Singaporeans should get over their paiseh-ness or fear of embarrassment and be more kaypoh or nosy so there can be more meaningful interactions with fellow residents, especially those who are in need, says Melissa Kwee, CEO of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and a self-professed busybody.
With this attitude, Kwee looks to learn something from everyone and hopes to see opportunities for giving embedded in everyday life. “This way, it can allow for micro acts of kindness so giving need not be a once a year thing,” muses Kwee.
To illustrate, Kwee uses the example of chatting up an elderly neighbour living alone. A simple “Eh, uncle, how are you?” can make his day and, possibly, bring to light any issues he is facing, she explains.
On a micro level, this nosiness also helps overcome two challenges. The first is rectifying the mindset that volunteering should be prescriptive rather than being a part of life that brings meaning. The second is that such conversations should only benefit one party in the interaction. “We need to see the two-way street that makes life meaningful,” elaborates Kwee.
This also ties into a bigger goal for Kwee — to encourage individuals to use whatever they possess, in service of others. One way she sees this happening is by having influencers and companies direct attention towards causes that they care about. The intention is to encourage society to have empathy and cultivate a desire to give back, says Kwee.
Brought Up To Contribute
Even as a young girl, Kwee was always concerned about the well-being of those around her. “My mother tells me that I used to pick flowers and give them to random old people who were alone on Valentine’s Day,” she recalls in a recent interview with The Edge Singapore.
The 49-year-old is the eldest child of veteran businessman Kwee Liong Tek who is also the chairman of Pontiac Land Group. Set up by her paternal grandfather, the group owns residential and commercial properties like The Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa where the historic Trump-Kim Summit was held in June 2018.
Kwee’s fondness for helping others stems from her upbringing and the values imparted by her family. Her maternal grandparents, in particular, were always engaged in doing good for the community. Her grandfather, George Tetsuo Aratani — who founded Kenwood Electronics and Mikasa Chinaware — used to say that everyone is born to contribute to society so “do your part”, recalls Kwee. “I guess I just took his words seriously,” she chuckles.
As she grew older and acquired greater skills, Kwee went on to join service-related clubs and advocacy groups in hopes of making a bigger contribution to those around her. Among the causes she championed was environmental protection and how businesses can make better decisions that do not harm the environment without compromising their bottom lines.
Interestingly, Kwee chose not to join the family business but instead went on to pursue a different career path. She jokes that her “very talented cousins” are capable of running the business so she “will not be missed”.
Kwee has gone through quite a journey in her career, starting with her childhood aspiration of becoming a makeup artist. “I was fascinated by how people look so stunning after applying makeup and I wanted to be a part of that process,” she explains.
She subsequently changed her ambition to being a development economist after realising that the discipline would also enable her to make a meaningful impact but on a larger scale for societies and economies. Kwee eventually went on to read anthropology at Harvard University to better understand different cultures and societies, and how people behave.
Following the completion of her studies, Kwee secured a Fulbright scholarship that went towards an internship at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, a national park in Nepal. Upon her return to Singapore, she set foot in the social sector. Unconventional as this may be, she believed the demands of the sector were aligned with her skills and interests. Some of the roles she took on included chairman of non-profit Halogen Foundation and president of UN Women Singapore (formerly known as Unifem Singapore). Kwee also co-founded Beautiful People, a community mentoring initiative that journeys with individuals from marginalised communities to achieve their dreams.
In 2014, Kwee took on the role of CEO at NVPC, a non-profit organisation promoting a giving culture in Singapore in hopes of building a city of good. When asked how she landed the role, Kwee simply says that she remembers getting a cold call from a recruiter.
In her first task as CEO, Kwee wanted to create a common purpose aligning the interests of stakeholders from the public, private and people sectors featuring prominently on her to-do list. An arduous undertaking, she initially “felt overwhelmed and questioned whether [she] was right for the job”. Still, she surmounted the challenge, thanks to her empathetic and humorous nature and gung-ho attitude.
As CEO, Kwee has introduced a couple of changes to keep NVPC’s role in line with consumers’ behaviour. For instance, NVPC’s focus moved from being just about social services to one that embraces all causes, including arts and culture, sports, environment, and humanitarian and animal welfare. It also looks into areas such as investment, inclusivity and integration to ensure that the different needs of society are addressed.
In addition, NVPC is facilitating the act of giving with greater impact. For this, the organisation is looking into giving behaviours such as the act of volunteering and making donations to create a bridge between people, or the givers, and the organisations receiving the aid.
To enable this, NVPC is looking to have every purchase tagged to an API or intermediary software so that the spare change from transactions can be channelled into an individual’s chosen cause on Giving.sg.
Another way is to redefine how Singaporeans see success, says Kwee. While “success” today is largely defined by a person’s ability to make tons of money, she believes successful individuals are those who use the wealth they possess in the service of others. To trigger such a shift in mindset, the non-profit has been working closely with influencers and organisations to convey stories on morals and ethics.
On top of this, NVPC wants Singaporeans to know there are many great givers. This is being done through storytelling, such as in NVPC’s 15 Shorts movie which tells stories of the layperson doing good. The way Kwee sees it, if Singaporeans can relate to these stories, this will help reshape the narrative on giving.
Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has arguably shone a light on areas in society that are found wanting. These include concerns such as the isolation faced by seniors and migrant workers, domestic violence and children not having enough food to eat.
A survey by consumer insights firm Toluna and NVPC indicates that the percentage of Singaporeans who are inclined to donate dropped from 32% in April to 23% in July. Of those who had contributed to charities and organisations in July, there was a sharp increase in monetary giving, while volunteering fell. This was likely due to the safe distancing measures and challenges of transitioning volunteering opportunities to virtual platforms to reduce human contact, mulls Kwee.
Even so, 2020 brought to light many heroes who had gone out of their way to ensure the well-being of others. Kwee highlights Nizar Shariff, the founder of Free Food for All, as one such hero. Having heart and kidney ailments did not stop Shariff from giving out nutritious foods such as groceries and ready-to-eat meals to those in need. These food items were obtained from RedMart as well as F&B outfits like Wok Hey and Mr Biryani. Overall, Shariff’s company served over 40,000 beneficiaries, which translates to over 1,000 home deliveries being made per month. This was nearly a 10-fold increase from the 150 to 200 deliveries that he had typically made in a month, before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Kwee notes that more companies like Shariff’s Free Food for All, have adopted cooperative strategies where they work with other businesses to do more good. Such strategies are essential, especially during a crisis, given the scale of the needs and the urgency to address them, without wasting resources.
Kwee believes having collaborative strategies — particularly among public and private stakeholders and people — enables complex problems to be solved. One such issue that surfaced during the pandemic was the difficulties faced by migrant workers, including their living conditions, access to personal protective equipment and the long hours they work. However, if these workers have better work and living conditions, they might have been more productive and could have assimilated better into Singapore’s ecosystem, mulls Kwee.
For this sweet spot to happen, Kwee says stakeholders need to build empathy and understanding among the key players. They also need to realise that having collaborative strategies is a possibility, she quips.
Such a transition is timely, given that in the current cash-poor environment, giving can no longer be just about making donations. Instead, companies should look at becoming purposeful businesses that invest not just in profits, but also employees. This could entail stewarding sustainability, ethical procurement, inclusive hiring and the provision of non-toxic products, suggests Kwee.
With discrimination being rampant across societies, having an inclusive culture may just be the pill needed for Singapore to be a more caring society and a City of Good. The first step is for Singaporeans to be a tad more kaypoh, like Kwee.