Singapore is often spoken of as an exceptional country: a model for other small states, with its good quality of life and its efficient government. The “Little Red Dot” is now also on the verge of taking on a new identity, that of a global hub in Asia for the philanthropic sector.
Certainly, momentum has been building for some time. Singapore has been an emerging hub for regional dialogue and networking, as evidenced by the recent explosive growth of the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network and the creation in 2015 of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, focused on strategic philanthropy and collaboration. Singapore then appeared as a safe haven for the capital in a region hard hit by the pandemic. In 2020 alone, the city-state gained around 200 family offices, doubling the existing number, and adopted a new identity as the Global Family Office Hub in Asia. Family offices are private wealth management offices that often deal with family philanthropy.
Recognizing this convergence of trends, in late 2021, the Temasek Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Singapore-based investment firm Temasek, hosted the inaugural Philanthropy Asia Summit, where a senior government minister delivered one of the keynote addresses. opening of the event. Singapore’s most important stakeholders are serious about strengthening the country’s profile as a regional focal point for philanthropy.
Asia as a whole has seen a growth of an ambitious middle class, resulting in an increase in wealth, with the region expected to be home to a third of the world’s billionaires by 2023. Yet Asia also has significant needs exacerbated by COVID. -19 pandemic. For example:
The growth of philanthropic wealth in the region has the potential to support the 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 results in the region; it “strikes above its weight” in regional and global affairs and has the capacity to influence and advance dialogue through strong mobilizing power. Beyond that, 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, such as 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 positioned to support the growth of philanthropy in Asia:
1. A community of industry leaders: There are deep philanthropic traditions in Singapore and neighboring geographies, led by mature foundations with a long history of giving. Many are running programs or have been instrumental in building initiatives and institutions with significant social impact, from rural Myanmar to urban China. More broadly, Singapore is known to adopt leading practices and now has the opportunity to accelerate its adoption in the field of philanthropy to help the regional sector become a model of global excellence. Enabling new philanthropists to join forces with established industry thought leaders will stimulate learning for new donors.
2. Strong dialogue networks and platforms: Networks and platforms focused on capacity building, networking and peer learning accelerate the development of the sector and have an impact around the world. Singapore has a growing portfolio of events and organizations playing this role in Asia. There are also strong networks within the Singapore government and between its government and the community sector, meaning that change can happen very quickly once there is alignment between key players.
3. Institutions supporting philanthropy: Donor communities benefit from institutions that support their giving, both those that provide information on sector practices and benchmarking, as well as institutions that provide advice and services. The growth of institutions that serve the sector, perhaps with regional links to other centers, will support the adoption of good practices. In this vein, the Community Foundation of Singapore plans to open a center focused on applied philanthropy in 2022. A range of organizations have also sprung up to provide advice and support to enable more strategic and strong giving. impact. Our own organization, the Center for Evidence and Implementation (CEI), is part of this larger story of changing ecosystems, having established our Singapore office in 2017 to improve people’s lives by enabling better access to services. fair and effective, including conducting program evaluations and building evidence of what works.
4. Adopt good evidence and data: One of the contextual realities that donors are working to address here is the tendency for models developed elsewhere to be parachuted into Asia, sometimes with less than stellar results. When the evidence is context-specific and the synthesis and generation of context-specific evidence is done well, it can help accelerate solutions and positively impact (and avoid harming) beneficiaries. There is significant activity underway in the philanthropic community in Singapore and the region to contribute to public goods by building the evidence base of “what works”, contextualized for Asia.
A recent example is CHILD, the Center for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, established in 2020 with a generous grant from the Link Foundation. This is the first early childhood evidence implementation center in South East Asia (our organization is a research partner in this center).
Beyond the evidence, the availability of basic administrative data is uneven across the region, making it more difficult to target those most in need of assistance. This is evolving rapidly thanks to donor initiatives, but there is still a long way to go. Singapore is a regional leader in using good data to inform policy and practice (notably through its “Smart Nation” identity and its open data portal that supports researchers). These factors help cultivate a philanthropic sector that works to create good data at the regional level.
5. Cultivate talent: To support Singapore’s burgeoning philanthropic sector, the country is rapidly cultivating a pool of local talent. Singapore has a solid background in cultivating talent to meet needs; for example, through its forward-looking Economic Development Council. The country currently has one of the world’s most ambitious lifelong learning initiatives in SkillsFuture, which helps citizens seize new learning opportunities. Leveraging this know-how will help Singapore accelerate the development of the sector.
There are several implications for the global philanthropic sector, should Singapore become a more important hub. Three include:
1. Diversified models of philanthropy: An increase in Singapore-based donations is likely to shift the axis of the world further eastward during the “Asian Century” – and with it, regional dialogue, diverse approaches to donations and models of governance, and better governance models. information on what works, for whom and under what conditions. All of this can accelerate the potential for impact.
2. Institutional networks in the region: As a new hub for global philanthropy emerges in Singapore, this could have a greater impact through better interconnectivity and learning, and delivery partnerships that tap into centers of research and expertise in the world. 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 a strong presence and Asian networks may also be able to support the development of research networks. global organizations that enable greater impact.
3. Acceleration of innovation: Asia has embraced fintech innovation, blended finance, and new social impact asset classes, as well as technology delivery models in education, healthcare, and others. Singapore is well established as a hub for these new approaches. An increase in Asian philanthropy will likely spur a new era of innovation in the sector that may offer lessons for other regions.
Towards an “Asian century” of philanthropy
For global philanthropy, the emergence of a strong Asian hub can only be good news. Although Singapore is by no means a developing country, it is based in a region where challenges are many and thorny. Asian donors in Singapore will bring information about the challenges, opportunities, market realities and incentives facing the growing populations of the region, and generally a passionate willingness to give back in their own countries and communities.
We anticipate a flowering of new initiatives and partnerships over the next decade, as many new donors define their goals and ambitions to give back, and donors around the world forge new partnerships in Asia. Singapore is in a good position to help them do this.
Maryanna Abdo is Executive Director; Dr. Cheryl Seah is Director; and Dr. Robyn Mildon is Executive Director of the Center for Evidence and Implementation.