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Marketplace of giving with spirit of investing

Chew Sutat
Chew Sutat • 10 min read
Marketplace of giving with spirit of investing
Singaporeans as a whole can do more for others by giving their time, treasures or talent, says Chew, who bought the ‘Grumpy cat’ by local artist Yip Yew Chong at a recent charity auction / Painting by Yip Yew Chong; photo by Chew Sutat
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This week’s issue of The Edge Singapore will be published on the day I turn 52 — not quite Taylor Swift’s “22” — and so I certainly don’t feel that young. In my post-corporate semi-retirement life, it has been a whirlwind of blessings to spend a good half of my time as a volunteer — a large chunk of it as Singapore’s “chief beggar” for the Community Chest as chairman. It is a privilege for me to serve as we shift gears into the 4G leadership as part of Forward Singapore.  

The needs among Singaporeans are growing even as this affluent country further transforms from Third World to First. As individuals or companies, we need to expand our capacity to cater for new social service challenges, enable collective agency, take on shared responsibility and embed sustainable philanthropic practices. Underpinning all that is the need to entrench this culture of giving as a way of life. We can give our time, treasures or talent and I am encouraged at how my friends, both old and new, are doing so, as they appreciate how “means” per se does not equal “meaning” in their lives.

However, if one wants to do good, be it as individuals or companies, they have to do well, or the endeavours will not be sustainable. Most companies with a December financial year-end have gone ex-dividend. Yet, the Straits Times Index (STI) remains well supported above 3,300 points.

Perhaps, if one hasn’t sold in May and just gone for a school holiday, I could provide a guide to where you may want to spend your charity dollar and potentially get a 2.5 times tax rebate. After all, just our three local banks alone paid out total dividends of $11.5 billion for FY2023, which, along with their most recent earnings, are still trending up.

Transformational impact
Nine years ago, together with the former chairman of international research at Capital Group, we embarked on a project together to organise something neither of us liked to attend — a charity gala dinner. It was for a small young start-up charity focused on caregivers of people with mental health conditions. Back then, as policies and clinicians were focused on those directly affected, the mental health of caregivers was something ignored or even deemed taboo.

It was then the SG50 year and charities which could self-help were matched by the government’s Care & Share grant up to a cap of $1 million. Our goal appeared simple — raise $1 million, receive the matching $1 million and our start-up charity would have the viability to expand and grow. We were very lucky. With half a million in proceeds from selling each table at the gala dinner for $20,000, coupled with cash sponsors, the auction, other events matching grants from the Tote Board, plus a lot of help from many friends of these two first-time event organisers, we managed to meet our goal.

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We turned the whole thing into a social extravaganza. Many who came, including a large contingent from the expat community and finance luminaries, had little idea of the charity and the cause, to begin with. Nonetheless, fuelled by alcohol and social pressure, the auction with the right crowd in the room took us above the line. Of course, it also helped that the event was held after a post-Lunar New Year rally as the stock market recovered from the 2008–2009 Global Financial Crisis and the 2011 Greek wobbles.

This charity was able to scale up new programmes launched with support from the National Council of Social Service and the Agency for Integrated Care. The impact of the donation was compounded over the years and recognised by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth with the top governance and transparency award for medium-sized charities, as well as the President’s volunteer award some years later. Awards aside, it now plays a critical role with its proven model that has helped thousands since. For those who took that risk on a start-up charity then, I am immensely grateful. The gala dinner was a “necessary evil” and frankly most charities today still lack the resources to pull off a marquee event to raise the big sums.

Different types of chips
Over the years, the character and nature of these galas have changed and some would argue, past their heydays. Lifestyle titles like the Tatler, Peak and Prestige have stopped featuring many of these “society” events. Back in the 2000s, a painting could fetch $250,000 from a corporate or an individual philanthropist and be featured with a story.

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Today, even at open auctions, many donors would prefer to be as anonymous as the preferred silent auction mechanism. Due diligence rather than social pressure gathers bigger bucks, even if the events on their own serve a purpose in educating those who show up about the cause they are meant to support. For those who care to make new friends and show interest in the small talk between drinks, one might even get a “spillover” donation from guests invited by table sponsors.

Some events dispense with the auction altogether and just seek pledges for amounts communicating what they would do with $1,000, $5,000, or even $25,000. In today’s world, paintings are harder to move than the experiences of Michelin-starred meals or luxury holidays, especially those with sponsored tickets by Singapore Airlines C6L -

. The “clearing prices” for auction items are a function of the crowd drawn to the type of event, much like different herds of stock investors.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I was invited to or attended (mostly as a guest and not an organiser) a range of fundraising events. It was the season for balls with black ties and gowns typified the Passion Ball by Food from the Heart held at St Regis and the Symphony Ball by our very own Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Ritz Carlton. With inflation since 2015, these balls can now command premiums of up to $50,000 per table. As key events on the social circuit for A-listers, society magazines, top corporate personalities, family offices and celebrities, these events, akin to large-cap growth stocks and blue chips, raised well over $1 million each. Support from a top watch brand and fine wines from private collections helped boost the numbers too.

Since 2007, stockbrokers and remisiers are no longer quite the force they were and are now less prominent. Similarly, private equity and venture capital folks have been more muted since 2021. The few evergreen attendees of hedge fund founders and corporate titans, who now appreciate the finer things in life at the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy, still carry the day. At the music group The Teng Company’s 20th anniversary concert last week, ably chaired by my co-conspirator of the 2015 event, some $600,000 was raised. Combating hunger beat high-brow music and both trumped the Singapore sound developed by Teng (which too does a community outreach through music). But there was clearly more institutional support for the hunger cause and classical music versus a smattering of high net worth and retail for Teng.

As I was on the road, I missed the Samaritans of Singapore’s 50th anniversary gala. Notwithstanding the increasing awareness of mental health and the tragedy of preventable suicides that encapsulates their work, they raised an event record of $570,000. Yet, this amount covers just under 60% of their operating budget deficit for this financial year. Artworks for sale and auction were left on the shelf. This is like an old stock that has a lot of emotional support as it attempts a rejuvenation but it could still do with a lot more core institutional funding for growing needs and to stir broader retail interest.

However, my most enjoyable “gala” was Acres whose mission is to create a caring and socially responsible society where animals are treated as sentient beings. Instead of the usual stuffy black tie, the dress code was “animal friendly” which encouraged spontaneous creativity. It was a party with many young people, including teenagers who were members of and volunteers in their education programmes. Without the sophistication of the marquee balls, they did graduate to a small ballroom within the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre and succeeded in just exceeding their modest goal of $300,000. Perhaps, serving a vegan meal was less appealing or maybe the big hitters were not there.

It was less slick but full of heart. However, the people I met genuinely knew about the cause and supported it. It was also heartwarming to see that our talented local mural artist Yip Yew Chong’s contribution of a rare small art piece titled Grumpy fat cat drinking local kopi raised more than a Taylor Swift-signed Eras Tour guitar and a signed Messi Argentina World Cup No 10 jersey. This is a clear case of a small-cap charity that is not so well supported yet enjoys a long tail of retail donors. Perhaps a gem of a stock that is overlooked for the niche space it is in that demands some wallet share.

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A birthday to remember
Then there was the Legacy of Giving Gala at the Ritz Carlton on May 25. In celebration of the 80th birthday of Singapore’s Queen of Charity Jennie Chua whose life path is an inspiration to many. Despite leaving school early to earn income for the family, she broke many corporate glass ceilings and paved the way in the Singapore hospitality ecosystem at both the Singapore Tourism Board and of course she is synonymous with the Raffles Hotel which she helmed for decades. “When I grow old(er), I want to be like her” was a much-repeated comment that evening. At only 80, she chairs and serves on many boards including charities, listed companies to the film commission, besides being our non-resident ambassador to Spain.

As my predecessor’s predecessor as chair of Community Chest, she still serves as our advisor. In this spirit, the birthday celebration turned fundraiser pulled out all the strings including performances from Dick Lee and Kit Chan hitting Home and opening wallets as Singapore’s wealth gathered in one room that evening in a fitting tribute to Chua. Over $3.5 million was raised for three healthcare, arts and social service charities. This is the bluest of the blue chips events. A legacy so humbling as I ponder the task before me on my birthday. To even contemplate trying to fill these impossible shoes would not be possible on my own.

While we continue to ride the positive momentum of the STI, perhaps we should pick a charity to channel our gifts to on our birthdays instead of throwing parties and receiving gifts. (Disclosure: I won the bid for Grumpy fat cat). Perhaps, companies could also make a special donation to an important cause or fill a need in society. This way, we will slowly but surely create our legacy in Singapore. A caring compassionate society where we put others first and do good when we are doing well.

Should the markets continue to be kind, let us stick with the blue chips who like good stocks we trust to do great work, but let us not forget the growth stocks and new areas we have to fund too and spare a thought for our local niche small caps, if they can be catalysed like the Caregivers Alliance that I started my journey with all those years ago, we will be a better Singapore. #forwardSG

Chew Sutat retired from Singapore Exchange S68 -

after 14 years as a member of its executive management team. During his watch, the exchange transformed from an Asian gateway into a global multi­-asset exchange, and he was awarded FOW’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He serves as chairman of the Community Chest Singapore

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