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Jean Tan

Jean Tan

Executive Director, Singapore International Foundation
Oct 7, 2017 5:50 AM

You don't need to be a diplomat to be an ambassador to the world - but it helps. Just ask Jean Tan, who has been both - as First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Washington, DC, and now as executive director of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). In various posts over more than two decades, she has been dedicated to building friendships, connecting communities and effecting positive change between Singapore and the world. In a world where divisiveness is in danger of becoming the new normal, the SIF's mantra is inclusiveness and diversity. "When people work together, they get to understand each other better," says Ms Tan.

Through various channels and in a number of areas such as education and healthcare, environment and business and arts and culture, the SIF encourages cross-cultural exchange - with a view to building a better tomorrow. In the international arena, equivalent organisations to the SIF are cultural foundations and development agencies like the British Council in the United Kingdom or the Peace Corps in the United States.

The SIF's programmes all have a common theme: an emphasis on people-to-people interaction. Some of its key initiatives involve promoting cooperation among volunteer groups from different countries, engaging young people and nurturing them to become social entrepreneurs, and inspiring people through digital storytelling, putting out stories about people who are doing some good in the world.

Whether commemorating a clean water programme in Yangon, speaking at a workshop for young social entrepreneurs in Singapore or promoting a collaborative healthcare project in Vientiane, Ms Tan is, well, a model ambassador - on hand to share experiences, expand networks and fly the flag for the foundation.

How does the SIF take an active role in making the world a better place to live in?

The SIF is really a dealmaker, a catalyst: we find Singaporeans who want to contribute, find the need on the ground and find corporates who want to support us, then we project manage to make sure milestones are met. One example of making a difference was several years ago when we partnered an NGO called Rachel House to raise standards of palliative care in Jakarta. The local model was successful and it was adopted by the national association - the idea of our volunteer programmes is to train the trainer. Another example is Backstreet Academy, a for-profit social enterprise that connects travellers looking for experiences with local communities: the visitors get a taste of local culture and the hosts have renewed livelihoods.

What are some ways in which you help to connect communities?

The foundation's digital storytelling initiative Our Better World ( began with a pilot programme in 2012 telling stories in video, essay and photographic form across eight countries in Asia. It was a way to extend our reach and go beyond the small budgets we have, and more people are taking action. The stories promote awareness of a particular cause, such as saving sharks: Singapore teacher-turned-social entrepreneur Kathy Xu started an eco-tourism business in Lombok (by encouraging fishermen to conduct shark-watching, instead of shark-fishing, expeditions).

The Young Social Entrepreneurs programme, where people are given opportunities to pitch for funding to start or scale up their social enterprises, has been a source of success for the SIF.

When we started in 2010 we had three winning teams. Today we have a network of over 600 young changemakers across 27 nationalities who run social enterprises in the region - 60 per cent of the enterprises are still in operation today. We provide a platform for young people to look at ideas and come up with solutions. They have to submit proposals, go through business clinics, and we also give them mentors and consultants so that growth is palpable. We are building capability in individuals and at the organisational level and we also look at sectors and society. It's not just about skills transfer, it's the value-add of Singapore volunteers overseas and how people promote inclusion, build partnerships, build ownership.

Given the broad scope of the SIF's mission and the limited resources at its disposal, how do you get the most bang for your buck?

Leveraging partnerships is a key strategy for us because the work we do makes it quite difficult to be as visible and impactful as the better-funded agencies - we do what we can with what we have. We have 60 full-time staff, plus volunteers and mentors. We send many people overseas - currently we have 165 projects in 35 countries. We always work with local NGOs because we don't intend to be there in the long term - after three to five years we pass it on and move on to the next project. On our wish list: we'd like to have more Singaporeans interested and involved in the work of the SIF. That way we could be more impactful, as Singaporeans are the enablers of our work.

How did you first get involved in community work and how would you define your role at the SIF?

As a student I started volunteering because I couldn't afford to give - I used to volunteer by teaching English at a Boys' Home. When I was older and it was easier to give I asked myself: in this phase of my life, how do you best use the skills you picked up? Now, I have to be the chief innovator. What keeps me up at night is: how do you stay relevant as an organisation and as an agency, and what are the forces that compel you to change? I look at trends and how to leverage them, how to turn threats into opportunities. I get to win friends for Singapore. For a small nation, having friends is important and as an organisation, it's interesting to build ties and trust. Singapore benefited from the largesse of more developed countries and now we are in a place to pay it forward. Going to the field is the most inspiring aspect of the work: we say we want to build a better world, and that's exactly what we mean.