Managing Director Mary Abdo, Director Dr Cheryl Seah and Executive Director Robyn Mildon wrote in Inside Philanthropy about why Singapore is uniquely positioned to advance a strategic agenda around a broad vision of improving outcomes in the region.
This piece originally appeared in Inside Philanthropy's on 11 January 2021.
Singapore is often talked about as an exceptional country: a model for other small states, with its good quality of life and high-functioning government. The “Little Red Dot” is now also poised to take on a new identity—that of a global hub in Asia for the philanthropic sector.
To be sure, momentum has been building for some time. Singapore has been an emerging hub for regional dialogue and networks, as evidenced through the explosive recent growth of the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network and the establishment in 2015 of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, focused on strategic philanthropy and collaboration. Singapore then emerged as a safe haven for capital in a region hit hard by the pandemic. In 2020 alone, the city-state gained an estimated 200-plus family offices—a doubling of existing numbers— and embraced a new identity as Global Family Office Hub in Asia. Family offices are private wealth management offices that often handle families’ philanthropy.
Recognizing this convergence of trends, in late 2021, Temasek Foundation—a philanthropic arm of the Singapore-headquartered investment company Temasek—hosted the inaugural Philanthropy Asia Summit, where a senior government minister gave one of the event’s keynotes. Singapore’s most senior stakeholders are serious about building up the country’s profile as a regional focal point for philanthropy.
The regional story
Asia as a whole has seen growth in an aspirational middle class, and this has driven increases in wealth, with the region projected to be home to one-third of the world’s billionaires by 2023. Yet Asia also has significant needs exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:
Education: Pre-pandemic, Asia accounted for almost 40% of global out-of-school children, with significant learning inequities. At least 27 million children were then unable to return to school for more than a year due to the pandemic.
Child malnutrition: In East Asia and the Pacific, almost 1 in 5 children under five is not growing well. In India, malnutrition accounts for 68% of deaths of children under five.
Sanitation: 1.8 billion people in Asia still lack access to appropriate sanitation.
The growth of philanthropic wealth in the region has potential to support development and testing of interventions that could address these challenges and transform lives at scale.
Few places are as well-positioned as Singapore to advance a strategic agenda around a broad vision of improving outcomes in the region; it “punches above its weight” in regional and global affairs and has an ability to influence and advance dialogue through strong convening power. Beyond this, Singapore has a long history of taking bold steps to transform sectors, both in the private sector—for example, in the micro-processing and electric car industries—and in areas that benefit society, like the use of AI in healthcare and the rapid transformation of the country’s approach to early childhood education and care. Here are five reasons why Singapore is uniquely well-placed to support growth of philanthropy in Asia:
1. A community of sector leaders: There are deep philanthropic traditions in Singapore and neighboring geographies, led by mature foundations with long histories of giving. Many operate programs or have played a role in setting up significant social impact initiatives and institutions from rural Myanmar to urban China. More broadly, Singapore is known for embracing leading-edge practice, and it now has an opportunity to accelerate its adoption in philanthropy to help the regional sector become a global model of excellence. Enabling newer philanthropists to join forces with established sector thought leaders will turbocharge new donors’ learning.
2. Strong networks and platforms for dialogue: Networks and platforms that focus on capacity-building, networking, and peer learning accelerate sector development and impact all over the world. Singapore has a growing portfolio of events and organizations that have this role in Asia. There are also strong networks within government in Singapore and between its government and the community sector, which means that change can happen very rapidly once there is alignment among key actors.
3. Institutions supporting philanthropy: Communities of donors benefit from institutions that support their giving, both those that provide insights on sector practice and benchmarking, as well as institutions that provide advice and services. Growth of institutions that serve the sector—perhaps with regional ties to other centers—will support the adoption of good practice. In this vein, Community Foundation of Singapore has plans to open a center focused on applied philanthropy in 2022. A range of organizations has also emerged to provide advice and support to enable more strategic, high-impact giving. Our own organization, the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI), is part of this wider story of ecosystem evolution, having established our Singapore office in 2017 to improve people’s lives through enabling better access to equitable and effective services, including through conducting program evaluations and building up evidence of what works.
4. Embrace of good evidence and data: One of the contextual realities that donors here are working to address is the tendency for models that were developed elsewhere to be parachuted into Asia, sometimes with less-than-stellar results. When evidence is adapted for context, and when context-specific evidence synthesis and generation are done well, this can help fast-track solutions and have a positive impact on (and avoid harm to) beneficiaries. There is significant activity underway in the philanthropic community in Singapore and the region to contribute to public goods through building the evidence base of “what works,” contextualized for Asia.
A recent example is CHILD, the Centre for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development at Singapore’s National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, established in 2020 through a generous grant from Lien Foundation. This is the first center for evidence implementation in early childhood in Southeast Asia (our organization is a research partner in this center).
Beyond evidence, there is spotty availability of basic administrative data across the region, making it harder to target the people who need help most. This is rapidly changing through donor initiatives, but there is more that can be done. Singapore is a regional leader in using good data to inform policy-making and practice (including through its “Smart Nation” identity and its open data portal that supports researchers). These factors set it up well to cultivate a philanthropic sector that works to build good data regionally.
5. Cultivating Talent: To support Singapore’s burgeoning philanthropy sector, the country is cultivating a pool of local talent quickly. Singapore has strong experience in cultivating talent to meet needs; for example, through its forward-looking Economic Development Board. The country currently boasts one of the world’s most ambitious lifelong learning initiatives in SkillsFuture, which supports citizens to take up new learning opportunities. Leveraging this know-how will help Singapore to accelerate sector development.
There are several implications for the global philanthropic sector, should Singapore become a larger hub. Three include:
1. Diversified models for philanthropy: A rise in Singapore-based giving will likely further tip the world’s axis eastward in the “Asian Century”—and with it, regional dialogue, diversified approaches to giving and models of governance, and better insights on what works, for whom, and under what conditions. All of this can accelerate potential for impact.
2. Institutional networks in the region: As a new hub for global philanthropy emerges in Singapore, this could realize greater impact through better interconnectivity and learning, and delivery partnerships that tap into centers of research evidence and expertise in the region, such as Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong and Delhi. Non-Asian universities like Monash University, University of Southern California, and University of New South Wales that already have strong Asian presence and networks may also be able to support development of global research networks that enable greater impact.
3. Innovation acceleration: Asia has embraced fintech innovation, blended finance, and new asset classes for social impact, alongside models of tech-enabled delivery in education, health and other sectors. Singapore is well-established as a hub for these new approaches. A rise in Asian philanthropy will likely spur a new era of innovation in the sector that can offer lessons for other regions.
Looking ahead to an “Asian Century” in philanthropy
For global philanthropy, the emergence of a strong Asian hub can only be good news. While Singapore is by no means a developing nation, it is based in a region where there are many thorny challenges. Asian donors in Singapore will bring insights on the challenges, opportunities, market realities and incentives that face the region’s growing populations, and typically a passionate drive to give back in their own countries and communities.
We anticipate a flourishing of new initiatives and partnerships in the next decade as many new donors set out their targets and ambitions for giving back, and as donors around the globe establish new partnerships in Asia. Singapore is well-positioned to help them to do so.
Maryanna Abdo is managing director; Dr. Cheryl Seah is director; and Dr. Robyn Mildon is executive director of the Centre for Evidence and Implementation.