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Meeting Singapore’s Unmet Social Needs

This article is contributed by Pwee Foundation

On 16th May, the Pwee Foundation invited Mr Laurence Lien to discuss the role non-profit organizations can play in meeting Singapore’s unmet social needs. Mr Lien is currently a Nominated Member of Parliament and the Chief Executive Officer of the National Volunteer & Philantropy Centre (NVPC). He was also a former Director of Governance and Investment at the Ministry of Finance. His experience in the public and non-profit sector brings unique insight into this field.

Mr Lien began his talk by discussing the role of civil society. “They can do the things the government can’t do. Non-profits can do some things better,” he said.

Mr Lien pointed out that non-profits catered to different needs. By transcending national policy and political ideology, they can plug the gaps in society. An example he raised was of palliative care. In Singapore, such services are generally handled by non-profits, as the government was “not willing” to take them up.

“The government believes that if they do, a lot of people will think that they want citizens to die more quickly,” he said, to much laughter.

Beyond government limitations, Mr Lien argued that non-profits could be a rich source of innovation and experimentation, as NPOs can take the kind of risks the government cannot.

Mr Lien followed through by saying the government should not provide everything for everyone. This would give people a sense of ownership when they handle matters by themselves, having poured in their “heart and soul”.

Continuing this theme, Mr Lien observed that when handling social problems, society faces a wicked problem. “The government’s deep involvement in the social sector crowds out private funding and initiatives,” he said. This leads to NPOs depending too much on the government to solve problems. Meanwhile, the community lacks ownership of issues.

The result: “NPOs are not performing to their full potential.”

Mr Lien argues that the government needs to “let go” of these issues, allowing non-profits to take over instead.

In the last part of his presentation, Mr Lien discussed the difficulties in social work. Among them was that very few people were coming forward.

“Singaporeans like to follow,” he said, adding that the number of new charities being registered over the past decade have dropped significantly.

He also shared his experiences in the NVPC. The NVPC’s New Initiative Grant offers seed money to startups and organizations that meet community needs and emphasise volunteerism and philanthropy. While the grant offers up to $200,000, most applicants ask for much less. Consequently, much of the grant’s budget is left intact every year.

“We have to learn how to engage across boundaries and collaborate,” Mr Lien said.

During the post-talk discussion, participants raised several points.

“How can we make (a social initiative) fun?” one of them asked. “How can we make it engaging? How can we scale it up?”

Another proposed idea was to approach social innovation in an indirect way. Taking a leaf from the open source philosophy, a participant created a place where people can share ideas for social work under a Creative Commons license, allowing others to modify them. Called ‘forking’, he said this approach brought together two strangers, a 3D printer and a bungalow owner, to create works of art about the bungalow before it is torn down for urban redevelopment.

A third participant was more ambitious, saying social entrepreneurs should go overseas. “Every other country will roll out the red carpet if you are Singaporean,” he said, highlighting the power of the Singapore brand.

Closing the talk on a practical note, the last participant pointed out that NPOs had to think long-term. Events organised by NPOs should not be “just another day out”, he argued. “We must focus on the needs of the client. We have that responsibility.”

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