SINGAPORE gained its independence in a chaotic, Cold War era during which people were used to the maxim “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. That meant if someone bought you one, there must be something you had to do in return.
So a whole generation had grown up with this message of self-reliance deeply ingrained in its subconscious mind. Lee Kuan Yew saw no benefit in giving handouts to the poor.
It succeeded in persuading needy Singaporeans not to expect government help – but there was a side-effect: If you don’t ever get a free lunch, why should you give someone else one?
It’s not a good formula for grooming charity workers and social volunteers.
Having an immigrants’ background isn’t helpful either. Many of our forefathers fled here from war, starvation or floods, fighting for a place on board a crowded ship. So charity wasn’t an innate nature.
In much of Kuan Yew’s era, the race was to develop the economy and create jobs, with little time to strengthen individual ethics.
As a result, people were less charitable than in other developed nations.
But there are signs that Singaporeans are slowing moving out of the nothing-is-free mentality.
Despite a dismal economy and high unemployment last year, public charity raised a whopping S$512mil, a third more than the S$382mil in 2002.
A survey in 2002 showed that 15% of Singaporeans engaged in volunteer work, with another 15% indicating willingness.
But the rate is far lower than many developed nations, including UK (48%), the United States (44%) and Canada (27%).
The new generation has often been accused of absorbing Western values, but in the field of social work it is a good thing that it has.
More of the youths are doing it, and are given special recognition.
Take the case of Chen Hui Ting, a 17-year-old polytechnic student who helps to bathe elderly patients at a hospital.
And national servicemen who spend Saturdays buying and delivering groceries to the needy.
Last month, TV celebrities put on their traditional annual show that included dangerous stunts and raised S$2.8mil for 45 welfare organisations.
Then came the Yellow Ribbon project (named after the pop song) to get the public to accept reformed criminals back into society.
A charity concert was held last week to raise funds for after-case services like vocational training and counselling.
Recent charity projects include: The Straits Times launched a campaign to provide pocket money for 9,000 needy students; and TV plans a Cancer Charity Show to raise S$3mil.
Affluence, of course, explains this rising generosity. In some cases it’s not easy to give away things, even luxury items.
A three-year-old scheme called “Pass It On” is stuck with more than 3,000 items – dining tables, washing machines, fridges and beds – waiting for poor families to take them.
A spokesman said: “A lot of the luxury items could not find an owner.”
So far, some 1,300 items had been collected.
One donor said: “I have so much stuff, I had to rent a storage cubicle.”
Then her friends heard about it and contributed. It is obvious Singaporeans have lots of unwanted goods.
To some extent, public charity has become big business, with some paying a commission on the collection while others put up dazzling, high-profile shows where viewers can donate by dialling a number.
Many offer lucky draws or sell lotteries that give away cars and condos.
Recently, Singaporeans got a shock when the National Kidney Foundation revealed that it had accumulated reserves of S$189mil. The foundation provides cheap dialysis for most of the kidney patients here.
Some Singaporeans alleged that its expenses were too high and its accounts lacking in detail. They wanted the foundation to reveal its executives’ earnings, among other things.
Last month, the authorities responded to the furore by drafting stricter rules to assure donors that their money is well used.
The charities will have to reveal more details of income and expenses and salaries of the top three executives.
Since independence in 1965, the government has rejected welfarism, declaring that poverty is a problem for the family or private organisations, not taxpayers.
Leaders have talked of building a welfare society, where “citizens help fellow citizens in different ways”. Usually, the better-off will help the less fortunate.
In its constitution, the ruling People’s Action Party describes itself as socialist, democratic but the “socialism” part – never strong to begin with – has been declining.
“Give a man a gold coin and he will spend it and ask for more,” Kuan Yew once said.
Today, only housing, health and education are enjoying some subsidies, although the Opposition sometimes contests this.
However, a few public charities help the races, especially the minorities, get a dollar-for-dollar government contribution.
One of the biggest donors is Kuan Yew himself. He has given to charity several million won in libel cases from opposition politicians and the foreign media.
During the last few years of economic downturn, the government had bent its no-welfarism policy by dishing out a string of perks to the poor and jobless.
These include “cash” shares, Central Provident Fund top-up, reductions in housing rents and other public fees that helped push the PAP to a sweeping 85.3% victory in the 2001 general election.
What may evolve could be tax-free charity foundations, in which public (and even government) donations are invested in safe instruments by professionals.
There are numerous fund-raising efforts. With a small base of only 4.24 million people, the rising number of drives – especially over television – is beginning to cause fatigue among some givers.
One online letter, which agrees with this, says that in addition to TV Ra-Ra’s, there are lots of students hard at work on weekends with their collection boxes at crowded places.
“How many per cent of our population are really that critically ill or handicapped and need charity?”
Declaring he will play his part within reason, he says: “I can’t figure out why so many charities need so much money?”
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com