are particularly admired for their academic excellence and for the pupil’s character-building. It is no coincidence that both the country’s next President, the current Prime Minister and several of his past and present Cabinet colleagues were all products of Christian missionary schools.

Buddhism is known throughout the world for advocating that its devotees should show compassion towards others and to be charitable to the less fortunate in society. Like Christians, Buddhists in many countries have founded  hospitals, medical clinics, schools and  homes for the poor and needy, which are free of charge to the poor and needy people. In Singapore, the Buddhist Association provides free lunches for the low income people irrespective of whether they are Buddhists or not.

In Islam, one of the five pillars of that religion requires all Muslims to give alms to fellow Muslims in times of need. This exhortation to be charitable to others is heeded by its followers everywhere. At the end of Ramadan, the obligatory yearly fasting month,  the local mosques, supported by their devotees, will distribute meat and money to the poor and needy among them.

It is hardly surprising that there are more donors for charitable causes in wealthy Western countries compared with poor countries elsewhere. A 2010 survey of 154 countries by Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that the top 23 most generous nations are from the West, with the exceptions of Japan and South Korea. Their top ten rankings are as follows:

As a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in US dollar terms:

(1) Sweden 1.12%
(2) Norway 1.06%
( 3) Luxembourg 1.04%
(4 ) Denmark 0.88%
(5) Netherlands 0.82%
(6) Belgium 0.55%
(7) Finland 0.54%
(8) Ireland 0.54%
(9) United Kingdom 0.52%
(10) France 0.47%
*Japan and South Korea are placed 21 and 23 respectively

In absolute US dollar terms:

(1) United States 28.67 billion
(2) France 12.43 b
(3) Germany 11.98 b
(4) United Kingdom 11.50 b
(5) Japan 9.48 b
(6) Spain 6.57 b
(7) Netherlands 6.43 b
(8) Sweden 4.55 b
(9) Norway 4.09 b
(10) Canada 4.01 b
*South Korea is placed 19 

It is noteworthy that two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India, who are potential economic super powers are placed near the bottom of this list, China at 134 and India at 147. This is not too surprising nor alarming to those familiar with their social, economic and political structures and their historical circumstances and developments. Both countries have a combined population of  2.5 billion people, which is slightly more than 35% of the world’s population of 7 billion. They are still quite poor and underdeveloped by developed world’s standards. Furthermore, their national percentage of well-off citizens is small compared with the economically advanced nations. With such formidable constraints, the  financial capacity of their governments and rich people to play a significant charitable role to improve the welfare of their respective poor and needy citizens is not feasible now. Even the United States, the richest economy in the world, cannot eliminate poverty completely as a fair number of Americans are still living below national poverty norm, with no medical insurance coverage whatsoever. In view of these cogent reasons, I reckon it will take a long time for China and India to reach the level of charity giving as in affluent Western countries.

Despite the low charitable rating of China internationally, the rich and powerful Chinese have had a long tradition of giving back to the community part of their wealth to support charitable causes. It is in accordance with the teachings of Confucius that Confucian scholars and righteous men should do so. This tradition became more widespread after the Chinese embraced Buddhism some 2000 years ago when successful merchants and land owners also emulated the charitable deeds of Confucianists. However, they all held the view that giving reliefs to the poor and needy is the primary responsibility of the state. They should only play a supporting role and leave the bulk of their fortunes to their families.

For most of its history, China, the most populous nation on earth, had always been a very poor and under developed country, especially in its extensive rural hinterland where abject poverty was widespread. Also, with limited arable and fertile lands available for agriculture which was the mainstay of China, it could barely manage to feed its huge population during good harvests. In bad years, famines often occurred. It was therefore beyond the financial resources of the government to provide adequate welfarism to help ease the people’s sufferings effectively. Then the Chinese Communist regime conquered the Chinese Mainland in 1949 and introduced extensive social, land and economic reforms which benefitted the masses. People no longer died of hunger and some form of healthcare and improved welfare benefits were within their reach.

Prior to 1980s there were hardly any rich people in China, as virtually all industries and commercial undertakings as well as the agricultural sector were nationalised and owned by the state . All Chinese citizens were therefore employed by the government at very meagre salaries by Western standards. On the other hand, the state provided welfare benefits including healthcare, housing and other essential daily necessities at highly subsidised rates to all employees. For the poor and needy they were virtually free of charge. The result was that the majority of the population were socially and economically better off than at any time in China’s long history.

Then China embraced its own form of Western free market economy as a way forward. They welcomed foreign expertise and investments in order to jump-start its stagnant economy. Domestically, more private enterprises began to grow significantly in size and scope of operation at a rapid pace as their products were much needed both domestically and gradually internationally. So China became increasingly more prosperous and it is now the second largest economy in the world after United States. Its foreign-exchange reserve is larger than any other country. Many Chinese entrepreneurs became immensely rich and a solid upper and middle income groups had sprung up and their numbers are still on the rise. On the other hand, the majority of the Chinese population in the vast rural regions are still quite poor despite some improvements in their living conditions as costs of living went up. This economic miracle was achieved in just one generation, which was unprecedented in human history.

More higher income groups and the rich Chinese are now reviving the past tradition of giving part of their wealth or income to help charitable causes. The  government is offering them incentives to do so. This will help relieve the state’s financial welfare burden and the resulting savings would then be expanded to provide more needed public facilities and amenities and to enhance the welfare of  the poor and needy. I believe that, as China becomes more affluent, its international charity rating will improve significantly. This will take time to accomplish.

The traditional Chinese support for charity has percolated to the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. My native Singapore is an example. In helping the government to make life more palatable to the poor and needy by providing enhanced social benefits for them, the private sector support has been on the rise especially after the Republic became a First World country in the 1990s . This trend should continue in future.

Another encouraging development is that more Singaporeans have spontaneously come forward to be volunteer workers in charities of their choice, thus enabling these outfits to reduce their operating costs. Out of the millions of dollars generated by the private sector for charities, about 43% come from the charitable foundations and the rest are from corporations and individual Singaporeans and permanent residents.

The generosity of Singaporeans is not confined to making donations; they also participated in overseas rescue or relief missions whenever serious natural calamities happened in a foreign country. Volunteers from Singapore were in China after a devastating earthquake hit them and thousands of people and homes perished, and again in a horrendous tsunami affecting several Asian countries when tens of thousands of people and properties were wiped off. Only recently, they also rendered help in a disastrous tsunami in Japan. Singaporeans’ public spiritedness makes me proud to be a Singaporean.

In this connection, I would share with viewers an article that I wrote regarding an outstanding Singaporean charity helper, Dr Oon Chiew Seng, who not only founded the only dementia home there but helped managing it. It was published in Singapore’s national daily, The Straits Times, in 1997. I reproduce it immediately after this posting.

Lam Pin Foo

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