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Children's Society Chairman Koh Choon Hui: A Lifelong Commitment to Charity

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The below English article is a translated version of the original article in Chinese from Lianhe Zaobao "儿童会主席许俊辉终身义工无所不在, Lianhe Zaobao, 17 Jan 2021". Any errors are the translator's own.

The Singapore Children’s Society (SCS), which was established in 1952, recently received a substantial bequest.

There was no doubt the late donor’s generosity came from a firm belief that SCS would exercise good stewardship and put the donated resources to good use.

How did the Singapore Children’s Society establish such high levels of trust and confidence among the public? The answer starts, perhaps, with its Chairman Koh Choon Hui, despite his low profile. Mr Koh became the chairman of SCS in 1978 and has served in the position for 42 years, a record that the previous eight chairpersons who had served in total of more than 26 years could not break.

This week’s In Person profile offers an insight into how Mr Koh applies management expertise from his experience in business to running a charity; and the impact his views on family and life has had on countless employees and children.

By: Poh Lay Hoon

Preparatory research conducted before this interview turned up little by way of media profiles on Mr Koh Choon Hui. Most of the media coverage on the man was of his thank you speeches at Singapore Children’s Society annual charity dinners and offered hardly any personal information.

At last year’s National Day Awards, Mr Koh was conferred the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest honour just after the Order of Temasek. In 2017, he was given the Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award by the Ministry of Social and Family Development – the nation’s highest accolade for volunteers.

Mr Koh’s resume of volunteer activities and accolades for charity work runs over several impressive pages. His professional and charitable involvement spans from the prison service, to clubs and associations, to business and pharmaceutical trade organisations and government bodies, amongst others.

With his dapper presence, elegant and cultured demeanour, and the wisdom he exudes, Mr Koh’s disposition recalls that of the late Chief Justice Yong Pung How.

It’s no exaggeration to call Koh Choon Hui “The Fundraising Guru”.

In 1975, the SCS’s operating costs were about $300,000. Former SCS Chairman Dr Koh Eng Kheng, worried about making ends meet and fearing that the Singapore Children’s Society might have to shut down, sought help from his friend Koh Choon Hui and asked him to head SCS’s Appeals Committee.

In those years, the difficulty of fundraising was compounded by the lack of a donor database. Fundraising events were usually ad-hoc: at Christmas, for example, ministers’ wives were roped in to do some arm-twisting in a bid to get donations.

Mr Koh asked Dr Koh: “How many arms can we twist? And how often can you twist the same arm?” Mr Koh had shrewdly observed that Christmas fairs, mahjong games and other social activities would not generate much by way of donations, and soon took an axe to how the organisation raised funds, completely revamping the institution.

Take for instance the traditional Flag Day. The Singapore Children’s Society was allocated just one Flag Day per year, during which a few hundred students would raise some $5,000 to $6,000 by taking to the streets with tins to ask the public for donation. Mr Koh thought, “why not aim higher for one or two hundred thousand dollars instead?”

He got to work, sending appeal letters to companies and individual donors, and recruiting many schools, mobilising some 2,000-3,000 students to take to the streets and raise funds. “Approaching schools, maintaining good relationship with them, and introducing students to volunteering became the blueprint for Flag Day. Today, we are able to raise substantially more on Flag Day.”

Invitation letters in the past were painstakingly hand typed individually, but Mr Koh made the decision to send them out to printers who could turn out a few hundred thousand copies at a go.

“You may have a response rate of only two to three percent. Then we enter the recipients’ information into our donor database. The next time we write to them, we thank them for their earlier donation and appeal to them for their continued support. In this way, we built up a donor base, which today stands at about twenty to thirty thousand regular donors. Sixty percent of the donations are from individuals while forty percent are from companies.“

Two creative projects that allow everyone to become a philanthropist

He emphasised the need to build a large database of donors to avoid fluctuation in donation income. “Instead of getting a million dollars from one donor, I’d rather this amount came from hundreds of different individuals, so that even when a few can’t continue giving, donations would not spike or fall drastically,” said Mr Koh.

He pointed out that innovation was crucial in fundraising.

In 2009 and 2014, SCS introduced the 1000 Enterprises for Children-in-Need (1000e.org.sg) and the 1000 Philanthropists (1000p.org.sg) programmes respectively. “You don’t have to donate a million dollars to be called a philanthropist. We consider you a philanthropist if you donate regularly. These programmes were what Singapore Children’s Society built from scratch. In a good year, these two programmes can raise nearly $6 million.”

SCS holds its “Walk for Our Children” fundraiser each October. Last year, the event had to be moved online due to the ongoing pandemic.

According to Mr Koh, the fundraising event would probably garner over $300,000 in donations, but security and other expenses had to be factored in.

The virtual Walk for Our Children cost a fraction of the amount of money spent on organising a physical event and still raised some $400,000. With another $100,000 in donation from the Tote Board, and after deducting the much lower expenses, the final amount raised was still impressive.

“Covid is the biggest disrupter, right? This is the biggest disrupter. We were forced again to be innovative. Fortunately, with technology, we are able to go online to seek donations. I am a realist and have always been optimistic. Now the online donations will become a new pillar of income for us. We now have a strong digital team focused on online fundraising. After the pandemic, we will continue to strengthen our online fundraising efforts to complement our usual offline activities and events.”

“Businesses must make social sense, Social Service must make business sense”

Mr Koh Choon Hui has a mantra that even political leaders borrow from time to time: “Companies need to be socially responsible, while charities also need a business mindset, to make accurate calculations and use funds for their beneficiaries wisely.”

“I always say that the responsibility of running a charity is greater than that of managing a company,” he said. “Because when you run a company, you answer to the shareholders, but the Singapore Children’s Society belongs to all Singaporeans… even if they don’t donate to you, they still have the right to hold you accountable. You can’t say, ‘this is none of your business’, you need to give them an answer. That’s why you have to practise good corporate governance and transparency, to avoid conflicts of interest, and make sure all the relevant policies are put in place.”

Setting a good example to attract like-minded partners

This management philosophy translates into transparency in all of SCS’ affairs, big and small. All of the monies raised by SCS and other information are set out on its website, and SCS is a four-time winner of the Charity Transparency Awards. The organisation’s focus on brand building has also won itself the Singapore Prestige Brand Award (Special Merit).

Mr Koh felt setting a good example needs to happen from top to bottom, with no space for selfinterest. “And I think that that has served us well and I must say that I'm very proud of the fact that we managed to attract the right people who share our culture, our values. They really want to make a difference. There is no hidden agenda, no ulterior motives and people don't fight for positions. So there is no politics, to put it bluntly.”

When talk turned to the subject of his successor, he said the Board was full of talents, with at least three or four candidates who could take over his position any time, but none of them wants to take over.

“They say, as long as you’re in good health, we would like you to continue to lead us. But the day will come when somebody will have to take over.”

Mr Koh sees himself as “quite a contrarian in many sense”. Having just celebrated his 80th birthday last month, he said, “As you grow older, you realise you have lesser time. Rather than taking it easy, I feel a greater sense of urgency, because I’ve still got so many things to do. And that basically keeps me very energetic.”

“Many people said I’ve already done so much, it’s enough, but in serving others, there is no such thing as having done enough. It is really a privilege and an honour to be able to serve others. And as long as you are healthy, you can contribute, and the needs are there, I just cannot walk away from it.” As Mr Koh’s true feelings come to the fore, he repeated his guiding principle emphatically.

Accumulating ample reserves is the right thing to do

It may be a little-known fact that the SCS is not under the charities supported by the Community Chest (ComChest), and not joining ComChest was the toughest decision that Mr Koh had to make when he became Chairman.

The Community Chest was established in 1983 by the Singapore government to relieve charities of the burden of doing their own fundraising. Mr Ee Peng Liang, founding chairman of ComChest was a good friend of Mr Koh and tried persuading him to let SCS join ComChest.

“I decided that SCS should be financially independent. This was a tough decision to make, because it meant you have to ensure that you are able to continue to be successful in fundraising.”

His decision hinged on two main factors: ensuring financial autonomy and being able to act quickly to help those in need whenever the need arises.

Setting up a research department to connect the dots

SCS is set up differently from other charities, he explained. Before other charities implemented programmes, they often had to consider government support. “(SCS) has a very strong research department, and before we roll out a programme, we would have all the information before we go ahead. When an emergency arises, such as the pandemic, and people need aid urgently, we don’t have to think about whether there’s government funding, we can act directly.”

“Once the new programme we have rolled out takes off, we would also share the blueprint on how we run these programmes with other charities, this is the pioneering spirit that SCS has.”

It is public knowledge that the SCS has ample reserves – enough to cover over three years of operating expenses. Some have likened the charity to “a mini-Singapore”, and have opted to donate to other cash-strapped charities.

But Mr Koh said, “We shouldn’t apologise for our reserves; if we don’t have adequate reserves it would be a dereliction of duty.”

According to Mr Koh, SCS currently employs 220 people, sees a growing need for its services, and has operating expenses amounting to over $20 million each year.

Charity organisations normally hold reserves that are equivalent to two or three years of operating expenses, but SCS sets out five-year budget plans instead of basing its budget on the previous three years’ operating expenses.

He added, government-backed charities would not need to hold as much reserves, but many programmes run by SCS receive no government funding. It is only after they have become national programmes, with other charities running it, then they are funded by the government.

He said that without the Jobs Support Scheme and a strong online donor network, the Singapore Children’s Society would have gone into the red last year. “And suppose the pandemic goes on for another two or three years, do we cut aid and start to lay off staff when people are needing our service the most? That’s why it’s prudent to maintain sufficient reserves to see us through a prolonged downturn.”

“We have 12 service centres, benefiting 70,000 people; if we have to close, the impact will be severe. As a responsible charitable organisation, we cannot allow this to happen.”

He said, SCS has always promoted legacy giving, and had achieved significant success. “People make wills to bequeath their HDB flat, CPF monies to us, why? Because they know we are an organisation that does good work; we are transparent, have sound governance, disburse funds prudently, and are able to make a difference to the lives of those in need.”

Early Perception of Weaknesses in the Family Planning Policy

His strong love for children led Mr Koh to go against Singapore’s two-child policy.

When Mr Koh’s second daughter was born in 1972, it was at the height of the government’s “Two is enough” family planning campaign. His third and fourth children were born in 1976 and 1979 respectively, at clear odds with the policy, and he was even labelled “anti-social” at the time.

Fast forward to the present, many now praise him for doing the right thing. Today, three of his four children are married, and he now has six grandchildren. He said, “You must have a conviction about what you believe in and what you do. We should never compromise on that.”

Mr Koh was on familiar terms with Singapore’s first-generation leaders and used to lunch with the former Minister for Health Toh Chin Chye monthly. “I told him; it was a wrong policy. Looking back, it was indeed a wrong policy. When people become better educated, they will want to have fewer children, because they want to invest more in each child.”

“Our population base is too small… we ended up with these issues of having to bring in foreigners.”

Today, the government keeps coming up with incentives to encourage people to have children, but he said, “You have to love children. You must not have children for the incentives – that would be wrong. If you’re doing it for the financial incentives, society will end up having to help raise your child.” He was always candid about his views during his lunch sessions with ministers. “I give them very objective feedback. Because it’s of no value to them when you tell them what they want to hear, rather than what they should hear right?”

Several years ago, a politician wanted to close a SCS service centre.

Being a Role Model for the Children

He told him that the Singapore Children’s Society was above politics, “I cannot stop you if you want to close the centre, but make sure you manage it without any adverse publicity. You have to replace it with a new centre.”

Because of his frankness, Mr Koh has remained an important contact for a number of political leaders on charity matters.

The fifth child of a Chinese-educated father who was a charcoal importer, Koh Choon Hui grew up in a kampong in Toa Payoh, where his father often helped villagers write letters or settle disputes. The elder Mr Koh also hosted new immigrants, helping to build temporary residences for them as they settled in.

The kindness of both his parents, their respect for others, and their other virtues had a deep effect on him.

Among the eight siblings, only Mr Koh and two younger sisters were English-educated; three older brothers, one older sister, and a younger brother went to Chinese schools. He was the family’s only English-educated son. He said with a laugh that his father had been livid at not being able to understand letters from the government in English, and so decided to send him to an English medium school, “so that I could help him read those government letters.”

Mr Koh is Teochew, and also serves as the honorary president of the Nanyang Pho Leng Hui Kuan. The day of our interview fell on Winter Solstice, a traditional festival his family celebrates. He also mentioned leading the family of 15 twice on trips to their ancestral hometown of Puning in China in 2017 and 2019 to ensure his children and grandchildren learnt about their roots.

On the subject of his children, he had nothing but praise for his wife for bringing them up well. From when they were young, Mr Koh started taking his children to SCS activities, so they would be aware that there were others less fortunate than them. Today, he also takes his grandchildren to SCS activities.

He said children at SCS from low income or dysfunctional families had to face difficult conditions from a young age but were more mature and more resilient.

“Given the right guidance and encouragement, they can also flourish, and this is what I have dedicated myself to do. Some children under our care have become very successful - some are heading financial institutions and some have become SCS donors themselves.”

Charity Comes First, Work Comes Second

Mr Koh was an early advocate for showing empathy for the poor and respect for women, opening the doors of a sales job to employees who did not own cars and to women.

Hiring women for sales

Mr Koh joined pharmaceutical firm Roche in 1963 and established the Singapore and Malaysia offices of the company. He was a loyal employee and worked at the company for close to 50 years. When he retired in 2012, he was Roche’s Chairman and Managing Director, and assumed the role of Chairman at Singapore Pools in 2013.

In the early days, sales positions in the pharmaceutical industry were dominated by men. But Mr Koh recruited women and did away with the rule that salespeople had to own cars, allowing those who could not afford cars to take on sales jobs, a decision that he said “in those days were unheard of”.

Reflecting fondly on the past, Mr Koh said, “I had been very fortunate that the company was very supportive, allowing me to run Roche like it was my own! So, I always prioritised charity over my professional work!”

He also showed foresight in implementing what was then seen as an avant-garde human resource policy. In 1973, when he established Roche in Singapore, he thought to himself, “If my colleagues in Switzerland are enjoying a five-day work week, why should I treat our Singaporean colleagues any differently?”, so he implemented the five-day work week in Singapore too.

He often hired fresh graduates. And if two candidates with the same capabilities were after the same position, he would always go for the one from a humbler background, “Because those from better-off families, he can take his time to look for a job, and the one who comes from a poor family background, I must give him the opportunity first.”

He also said that he had a policy of not re-hiring former employees. “At interviews, I would tell jobseekers, you have only one chance to work with us, this is not where you come to try your luck; you have to put your heart and soul into it… If you decide to leave, that’s fine, but we will never rehire you again.”


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