Sunday, February 05, 2006

Post No. 53: A Critique of Local Charity: With Special Reference to the NKF Saga

It would be no exaggeration, as you all would most probably agree, for me to say that the NKF Saga (or scandal) was the local news story that captured the most amount of public attention last year (followed closely behind by perhaps the Great Casino/Integrated Resort Debate, the Melvyn Tan/NS-evasion fiasco and the “White Elephant” incident). As a result of this saga, a whole plethora of questions was raised. Some of these questions we may perhaps have answers for, some are partially answered while some we are perhaps still in the process of finding answers for. Most of these questions, I believe, have long been lingering in the minds of many but it was only when the reports of the NKF vs. SPH lawsuit came out in the news that they were brought into the spotlight and caught public attention. This is somewhat analogous to the situation in which a dam collapses and the water starts rushing out. The aftermath of the NKF saga, as you all can most probably see for yourselves, is still playing itself out and the dust is far from settling, especially with the recent release of the KPMG auditing report of the NKF’s internal workings and the ongoing investigation for signs of possible wrongdoings within the NKF and the spectre of possible prosecution haunting the air. Well, I will not ramble on any further, lest I lose the attention of you all, but go straight to the point. As I have mentioned above, some of the many questions which were raised in the aftermath of the NKF saga are perhaps still unanswered. Hence, in this essay, I will attempt to discuss these unanswered questions in a critical and dispassionate (or at least I hope to do so) manner. Don’t be mistaken. I would not and do not profess to know or to have found the answers for these unanswered questions but I hope that, with my discussion of them here in this essay, I will be able to serve the role of a “gadfly” and sting you all into thinking more about these questions, to start finding possible answers for them and if possible, actually find the answers for them (if you all do find them, remember to share them with me).

Okay now, let the questioning begin…

One area in which many of these unanswered questions have emerged is the nature of the fund-raising methods employed by the NKF (and which have been imitated, to different extents, by other local charities). Specifically, these methods would include the performing of challenging/risky stunts (usually by local celebrities), the use of monetary incentives to motivate people to donate and the utilisation of “star appeal”. Don’t be mistaken. I am not questioning the effectiveness of these methods. In fact, these methods, if nothing else, proven to be most effective, as it can be seen from the achieving of ever higher donation amounts in past charity shows [It was not without a reason that Mr. Khaw Boon Wan, the Health Minister, despite giving the (old) NKF a “F” in corporate governance, gave an “A” for its success in fund-raising]. However, though I do not question the effectiveness of these fund-raising methods, I do question what this effectiveness of the methods suggests about us Singaporeans and our position regarding charity.

Let me now discuss each of the 3 fund-raising methods in greater detail. Well, I suppose that there’s no better place to start than by looking at the performing of challenging/risky stunts as a method of fund-raising for charity. This method, though it had been an issue of contention for quite some time, is once again in the spotlight following reports of Ms. Jacelyn Tay, a MediaCorp artiste, getting injured during one of the rehearsals for a recent charity performance and of Venerable Shi Ming Yi’s performance of a challenging/risky stunt during the recent Ren Ci Charity Show. There are, in my opinion, 2 reasons why this method of fund-raising is so contentious & lambasted by many. One of which is, of course, the issue of safety and the other being the negative implications on charity that it has.

In a report in The Straits Times Life! on the 10th of January, Venerable Shi Ming Yi was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t call the stunts he performed as dangerous, instead he will call the challenging. In the same article, it was also emphasised how the safety of Venerable Shi Ming Yi was the top consideration throughout the planning process & execution of the stunt. Considerable portions of the article described the various safety measures put in place for the stunt and how the stunt wasn’t actually that dangerous or risky as it seems. However, I am certain that you all are aware that no matter what we choose to call them or how many safety measures are put in place to minimise the risk involved in these “challenging” stunts, in the end, it cannot be denied that there remains an element of risk and danger in all these stunts. In fact, think about it: isn’t the idea behind these stunts for them to be somewhat risky so that we, the audience, would be motivated to pick up our phones to donate? Also, need I remind you all that despite all the effort we put in to prevent them, accidents still can and have occurred? Fortunately, the accidents arising from such stunts (or at least those that we know of from media reports) so far have only resulted in minor injuries and nothing life-threatening. Yet, must a serious accident due to these stunts occur before we actually recognise the danger involved in them and stop such stunts from being performed again? Would it be too late by then? Well, it seems to me that there’s a possibility that as we, the audience, start getting used (and numb) to seeing such stunts being performed, those planning these stunts may consider to increase the stakes by making these stunts even more “challenging”, thereby increasing the likelihood of accidents occurring. Yes, I am aware that safety measures would and have been put in place to ensure the safety of those involved in these stunts but if these stunts are not performed, there would not even be an issue of safety to bother considering about in the first place, right?

In addition, there are those who criticise these stunts as being an insidious form of “emotional blackmail” and that they create an incorrect motivation for Singaporeans to donate. Think about it, what really motivates you all to donate when you all see such stunts being performed? Is it to “compensate” for the risk and danger that the performers of these stunts have to go through? Hmm… Would donating money due to such a motivation really be charity? Or would it be more of a “payment” for a performance? Yes, I know that there are those of you all who will argue that you all do not donate because of these stunts. Well, if you all are donating money because you all identify & empathise with the cause of the charity organisation, good for you all and I applaud you all. However, it can be observed that such a motivation exists for a significant portion of Singaporeans out there, considering that the number of phone calls for the Ren Ci Charity Show increased at a more rapid rate when Venerable Shi Ming Yi was shown on TV performing the “challenging” stunt of his. What does this suggest? Could it be as what Ms. Foong Woei Wan suggested in her column (ST Life, 10th January): “That we will open our hearts to charity only when others subject themselves to possible bodily harm”? Also, though I may be wrong about this but it seems to me that some people link the sincerity of local artistes for charity causes with them performing risky stunts. In other words, if a local artiste performs a risky stunt for a charity fund-raising stunt, he/she is deemed to be sincere about the charity; in fact, the riskier the stunt performed, the greater the sincerity. Why do I have such an impression? Well, with no meaning of disrespect to her, I have noticed that Fann Wong has been somewhat criticised for her noticeable absence from charity fund-raising shows over the years. When she did appear in one such charity fund-raising show (I cannot remember which was it) some years back, she was then criticised for being insincere because, while other artistes performed risky stunts, she just sang a song while using a blowtorch to create a simple design on a metal panel. Well, I do not know about you all but there’s definitely something wrong when people associate charity with the performing of risky stunts.

Moving on, I will now look at the use of monetary incentives to motivate people to donate. Much have been said about this by many and I’m not interested (neither will you all be interested to read) to reiterate all that have been said about using monetary incentives (cash or prizes) to motivate people to donate. Instead, let me go straight to the essence of the criticism against the utilisation of such a method of fund-raising. Well, the main criticism against such a method would be that it is a form of “commercialising” charity and that it goes against the meaning of charity. Charity is supposed to be motivated by altruism, not monetary incentives. If we are to donate to charity because of monetary incentives, we may well just buy lottery from Singapore Pools, since it donates part of its earnings to charity. There wouldn’t be much difference, would there?

Next, I will move on to examine the employing of “star appeal” to appeal for donations. In case you all are not aware, it was reported that Mr. T.T. Durai, ex-CEO of NKF, favoured certain local celebrities over others during the run-up to past NKF charity shows. The reason for his favouritism was supposedly because that the former group of local celebrities was more popular and thus, held greater appeal when appealing for donations on TV. Call me picky but this employment of “star appeal” to appeal for more donations suggests to me a misguided motivation for donations. Think about it: do we really feel more motivated to donate when it is our favourite artiste on stage appealing for donations? Be honest with yourself now. Does it really matter who’s the one on stage appealing for donations: Fann Wong or Patricia Mok? (I am, of course, using the results for the Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes of past Star Awards as a reference) Would we be donating in bad faith when we choose to donate because our favourite artiste is the one appealing on stage for donations?

Yes, I know that there are those who will argue that while these methods are not, ideally speaking, the best methods, they are, realistically speaking, the best methods available. Also, it may be argued that since the purpose of these methods is ultimately to raise funds to help those in need, the ends justify the means. Yes, I am aware that we do not live in an ideal world, that sometimes the intrinsic sense of charity & compassion in us needs an extra push from time to time and that it is not fair to deny those in need of crucial funds because these funds are raised through questionable methods. Yet, I wonder: do the ends really justify the means? Are not the means just as, if not more important than, important as the ends? Would the ends be somehow compromised or tainted if questionable means are employed to achieve them? Yes, I know that the quantity of donations/funds raised may perhaps be of paramount importance but are we forgetting to also think about the quality of these donations/funds?

After looking at the questions related to the fund-raising methods, I will now move on to discuss another issue which, I believe, most did not pay attention to or thought about. Okay, this issue was in the spotlight for a while, especially with Mrs. Goh Chok Tong’s “peanuts” remark which many criticised as being impolitic, but it sort of disappeared from the public’s radar screen as revelations of NKF’s internal workings appeared in the news. In case you all have not figured it out yet, the issue I’m talking about is the issue of whether Mr. T.T. Durai’s salary level was indeed too high or not. Don’t be mistaken, I am not trying to defend or justify the salary level Mr. Durai received. What I am interested in is why we judged his salary level as being too high and whether it was fair for us to reach the judgment that we came to. Let me remind you all that the negative reaction towards Mr. Durai’s salary level occurred before other revelations about possible wrongdoings within the NKF appeared in the news. So, in view of the then absence of evidence to suggest that Mr. Durai’s salary was ill-gotten, why was reaction towards his high salary level so negative & so strong? Is it because Mr. Durai was working in a not-for-profit organisation? Would the reaction have been the same if Mr. Durai was not the CEO of a not-for-profit organisation but perhaps the head of a private law firm or the CEO of a multinational company? Yes, I am aware that there are different standards at work when we look at a not-for-profit organization, compared with a profit-motivated organization. Yet, my question would be: why the different standards? Are we expecting people who work in the social work/charity sector to not have high salaries? If yes, why? Also, is it fair to expect those working in the social work/charity sector to not enjoy high salaries? Are we asking for too much? Must a career in the social work/charity sector be one that does not pay well in monetary terms? Must there really be a conflict between working in a not-for-profit organisation and receiving a high salary? Perhaps we should get those working in not-for-profit organisations to take a vow of poverty? I know that these questions I’m asking are not easy questions but they are, in my opinion, necessary questions to ask.

Asked a lot of questions I have. Provided few definite answers I have also. Yet, my purpose of writing this long-winded essay was not to provide answers but, as I have said earlier on, to sting you all to think more about the questions I have discussed in this essay and to find the answers for them for yourselves. That would be more meaningful than, from my point of view, for me to just provide what I think are the answers. Well, anyway, I always have been somewhat better at asking questions that at answering them. So please do not make me waste my effort with this essay… Start thinking now…

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