subpage banner


Transcript of Remarks by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance and Minister for Manpower at the Commemorating of the 50th Anniversary of Tan Kah Kee's Passing on Saturday 26 November 2011, 9.30am at Hwa Chong Institution

27 Nov 2011

Prof Su Guanning, Chairman of Tan Kah Kee International Society

Prof Phua Kok Khoo, Chairman, Tan Kah Kee Foundation

Prof Wang Guangwu and distinguished guests

Community leaders,

1. First, thank you very much for inviting me. This is an impressively large audience for a matter that concerns a legacy and I think that is very important and a very encouraging sign. I was a little intimidated about having to speak before Professor Wang Guangwu, and I really came to listen to his scholarly reflections. So I will keep my comments very brief.

2. Some years ago, I think nine years ago, I spoke at Tan Kah Kee Foundation 20th anniversary Public Seminar. At that time I spoke about education and entrepreneurship. Those themes are central to what we know of Tan Kah Kee and the legacy he put in place. So today, I thought I would speak mainly about philanthropy because education, entrepreneurship and philanthropy are all bound up together in Tan Kah Kee, the man and what he did. He was at once a philanthropist, an entrepreneur and someone dedicated to education.

3. There are a few things that are striking about Tan Kah Kee and philanthropy. The first thing is how young he was when he started in philanthropy. The first of the schools he funded was in his home village of Jimei in Xiamen, when he was just 21 years old. A young man. He had not made a lot of money then but he decided to fund that first school. And that school became the start of the chain of schools in the area. Today, Jimei is still the education hub of Xiamen. So that was the first thing, he was very young when he started.

4. The second thing that is striking was of course the very large personal donations that he made over his lifetime, all the way towards the very late years of his life, tremendous contributions, especially to Singapore and China - this school (Chinese High) and many other schools in Singapore. Especially the Chinese schools, but also to some of the English institutions like Anglo Chinese School and Raffles College.

5. The third thing was that he not only contributed his own money in large amounts but he was a campaigner for others to contribute. He was a real activist, travelling from Burma at one end of Southeast Asia to the different ports in Indonesia, port by port, meeting wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, persuading them to contribute to various causes. I understand the causes included helping war-torn refugees in China, the war against Japan and eventually in education itself, including Amoy University. He was a real campaigner, a mini-state by himself, collecting money from other entrepreneurs around South East Asia in order to contribute to the community, especially to causes in China.

6. In short, Tan Kah Kee had a philanthropic spirit that was indefatigable. And the very interesting question now is whether that same spirit, the Tan Kah Kee Spirit, can blossom again in modern day South East Asia, China and I would say East Asia as a whole. Can it happen and what form can it take?

7. The conditions at that time were very different, and almost unique. The immigrant populations of South East Asia of whom Tan Kah Kee is part of had to fend for themselves. The colonial government did not look after schools, hospitals, housing - they did not build up the social institutions to uplift the various peoples. So the immigrant populations had to fend for themselves. They also did not feel a sense of permanence in their adopted countries. There was a still a sense of belonging to the mother country.

8. Those were unique circumstances. They were circumstances which gave particular form to the traditional values and precepts which made giving to others very natural - among the Overseas Chinese, values of benevolence and civic betterment that were deeply rooted in each of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions. These deeply rooted civic values tended to be expressed through mutual help, often giving to another individual (usually a family member or an employee), or giving within a clan or a sub-ethnic group or giving to the same ethic community. It was usually mutual help rather than contributing to the larger society, which was quite understandable at the time. These were immigrant communities who did not feel a sense of permanent belonging to their adopted countries and still felt some belonging to their mother country, in fact sometimes a very strong sense of belonging to their mother country.

9. So it was not surprising that Tan Kah Kee in 1916 campaigned against the introduction of the Income Tax Bill in Singapore that was going through the Legislative Council. He argued and convinced 181 out of 184 members in the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce to oppose the Income Tax Bill - which was an achievement in its own right because the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce at that time was a very diverse group of entrepreneurs who did not often see eye to eye with each other. But it was understandable that he would oppose the Income Tax Bill at that time because the Colonial government was not looking after the essential social institutions of the society, the schools and other institutions. The immigrant peoples had to fend for themselves, make wealth and contribute to their own communities through mutual help. So it is quite understandable at the time - though I hope, as Finance Minister, that this aspect of Tan Kah Kee’s legacy does not surface again (laughter).

10. The question we now face is what new form philanthropy can take, and how the Tan Kah Kee Spirit can reflect itself in a very changed situation - no longer a situation of turmoil and war, no longer a situation of immigrant populations having to fend for themselves. The old era is over, and we now have nation-states with governments which are responsible for nation building. In particular in Singapore, where everyone now feels a stake and sense of belonging that is permanent. This is a fascinating and important question - how will philanthropy evolve, will the traditional precepts and values of benevolence and civic betterment survive, and if so how will they express themselves in a totally new environment? How will they be expressed in a new context of nations with elected governments that are committed to nation building, and where people feel a permanent sense of belonging to the countries they are citizens of.

11. I think the philanthropic tradition in this new environment is still in its infancy or very early stages across Asia. In China, there is now a lot of wealth being created. But public attitudes towards the new entrepreneurs are different from the way those of old were regarded. Public attitudes are ambivalent towards many of the new entrepreneurs, depending on how they make their money. And the attitude of wealthy individuals themselves towards contributing to charitable causes in China is also ambivalent because the charities that are encouraged and incentivised are official charities which are run by the government. So that too is an obstacle at this point of time.

12. Singapore is somewhat different because first, the philanthropic tradition in Singapore never actually died out. I think it slowed down for a period but it did not die out in the context of a new nation. There are many people and organisations that have continued through the years to contribute to education, to free health clinics and many other social causes in Singapore. But in overall scale - in proportion to private wealth and income being created - philanthropy slowed down in Singapore in the first few decades of nationhood, and it is now beginning to ascend again, to grow and flower again.

13. And I think we have an opportunity in Singapore to build an inclusive society in a new way - to forge a compact involving the government, philanthropists and community leade rs who together build a vibrant, inclusive society. The situation being very different from that 80 or 90 years ago, requires us to think of new ways in which the spirit of Tan Kah Kee can reflect itself in this new environment.

14. The state has to play a major role in building an inclusive society. And in Singapore, we do it both by providing for society as a whole to develop through education, housing and other investments, but also through redistribution. That is a key role of the state – through housing subsidies, through Workfare, ComCare, Medifund and educational bursaries, the state has and will play a major role in redistribution, so as to give everyone fair opportunity. But if it is only the government, through its budget policies and other means, that is performing this role, I think we will be a weaker society. You can raise tax rates, you can raise money for government, but it would be providing for redistribution without this becoming a truly inclusive society. We cannot have an inclusive society if it is not at the same time driven by conviction, compassion and bonds amongst citizens themselves.

15. It is a fundamental issue, because a truly inclusive society cannot rest solely on the government, even if the government is collecting taxes from the people and redistributing them. That is a model that does exists in some societies, some mature and advanced societies, but it is not a road that leads to either a strong economy or a strong society. I think we have the opportunity of sustaining and strengthening a model that ensures a vibrant economy and a vibrant society, driven by conviction, compassion and bonds amongst people, not just relying on the state to perform its necessary redistributive tasks.

16. So let’s make no mistake about it. There can be no retreat of the state in redistribution and in fostering an inclusive society, but if it is only the state than I think we end up being a weaker society. It looks good and the money is there but money alone does not create an inclusive society. We need the conviction, compassion and the bonds between people. This is why it is essential that we encourage and foster philanthropy in this new environment. And we have gone about this in a way that is more aggressive than any other society. If you look at our tax incentives, the two and a half times deduction in income tax for philanthropic donations, the dollar for dollar matching by the government for philanthropic donations. If you look at our new universities, for every one dollar that is contributed to the universities by individuals or organisations, the government will contribute three dollars for the first ten years; and after the first ten years government will contribute one dollar and fifty cents for every one dollar contributed by others. So it is a very powerful matching grant by the government to encourage others to contribute, besides the tax deduction. There is no other country that does this on the same scale, but we are doing this because we want to build an inclusive society that rests on an active government and an active society at the same time. And that is really critical in the way we go forward.

17. So this is how I believe we can sustain the Tan Kah Kee Spirit in an entirely new environment, in an environment where people feel a permanent stake in the country they live in, and where giving is not only mutual help but help that crosses ethic boundaries and enters mainstream society and national institutions like schools and universities. It is how we can build an inclusive society and a stronger civic culture even in a modern era of redistribution through the state.

18. Thank you very much, and now I look forward to listening to the scholarly reflections of Prof Wang Guangwu.