Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Charities (Amendment) Bill [Bill No. 49/2017]
Sir, this bill is timely to restore the public’s trust in Singapore’s charity sector, after a few high-profile scandals in the past years, which shocked the nation.
I am heartened to see that there is constant review of the Charities Act, with the last one just seven years ago, and that we continually seek to strengthen accountability in the sector.
I have the privilege of starting my own charity 17 years ago when I was a little boy. ACRES has a gone a long way since our birth in 2001 in my bedroom in my parents’ house. I actually never told my parents I used our home address as the first ACRES address but I guess now is a good time to tell them.
I can tell you that it is not easy starting and running a charity in Singapore and in fact, many said I would fail when I first started ACRES.
As a charity fully dependent on donations, I’m aware of the difficulties local charities face in raising funds to sustain their operations. It would be a great pity to see a rare few black sheep wreak distrust in the charity sector, hampering the necessary work of more than 2,000 registered charities in Singapore.
Fundraising success depends on the goodwill of the public, and goodwill is often very fragile, dependent on the level of trust held by the public that the dollar donate makes a positive impact on the lives of beneficiaries.
Trust hangs by a thread and once broken, is terribly difficult to restore. Thus, I am encouraged that constant reviews and amendments of the Charity Act help to prevent errant behaviour and ultimately protect the good work of the vast majority of charities in Singapore.
Definition of ‘fundraising appeal’
However, parts of the Bill may have the contrary effect of hampering the charity sector due to the lack of clarity.
The revised definition of ‘fundraising appeal’ as proposed in Clause 10 may have a dampening effect on funding for the charity sector. Based on the feedback received via REACH, there were questions raised about whether an “appeal” includes unsolicited funds, which are often received by grant-making philanthropic organisations.
There were also questions on what “a confined group of persons” mean. Would this refer to private fund-raising activities? Small-scale private fundraising activities are commonplace in the charity sector, for example a bake sale at company event, or a birthday party. Surely the law will not extend to these cases as well?
I hope that the Ministry be clear on certain types of fundraising appeals which can be exempted from which provisions in the Act.
Furthermore, charities raising funds for foreign purposes need to apply for a permit – and this requirement now extends to private events. Application permits are an administrative hassle, and unless the application process can be simplified, I fear that this may not bode well for charities, which conduct activities abroad, such as humanitarian charities.
As I mentioned in my budget cut last year, “The government is providing funds to help firms scale-up and internationalise and helping build capabilities to operate overseas. We should do the same for our IPCs. We should support our local IPCs who internationalise, who fly the Singapore flag proudly overseas and who lend a helping hand to our neighbours. Let us be seen to not just venture into other countries to compete, to take but also to give and to help.”
Many of these charities and IPCs depend on volunteers and donations from private fundraising activities. There may be a dampening effect on fundraising for these charities – often already faced with additional barriers to fundraising, such as the 80:20 rule. These charities promote the Singapore spirit of generosity in some of the most difficult places, and should receive our fullest support.
Online fundraising and crowd-funding
I also raise the issue of crowd-funding, which has proven to be an effective platform for the needy, but have also suffered a few cases of malpractice. I understand that the Commissioner will be issuing a new code of practice for Crowdfunding – but I would like to ask the reason for not including these changes into the Charity Act and thus making them mandatory?
Support for charities to improve disclosure and transparency
On support for charities: I refer to the recent Charity Transparency Awards, noting that only 41 out of the possibly hundreds or even thousands of charities assessed by the Charity Council made the cut on disclosure and transparency. This suggests that there is room for the majority of charities in Singapore to enhance their performance in the criteria assessed – such as financial management, internal control, fundraising management and conflict of interest. I suspect that this is because most charities are resource-strapped. Just like ACRES, we often rely on volunteers, a very small pool of full-time staff and limited funding, and are often busy fighting day-to-day fires. Has the Ministry looked at ways we can better support charities, especially the smaller ones?
Engaging the public
Finally, I would like to commend MCCY for its efforts to engage the public – which I hope will become common practice. I have read the Ministry’s response to feedback received through REACH and have found it to be very comprehensive. Each comment received a detailed reply. It also showed that feedback received from the public was well-researched and proved to be constructive. I hope more Bills will undergo similar public engagement – something that I firmly believe will help us to draft the best Bills.
Sir, these changes will strengthen accountability and public trust in our charity sector, and can only reap benefits for beneficiaries we are trying to support. I stand in support of the Bill.