Generosity diluted
Wealthy materialistic Singapore ranks a lowly 91st in helping the poor. How much have mass foreign arrivals weakened the national average? By Seah Chiang Nee
Nov 16, 2013

IF there’s a revealing Singapore coin one would surely show a people who are materialistic and kiasu (afraid to lose), always judging people by the money they have.

But recently, a spate of stories has highlighted a very different other side which features people who give the stuff away, or give it up, for a good reason.

In many ways Singapore today is not unlike America during its industrial revolution when everyone was chasing the dollar and the rich were amassing more wealth and the poor working long hours.

Like the US then, this country has no shortage of rags-to-riches tales which are often given excessive importance.

A lady, for example, who started life with nothing and ended up owning numerous properties would make hotter news than a female doctor who works among Lebanese refugees.

Take the story last week of a former school teacher who passed away leaving a million (Sing) dollars to her Indonesian maid of 13 years.

It created quite a buzz. Most praised the giver but several thought she had over-rewarded loyalty.

Madam Khoo Guat Neo had also donated large amounts to others – including to a charity hospital S$760,000, her hairdresser S$200,000 and a cat welfare society S$100,000.

This was exceeded only by another case in 2010, when a Filipino maid inherited S$6mil and a posh Leonie Hill apartment from her late employer of 20 years, a retired doctor.

“I believe these maids who inherited are genuinely nice people who had good character by nature, who had worked without harbouring any thought of special rewards,” commented reader Tweetie.

Other extraordinary people included the following:

** A Malaysian-born woman, aged 72, reportedly helped to hire and house unwed mums, ex-cons and the disabled. Sunday Times said she had also donated S$200,000 (RM500,000) to build four orphanages – two in Johor Baru and one each in Zhuhai and Guangdong (China).

** Cab-driver Sia Ka Tian discovered cash worth S$900,000 left behind in his taxi last year and handed it to his company, which traced and returned it to a visiting Thai couple.

** A Singaporean who went online last week to ask for help to pay his girlfriend’s hospital bill for a brain infection received S$10,000 – from strangers.

** A few Singaporeans who were eating out left money with sympathetic food vendors to enable needy people in the heartland to eat free meals any time. It soon became a small established practice.

What has made these people – and others not mentioned here – noteworthy is that they have departed from the self-care norms of the Singapore society.

Generally, we measure pretty poorly against the world on generosity.

The World Giving Index (WGI) compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation, ranked Singapore a lowly 91st out of 153 countries in 2010.

Only 35% of Singaporeans gave money to the needy, 10% gave time while 35% helped a stranger.

The donation rates do not always go up with wealth. Moral upbringing and religion are strong determining factors.

Organisational contribution wasn’t too bad here. Last year, the largest donation portal ‘SG Gives’ received S$8.5mil. The biggest, Community Chest, collected S$13.5mil in 2012.

Several years ago, I witnessed a beggar without hands and legs half-crawling around the Toa Payoh market being besieged by crowds placing money into a box tied around his neck.

The givers ranged from the educated to labourers, from housewives with shopping baskets to uniformed schoolchildren. It was touching.

There has, however, been no study into the question of how much the arrival of two million foreigners (most of them to seek better pay) has diluted Singapore’s national-giving effort.

It will not be surprising if there had been a serious pulling down of the national average.

The other obstacles are a fast rising cost of living among Singaporeans which weakens their ability to even save for retirement.

Basically, two special considerations are at play to affect people’s ability to open up their hearts and wallets.

The first is a government spending 47 years of history in hot pursuit of GDP growth, almost over-riding everything else.

The other is a materialistic people who regard making money and spending it on good living and overseas holidays as life’s top priorities. Even the Cabinet pays itself the world’s highest salaries.

“Singapore is all about making money to stay ahead of the pack,” said a young engineer. “If you have money, life treats you well. Without it you are condemned to struggle.”

For many modern youths, there are insufficient feelings for humanity.

Some people blame it on the education system and an economic system that promises only the fittest survive.

“It would have been better if our students learnt more Humanities, Literature and History, that defines the rights and wrongs of humanity,” said an ex-teacher.

One thing about reaching back to the old classics is that they teach us many things in life that are more important than money, she said.

In fact, the opposite is happening.

More students and parents are shunning these subjects because it is harder to score a distinction needed to build a career here.

(This article was first published in The Star)