Tuesday 9 July 2013

Cheated by kindness? Let’s get accountable

By William Wan, Published TODAY, 8 Jul 2013

The “kampung spirit” showed itself to be alive and well among Singaporeans in recent weeks. As the haze climbed to hazardous levels, volunteers handed out masks and supplies. Some even queued for hours to buy masks to distribute to neighbours and the less privileged. It was inspiring.

This spirit of giving is not uncommon here. Despite reports to the contrary — the World Giving Index saw Singapore slip to 114th place — we have shown great willingness to open our hearts and our wallets, be it for causes such as the Singapore Children’s Society or the National Kidney Foundation, or individuals such as injured National Serviceman Jason Chee.

The charitable individual plays an enormous role in our society. Even with the best efforts of public and private organisations to create social safety nets, there will always be exceptions that slip through the gaps.

Fuelled by personal responsibility and a desire to do right by their neighbours, individual volunteers and philanthropists are more sensitive to the needs of the moment. Working independently, they can move more quickly than larger, complex organisations.

Yet, admirable as these individuals are, there are always trade-offs. Spontaneity of action comes with less transparency, coordination and oversight. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Singapore and the world were quick to provide relief to the affected areas. According to reports, aid groups working in haste — and sometimes in competition — led to a duplication of efforts in some areas or outright wastage in others.


A few years ago, controversy brewed over the funds raised for the family of Huang Na, the little China girl who was murdered. The public responded with a flood of sympathy. Later, it was alleged that their donations were used to remodel the family home in China, sparking outrage and calls for stricter accountability.

Today, with social media making it easier to conduct public appeals, the calls for greater regulation have grown louder. There is concern that privately initiated fund-raising for individuals and causes is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the lack of accountability on the part of the recipients. There is evidence that generous people are also easy victims of manipulation and fraud.

For the Singapore Kindness Movement’s annual Graciousness Index, we did a study on the motivations and behaviour surrounding kindness and graciousness here. A commonly cited barrier to helping others is that we do not know if someone truly needs help. We are more than willing if we believe our assistance would be effective, but there is a residual fear that we might embarrass ourselves if the person did not actually need help — or worse, was trying to cheat us.

Unfortunately when charity fraud cases occur, it reinforces this lack of trust. The adage “once bitten, twice shy” applies. The question arises: Should we place restrictions on charitable giving to individual beneficiaries or causes? And if we do, what message are we sending to those who volunteer their time or donate? Will regulation kill off Singaporeans’ spirit of kindness and generosity? Will it rend the people-initiated safety net?


There are many reasons to argue against regulation, but one stands out. Singapore has come a long way in developing a sense of personal responsibility and individual ownership, fuelled by an organic civil society where citizens look out for one another. I personally believe that greater regulation, in this instance, would be a step backwards.

As we move towards being a kinder society, it is inevitable that some will try to take advantage. Our trust will be tested. But it should be our choice to give and our choice to seek accountability if we want.

That said, there is a need to protect the kind-hearted who, exploited by those without conscience, might decide not to give again, which would deny legitimate charities and causes the benefit of their generosity.

Instead of stringent regulations, which may not always be enforceable, why not let society self-regulate? An online portal, for example, could be set up by the regulatory authority.

People who wish to raise funds for individuals or causes could voluntarily register themselves and provide salient details of who they are, what they are raising funds for and what their target amount is. They should state that any excess funds will be given to an identified charity. Potential givers can then check the facts and decide whether to give their support.

The portal can also be a platform for the individual organiser to provide progress updates, including on how the money is being dispensed or spent by the beneficiaries. Registration would have to be easy — red tape would only stifle the spontaneous giving we seek to encourage.

This self-regulatory approach does not eliminate all possibilities of fraud but it does minimise it. By all means be kind, but wisely so.

Dr William Wan is General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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