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In Giving, We Become

In a season of festive gifting, Melissa Kwee reflects on the real power of giving.
Dec 10, 2016 5:50 AM

LAST night, I read two books at a 'Human' Library. It was where Singaporeans and a sprinkling of guests gathered around tables as either 'books' or 'readers' of mundane and eclectic Singapore stories. My first 'book' was Lee, a retiree who chronicled his transformation from depression to rediscovering life at 55. The other human 'book', Zul, reflected upon his life as a young barber. The Human Library was one of the many events under Giving Week 2016 - a national initiative to celebrate the spirit of generosity in Singapore. Truly, in giving of ourselves we define a truly rich and fulfilled life.

My grandfather, a successful businessman, used to say, "You give because you can", and reminded us that it was both a joy and a privilege to give. His passion for business was similarly channelled into a philanthropic life helping anyone and almost everyone he could, sometimes to the concern of my grandmother.

My grandfather, who gave away his fortune "to the country that enabled me to thrive", never allowed any live-in help at their small home of almost 60 years. He spent his final days in a nursing home that he helped establish to provide a familiar and culturally-sensitive environment for bilingual and monolingual seniors.

My grandmother, then 91, would visit every day and she told me that on a regular basis, she would meet total strangers who came to thank my grandfather for his help. On a day I visited, an older nurse came with a bouquet of roses to thank him for sponsoring her education many moons ago. It made me proud to know that even with his very final breath, he wanted to give his best and make things better for others.

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Singapore, with our love of 'firsts' and 'bests', I am proud to say, is the first country to host a Giving Week inspired by the Giving Tuesday movement started in 2011 by the 92 Street YMCA in New York and the United Nations.

We were mentioned at the United Nations by the founder last year for being the little country that took a big idea and made it happen. I dream of the day when Singapore would be most proud of what we can give and contribute for the betterment of society, the environment and those in need. As Churchill reminds us, 'we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.' It is as true for individuals as it is of businesses and nations. We are defined by the values we possess and create.

We have come a long way.

In 2000, one in 10 Singaporeans volunteered. Fourteen years later, one in five Singaporeans were offering themselves to serve, either as neighbours helping neighbours or more formally in charities, societies and non-profit organisations. Last year, perhaps fuelled by the SG50 zeitgeist, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre recorded a staggering increase in donations through the online portal to the hundreds of charities listed, to close the year at a shade under $20million.

While numbers tell us that Singaporeans are becoming more generous with their time and money, we know there's more to be done. We still hear of needs that are not met, causes that are shunned, and sometimes duplication of resources and help to similar causes, charities or communities.

Today, with individuals more empowered to possess and disseminate information at the touch of their fingertips, giving has become more social, enabled and widespread. How can the digital kampong be enabled? How can we grow a community of givers over time, using the limited resources we have, and redefine what our society stands for with greater empathy, equitability and enablement?

Last week, a story of a Good Samaritan published in The Sunday Times did just that. With the little he had, he supported the education of young woman; a mother and ex offender, and turned her life around expecting nothing in return. She told her tale - to thank her benefactor and encourage similar individuals in her shoes to embrace hope and life.

This is the power of giving - it transforms, it breaks down barriers, dismisses prejudice, and it restores our very humanity. No giving is ever too little. Everyone can give and no giving ever impoverished any one. In giving we become who we fully are, as a person, and as a nation.

Melissa Kwee is CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.