“If you are a family office interested in giving back to the local community in Asia, there is no better place to do it than here in Singapore,” urged Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong at the Global-Asia Family Office Summit’s owners’ symposium last year. He was not alone in prodding family offices to make a difference through philanthropy.
Earlier this year, Heng Swee Keat, the Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, pressed family offices to seek out not only returns on investments but a different ROI — the “Rate of Impact”, as he put it. It is encouraging that family offices in the Asia-Pacific are leaning into philanthropic activities, he told the UBS Singapore Family Office Forum. “But more can still be done.” Which begs the question: why aren’t the wealthiest families doing more?
“Crazy, rich Asians”
Many of the super-rich have, in recent years, opened family offices in earnest in Singapore. In 2018, the city had 45 family offices, based on data from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra). Last year, it had 1,100 single-family offices (SFOs), thanks to liberal tax incentives. These family offices collectively managed about $90 billion worth of assets as at 2021.
Today, Singapore is the fifth wealthiest city in the world, boasting 26 billionaires and 249,800 millionaires. Global per capita wealth has increased by 44 per cent between 1995 and 2018. So too, has greater inequality. The 2022 World Inequality Report found that the richest 10 per cent of the global population owns 76 per cent of all wealth. The poorest half owns just 2 per cent.
Along with soaring inflation, post-pandemic, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened, becoming an emotive issue often amplified by social media. This was particularly so in October this year, when authorities revealed that one or more of the accused in the city’s largest money laundering case involving over $2.8 billion of assets might be linked to SFOs that were awarded tax incentives by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). The financial regulator has since said it is reviewing the process for awarding incentives and weighing further rules on the sector.
Even before this incident came to light, some online commentators had already started questioning how much value family offices bring to Singapore. There are also those who decry this rise in wealth here. However, there is potential for good, but only if family offices believe that they, too, have a role to play in alleviating economic inequality by giving more and giving better.
A contextual matter
But there is resistance, according to fund managers I spoke to who asked to remain anonymous. One told me that some ultra-high-net-worth clients insist on getting their Permanent Resident status here first before considering philanthropy. Others, he shared, are keener on wealth accumulation than supporting the community. Then there are those who “just want to enjoy the lifestyle Singapore offers”. He estimates that only “less than 10 per cent” of SFOs focus on philanthropy.
There may be many reasons for this — cultural context, for one. Asians give differently; many prefer to do so anonymously, and not all philanthropy and community work is publicised. The data might just not be evident for all to see. “There is also a more developed culture of giving back in the United States and Europe,” the same fund manager tells me. To illustrate, he recalled how some European clients generously tipped a young waitress at the Marina Bay Sands for her hard work. He doubts his Asian clients will be as generous because “there’s not so much of ‘I want to give back’ amongst Asians now.”
“Even though 71 per cent of family offices worldwide are engaged in some form of giving back, less than half (41 per cent), according to the Milken Institute, have a philanthropic strategy in place.”
It could also be a case of needing more time for families and individuals to integrate within the local community. Unlike Europe or the United States, where family offices date back to the 19th century — with John D. Rockefeller’s being the most famous — Asian family offices, particularly new-money families, are the relatively newer kids on the block. “They have yet to put down their roots,” says another fund manager. “It’s very hard for an entity or a family to move to a new place and start thinking about how to give back” when they have yet to carve out an identity for themselves.
Perhaps because of this long association with family offices, she said those from the West are more welcoming of professionals managing their wealth for them. The same cannot be said for some Asian family offices, she tells me, where families tend to be more wary of trusting those outside of their family members. Beyond that, it turns out that even though 71 per cent of family offices worldwide are engaged in some form of giving back, less than half (41 per cent), according to the Milken Institute, have a philanthropic strategy in place. As one fund manager explained: “Family offices want people to give them the who, what, and how.” What she means is that SFOs want someone to follow through on their philanthropic initiatives, assess the impact of their contributions, and assure them that their money is going towards a legitimate cause and entity.
It is easier to do so in the West, where civil society is more mature and the non-profit sector is more established and regulated. In Asia, the non-profit sector is still in various stages of development. Few family offices have the in-house expertise to evaluate nonprofits, deploy philanthropic dollars optimally or monitor and measure the impact of their contributions.
To that end, the Asia Community Foundation (ACF) was launched recently to propel regional philanthropy amongst those with very deep pockets in Asia. One of its co-founders is Laurence Lien, a veteran philanthropist and chairman of the Lien Foundation. The ACF acts as a philanthropic advisory, providing the network and infrastructure to help new donors give more strategically to charities across Asia. This is one way to reshape the impact of wealth across the region.
Governments also believe another solution could be to incentivise the wealthy to give back. Two years ago, in 2021, Ravi Menon, the MAS chief, spoke of how Singapore could serve as a hub for philanthropic giving. In July this year, he announced an adjustment to tax incentives for SFOs to encourage them to invest “more purposefully” to benefit Singapore and the region via climate-related projects or undertake more philanthropy through Singapore. MAS also introduced the philanthropy tax incentive scheme, which will take effect in January 2024.
But will tax incentives make people more generous or just more savvy at timing their donations to enjoy tax benefits? Instead, why not make it compulsory for family offices to donate a certain percentage of their wealth, in proportion to their assets, to local or regional charities of their choice?
Beyond that, Singapore can strive to be the regional epicentre for developing impactful projects, such as those linked to fintech. This could nudge family offices to invest in more purposeful causes. “Perhaps this is one way to inch towards philanthropy,” a fund manager remarked recently.
With social problems becoming more complex, there is only so much that governments can do. The onus ultimately lies with individuals to step up and move the needle to achieve greater social impact. In this instance, the wealthiest must believe that social good is an equally important outcome as profit-making. This means focusing on giving back to communities and ensuring that no one is left behind through collaboration, pooling of resources, and developing the social and philanthropic sectors. It is also critical for the vast majority of Singaporeans, who are neither millionaires nor billionaires, to establish the social expectation that more is expected of those to whom much has been given. Naturally.