Phillip Tan hadn’t yet entered kindergarten when he gleaned his first lesson in kindness. A beggar had come knocking at the door and, with encouragement from his nanny, the youngster scooped out some rice and gave it to the elderly man.
“I didn’t know that was an act of kindness. I just knew the uncle looked happy, and that made me happy,” recalls Tan. “That’s when I learnt that giving can create happiness.”
This childhood memory explains why Tan, now a father of three and grandfather to four, still finds joy in extending his helping hand. It can be as simple as picking up a bottle of medicinal wine for a terminally ill patient, or as considerable as chairing the Community Chest, the largest fundraiser in Singapore’s social service sector.
In the 40 years since he started volunteering actively, he’s also seen a groundswell of compassion in the national psyche. For instance, a Care & Share @ SG50 movement, which launched in 2013, led some 240 welfare organisations to raise a total of $800 million. The figure far surpasses the original $500-million-target for the 28-month fundraising and volunteerism drive that culminated in 2016.
Founded in 1983, Community Chest began as an organisation that provides for the immediate needs of the social service sector. It has evolved into one that imparts thought leadership and future planning while helping to seed and pioneer new services and serve as a catalyst for a more inclusive society.
“There are people who say that Singaporeans aren’t generous. That’s not true. If you ask for donations, the majority will donate, it’s not a problem,” says the retired partner of a major global accounting firm. “[The key is] how to get them involved — to donate their time.”
Tan himself takes a hands-on approach to charity work. As a new immigrant from Malaysia in the mid-1970s, he joined the Apex Club of Singapore to “make more friends and participate in service work”.
He shares fondly memories of collecting old newspapers around Opera Estate, distributing apples and Marie biscuits, and screening films at the Woodbridge Hospital (now Institute of Mental Health). “If you get involved with charity, you will feel happy,” he says. “There’s a lot of fun in it; there’s a lot of bonding. I’ve made lifelong friends.”
Before long, he was introduced to Dr S Vasoo and Dr Tan Bee Wan, stalwarts in the social service sphere, who would rope him into National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and Community Chest initiatives. “I got to know more and more like-minded and kind-hearted people who wanted to help the less fortunate, and then I got more involved and passionate about helping people and adding value to people’s lives,” Tan recounts.
He was also introduced to Dr Ee Peng Liang, Singapore’s father of charity, from whom Tan picked up an important lesson: “We in the charity world must have gratefulness and no donation is too small.”
While he has served on various organisations over the years, Tan doesn’t single out any cause as a favourite — not even those that draw attention for tugging at heartstrings. He states, “I believe in getting involved in any cause where I can add value and bring comfort and happiness.”
There have been instances, in fact, where Tan’s skill set and expertise have been volunteered without his own knowledge. His tenure as vice-chairman and later chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) began as such — when he received a letter from a friend thanking him for accepting the vice-chairmanship. He would become chairman just six months later.
“I didn’t even know about the YRF!” Tan shares, laughing. “But I am glad it is now a recognised charity organisation helping ex-offenders and their families, and managed by an excellent team led by Wong Ai Ai.”
Everyone has goodness in him or her, even prisoners, insists Tan. “I have assisted people who committed crimes, and they are like all of us — they have loved ones and they worry for them even when they are themselves facing capital punishment.”
He beams with pride when he tells us about an ex-offender, who with help from voluntary welfare organisations and prison officers, became a qualified lawyer. He now volunteers his time and even helps out at Meet-the-People sessions, Tan lets on.
A people connector bar none (he recently helped put together a team from the Mount Alvernia Hospital and a Buddhist welfare organisation to provide training and paediatric nebulisers in Cambodia), Tan believes everyone — even time-pressed white-collar professionals — has the skills and capacity to be able to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.
“Don’t believe you have no time, because as an excellent manager you possess time management skills. Running a charitable organisation requires the same skills as running a business or corporation,” he says.
“Just have the heart and desire to add value, and do your best. Don’t get disappointed if you don’t achieve the results expected. Most of all, enjoy the work, the friendships and the experiences.”