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... and of giving

The Edge Singapore
The Edge Singapore • 4 min read
... and of giving
SINGAPORE (Dec 24): In 2010, two of the US’ richest men — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — went to China and invited 50 of the country’s richest tycoons to dinner.
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SINGAPORE (Dec 24): In 2010, two of the US’ richest men — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — went to China and invited 50 of the country’s richest tycoons to dinner.

The Microsoft founder who runs the US$50 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors, have a combined net worth of nearly US$180 billion ($247 billion). The two are also considered the most charitable billionaires in the US, and have made it their mission to persuade the world’s super rich to give away their fortunes to philanthropic causes, and to do so via The Giving Pledge. Among those who have signed up are the who’s who of Silicon Valley and the American industry, including Larry Ellison, Paul Allen and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Michael Bloomberg, Ted Forstmann, Barron Hilton and David Rockefeller.

At the dinner in Beijing in 2010, two-thirds of the invitees showed up, and Gates and Buffett pronounced the event a success. Those who declined the invitation were reportedly worried they would be asked for money outright. Gates and Buffett reassured all that the dinner was to be a “two-way” “discussion about philanthropy”.

Eight years on, Asia has minted even more billionaires, and a number of Chinese tycoons have become top philanthropists. A handful are part of Gates and Buffett’s endeavour, including Niu Gensheng, founder of China Mengniu Dairy, and You Zhonghui, who founded educational software company Shenzhen Seaskyland Technologies.

In pledging their wealth, the billionaires wrote about the opportunity to fulfil their social responsibility. As Dong Fangjun, chairman of investment company Dongfang Huiquan Financial Holdings, put it: “Many Chinese entrepreneurs have grown up in poverty or even hunger. So, we deeply understand the importance of wealth and opportunity. From the bottom of my heart, I hope to change the problem of [un]equal opportunity in social development through my efforts and constant giving.”

Asia is now home to more billionaires than North America. Yet as our story this week discusses, it still lags the US in big-ticket philanthropy.

To be sure, it is not for the lack of causes. One in 10 people in Asia live in extreme poverty. But to ensure the funds reach the right people, what is needed are robust, professionally run and credible charity organisations to manage those donations. It seems this has been found wanting in Asia.

It also is not for the lack of interest. Research by Wealth-X, the global ultra-high-net-worth data firm, shows that Asia has outdone Europe, in total and average ultra-high-net-worth public, life-time giving. It could very well be that a significant proportion of this giving has been anonymous, or informal and undocumented. In China in 2010, people were reportedly concerned such public declarations of generosity would attract unnecessary attention to the extent of their wealth and expose them to unwanted scrutiny.

Or, some other tycoons may simply want to leave their wealth to the descendants. Yet another theory could be that giving away one’s hard-earned wealth is equated with a bequest after death, and not many people would want to be confronted with their own mortality. When Alibaba Group Holding founder Jack Ma was asked by Buffett to donate his wealth, he famously retorted that he would do so when he turned 80, as Buffett was then.

In September this year, however, as Ma announced he was stepping down from his roles at Alibaba, he acknowledged the philanthropic role models that Gates and Buffett are. “But I want to do something using my own way,” Ma said. He has set up the Jack Ma Foundation, and donated generously to healthcare, education and the environment.

Whatever the case, Asia has come to represent wealth and all its trappings. The world is watching how that wealth is deployed.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 862, week of Dec 24) which is on sale now. Subscribe here

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