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Building a legacy of giving

Keith Chua, trustee of the Mrs Lee Choon Guan Trust Fund, believes that everyone has the capacity to give back to society

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Keith Chua.

YOU can engage in philanthropy, even if you do not have millions of dollars to your name.

This conviction underlies the multi-pronged efforts of philanthropist and entrepreneur Keith Chua.

Mr Chua, trustee of the Mrs Lee Choon Guan Trust Fund, has steered the fund towards the support of research in philanthropy, for instance. He is also on the boards of the National Council of Social Service and the Community Foundation of Singapore, among other commitments. He is also executive chairman of ABR Holdings.

"The approach I've been taking is that everyone can give; philanthropy is the giving of time, talent and resources. When you defne it in a broader context, the reality is that many in the community give in different ways. Most likely whether you give your talent, time or resource, the proportions will vary depending on your circumstances."

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Mr Chua himself gives in all three areas. A childhood steeped in the practice of giving has heightened a desire to help others. "My parents were very generous individuals who would not turn anyone away if they could help," he recalls. But arguably, the greatest influence may have been his great-grandmother, after whom the trust fund was named.

Lee Choon Guan founded the then Chinese Ladies' Association in 1915 and was the first president. In its first year, the association helped to raise S$6,000 to buy a fighter plane for the British war effort. She was a keen supporter of education, and also supported a number of charities, such as the Red Cross. In 1918, she became the first Chinese woman to be awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in recognition of her charitable works.

The Mrs Lee Choon Guan Trust Fund was set up in the 1970s. Says Mr Chua: "We felt she had the resources to put something into a fund that could help the community over generations, and also help future generations of our family to carry through this philanthropic legacy."

Mr Chua says the fund was modest in size compared to other more prominent foundations. "It was interesting that the fund was relatively small. It was a departure from conventional thinking that you need a significant amount to set up a foundation, otherwise you may not have sufficient capability to make a difference.

"Now with the benefit of time, even with something relatively small, we can still be reasonably impactful decades later. It was a combination of prudent stewardship of the initial resources and it benefitted from Singapore's economic success. Hence, the investment grew to a reasonable size, which enables us to do the things we do today."

The fund is managed as an endowment, where the principal amount is invested, and income earned goes towards funding charitable works.

"What the fund demonstrates is that you can start with a certain amount, grow that amount, and still give and help others along the way."

Mr Chua became co-trustee in the 1980s together with his mother. In the early days, the fund supported causes that Mrs Lee had cared about. These included improvements in infant mortality and education.

The threads of Mrs Lee's charitable interests still run through the fund. In its early years, it has, for instance, helped to fund public sector scholarships though the Public Service Commission of Singapore. More recently, the fund was approached to co-fund an initiative in Cambodia to help reduce infant mortality, by helping to provide facilities in a children's hospital and sharing medical expertise.

The fund also supports and helps to develop the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP), which is based in the National University of Singapore's Business School. Mr Chua believes there is scope for research on Asian philanthropy and how it differs from the West. "Culture is a key factor in determining philanthropy and legacy.

The current thinking in the West seems to move towards giving everything away in your lifetime. The West seems to suggest that the next generation has to take care of itself. In the Asian context, wealth is passed on to the next generation and we hope they do better with it. That must influence how our philanthropy evolves."

Another economic factor that comes into play in the West is taxes. Research has shown that tax deductions help to spur giving. "In the West, there were tax reasons to create a foundation. But it will be different in Asia as more countries do away with inheritance tax."

He adds: "Interest in philanthropy in Singapore continues to increase across all sectors. I hope that ACSEP's research will validate this."

Pilot course

One of ACSEP's initiatives is a pilot course called Learning Through Giving where students evaluate and research charities and social enterprises. The charities and enterprises, which agree to furnish information, are ranked on the basis of how deserving they are of a donation. "We provide a pool of funds so the students can be donors to the charities. They vote or decide on which charity is collectively the top."

"We hope that with this approach we will encourage interest, and allow participation in the area of giving. Initially we provide the funds, but as this initiative evolves, we hope to engage students in raising funds too. That's the natural next stage."

In another development this year, the fund also made a philanthropic gift of S$2.37 million to the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to establish the Mrs Lee Choon Guan Endowed Research Fund. The research fund will be administered by the NUS Department of Social Work. It will support practice research, where social workers work with NUS researchers to address real-world challenges in the social-services sector.

In an effort to build family legacy, Mr Chua has sought to piece together the charitable works of his great-grandmother Mrs Lee. Some details can be found in the book One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore by Song Ong Siang, published in the 1920s. The book covered the period between 1819 and 1919.

"My great-grandmother appeared in the last few chapters, when she began her first steps into philanthropy. It helped our family understand."

The book recounted that Mrs Lee was among the first to give scholarships for the training of midwives who worked among the "coolie class". She also readily supported medical missions for Chinese women and children.

Mr Chua hopes his efforts will inspire his children to continue the legacy. "I would like to see the trust fund evolve and be relevant to the needs and circumstances of each generation. I feel it is my responsibility to communicate (the legacy) to the next generation. I can only introduce my children to this, try to take them to events. Ultimately they make their own decisions, but I do my best as a parent.'' Mr Chua has four children whose ages range from 21 to 32. w