Show people the need and they will reach out to help, believes Professor Lam Swee Sum (’77). Prof Lam speaks from experience. As a child, she saw the giving spirit in action in her father, who was deeply involved with community development, and now, she sees it every day in her job as Director of Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP) at NUS Business School.
ACSEP’s aim is to advance the understanding and practice of social entrepreneurship and philanthropy throughout Asia through research and education.
Prof Lam, who is an alumna of the School of Accountancy, Singapore University, a predecessor of the National University of Singapore (NUS), says, “When people come in contact with social needs, the passion to help grips them. No classroom can inspire people the way real-life experience can.”
Prof Lam lived the truth of this through her father, who reached out to people in need through his work at clans, associations, hospitals and community centres. Inspired by his life and also by her Christian faith, in which “giving is part and parcel of worship”, Prof Lam recently set up the Lam See Chiew Memorial Scholarship in Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy, named after her father.
Enabling students and researchers to experience first-hand the varied needs of people in the region is key to the way ACSEP operates. Once a social problem is recognised, social entrepreneurs use business principles to manage the problem and achieve change. Says Prof Lam, “There are many unmet needs and they may remain unmet if individuals do not step up to do something about it. What we at ACSEP do is leverage resources in the host country so that the local people can then pick up the idea and run with it.”
Talking about the role of private philanthropy to advance social well-being, particularly in the field of education, Prof Lam says, “If you look at the history of philanthropy in Singapore, a lot of it was done by churches and Chinese clans. Education is a key responsibility of the government of course as it is a social good, but that does not mean that private individuals don’t do their fair share. In Asian culture, education is a crucial means of social upliftment and mobility.”
What is heartening is her belief that “whenever there’s been a gap or an unmet need, people step up to fill it”. She is similarly positive about today’s youngsters who have sometimes been referred to as ‘Generation Me’. Prof Lam disagrees, saying that the young generation is socially conscious and more aware of issues thanks to the Internet.
What does need to be done however is to increase people’s awareness and understanding of the non-profit and social development sector. Prof Lam says, “Social entrepreneurship and philanthropy is a new field and few people have heard of it. Also, many people think there is no future prospect in this sector in a material sense. That is not true as there is a whole spectrum in terms of salary and compensation packages – which range from World Bank jobs at one end to community work options.”
She adds, “Giving must come from the heart and be instinctive. I gave because it was the right thing to do.”
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