Opinion: Singapore's Non-Profit Sector: What Should its Role Be?

Civil society needs to step up and do much more to help meet the increasingly complex needs of the Singaporean community.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011

In the four-and-a-half decades since Independence, Singapore's progress — including its social development as measured by key social indicators — has been nothing short of dramatic. The State has been the dominant authority in bringing this about. While civil society and the non-profit sector1 have also contributed to this progress, they have mostly played a supporting role in state-directed programmes.


Civil society in Singapore can and should learn to do more in Singapore. In particular, non-profit organisations (NPOs) need to play a complementary role in society, and be innovative in their own right. They need to develop a sense of at-stake-ness, that is, the responsibility and purpose that will drive them to take risks, experiment and innovate to tackle the most pressing issues in our society. They have unique opportunities today to work in partnership with the public and private to create new societal value, and to help create an environment where Singaporeans feel empowered to start new ground-up endeavours.

I would argue for this, for three reasons. First, civil society is able to do things that the Government cannot do. Second, the non-profit sector is able to do some things better. Third, the State should not do everything.


It may not be self-evident in a State where the government is so dominant that there are indeed areas of social and community interventions that the government simply cannot take on. It cannot provide everything to everybody, and these limitations can be wide-ranging.

First, civil society can cater to diverse, holistic needs. The Government, instead, can focus on meeting the material and physical needs of its citizens. It is indeed in the best position to conduct large-scale wealth redistribution, because of its ability to tax. It also has a critical role in regulating services and ensuring minimum standards. But the human person is more than a material being. NPOs can provide for social, spiritual and emotional needs better. An example are halfway houses (a majority of which are religion-based) which treat recovering drug addicts in Singapore. The use of religion for rehabilitation in these institutions — which would be prohibited in State-run establishments — is widely recognised as an effective resource in treating addictions.

Second, civil society organisations (CSOs) can serve needs that go beyond national policy and prevailing government priorities. No matter how pragmatic a government is, certain groups of citizens will be under-served by current programmes and remain genuinely in need of help. For instance, when the Government promotes the intact family, policies may discriminate against single and divorced parents, and their children. Yet these parents and children often require help to break out of their poverty trap. This is again an area where NPOs can and do step in.

Third, NPOs are better placed to provide niche, customised solutions to heterogeneous needs. Government programmes are like big stones filling a container, while NPO programmes, with their closeness to the ground and residents, are like small stones filling the remaining gaps. The gaps left by the Government are necessary, as government subsidy and income redistribution schemes can neither be too individualised to meet precisely the unique needs of each recipient, nor too broadly generous in its payout so as to cater to the worst cases. Otherwise, programmes, particularly those involving financial assistance, would be too administratively costly, inefficient and unsustainable to operate.

Let us say, hypothetically, we have 100 potential recipients of aid, ranked 1 to 100 in priority of need, with 1 being the least needy and 100, the most needy; then let us say we can only design one scheme for them. The scheme would not be designed to meet the needs of the 100th person. Moreover, government schemes tend to provide subsidies to individuals based on criteria related to income (e.g. per capital income) or implied wealth (e.g. type of dwelling); they are not typically based on actual needs. Yet we know there are many who are not in the bottom quintile in income, but are needy and fall through the cracks: such as those who may have incurred unavoidably high household expenses, taking care of a sickly parent or a disabled child, for example. This is where the NPOs on the ground can fill in the gaps and cater to the difficult exceptions.


Even if the non-profit sector is arguably significantly less mature than the public sector in Singapore, it still has the potential to do some things better than the State.

NPOs can be a rich source of innovation and experimentation, as they can take risks that the Government cannot take. The State is sometimes not in the best position to develop new policies and services, or to drive innovation. In social policy, it is difficult for the Government to experiment because government programmes, once adopted, tend to have to be deployed nationally. Citizens would not take kindly to beneficiaries being a narrow pilot group. Moreover, once implemented, there can be heavy political costs in withdrawing a programme even if it proves ineffective. Hence, governments would typically be conservative in implementing new interventions. There may be a tendency in policymaking to value stability over radical innovation. On the other hand, the non-profit sector can attract the contributions of people, including private sector entrepreneurs and philanthropists, who can deploy their entrepreneurial know-how, long term focus, initiative and instinct for risk-taking. Being in touch with the ground, NPOs may also be better able to identify opportunities for innovative intervention. The public sector should hence welcome and even encourage the proliferation of new ideas from the non-profit sector: competition can lead to better approaches and models for Singapore.

NPOs can cater to the difficult exceptions.

Finally, there is power in CSOs that governments do not have. CSOs have more moral authority in dealing with one another and with beneficiaries than government agencies may have. In government programmes, entitlement sets in more quickly. For example, philanthropic organisations can have a higher degree of convening power in bringing NPOs together to work collaboratively towards a common cause, as they are seen as more neutral and having less of a specific agenda than government agencies. If the government gives a dollar, there is little appreciation from the recipients, as they would consider it their right to receive that benefit, as citizens and taxpayers; if a neighbour helps out and gives a dollar, there is deep gratitude, and even shame, as it is voluntarily donated out of goodwill and compassion. Similarly, a volunteer might succeed with a difficult patient where a professional nurse might not, through diversionary therapy efforts. Appreciated as a compassionate person rather than someone who is only doing their job, the volunteer may be better able to offer reassurance and comfort, or convince the patient to comply with their medication or therapeutic regimens. The prescription may be the same, but the results achieved can be starkly different.

NPOs can take risks that the Government cannot take.


Even if State agencies can be more efficient than CSOs, it should not provide everything for everyone.The Government should refrain from undertaking activities that the community, the family and the individuals can take on. Instead, the State should only step in when the initiatives clearly exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Other than these critical interventions, the government can play the important primary role of helping, supporting, developing and empowering civil society efforts to fulfil these needs in the community.

This approach recognises the autonomy and dignity of each human individual, and that the work of the State should always be at the service of human individuals, who are by nature social beings. We need to emphasise the importance of smaller communities or institutions, such as the family, religious organisations and voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. Each of these social groups has something unique to offer to the community.

It is only when individuals are able to exercise self-determination and contribute meaningfully to the communities they live in, that they feel they are fully human, and fully citizens of this country. This is when a place to stay becomes a home.


In Singapore, the Government plays a strong role in supporting NPOs by substantially funding many community-based services. But government policy is not to fund NPOs fully so that they have to raise funds from the public. This is known as the "many helping hands" approach, where the Government's philosophy is that it is only through community participation that community bonds are strengthened.

The reality in Singapore is that NPOs have in most cases become subcontractors, delivering social services on behalf of the Government. The brains and heart of social intervention remain with the State, while NPOs often simply follow the piper's tune. NPOs trying to effect change through competing models of intervention are often viewed as threats. Hence, many NPOs lose their own sense of aspiration, and contribute insufficiently to support necessary social change. Some NPOs, for example, would typically not take on new programmes — no matter how socially beneficial — if they do not get the green light and funding from a government agency to do so. To illustrate, family service centres (FSCs) are run as part of a national system running mostly core, homogeneous, funded programmes.

We are severely under-delivering on the promise of civil society. Civil society will only truly thrive when it serves a complementary function, not when NPOs are vendors and substitutes for government funding and provisioning. We urgently need to encourage more civic-minded individuals to express their values, interests and visions of the public good, and inject energies and creativity into how society solves its problems.


So what can we do to build up the non-profit sector?

First, we need to expand the organisational capacity of NPOs. In this area, nurturing leadership and talent are key. Effective, committed and passionate leadership — both at the board and management levels — can transform the sector and their organisations. Talented young people need to see the non-profit sector as a viable career. NPOs also need to make the conditions conducive to attract talent. For example, while individuals entering the sector expect to take a significant discount against private sector salaries, this "passion" discount cannot be so large as to grossly disadvantage the individual and his family.

There is also a need for NPOs to move upstream to tackle root causes rather than the symptoms of social problems; to pursue justice, not just charity; to be impact-driven, and not output-driven; be willing to take risks and adopt new business models, rather than look to the Government for solutions. NPOs should strengthen their organisations by being clear on their strategies, institutionalising processes, seeking strategic relationships, mobilising community resources and improving their productivity through technology.

The Government, on the other hand, needs to focus more on enabling and empowering the sector. Enabling means building capability, particularly in developing leadership and soft infrastructure, such as technology development and process improvements. Empowering means a real ceding of power, decision-making and ownership of projects, with a tolerance for a degree of messiness and inefficiency.

NPOs should be equal partners and co-creators at the table. Hence, for example, information and knowledge from the government's vast database of administrative and survey data need to be made more readily available to NPOs. Apart from letting NPOs do their own strategic planning and research, and to interpret their own sense of reality, it is a concrete demonstration of co-ownership. Additionally, instead of leaving many small gaps across the funding spectrum, the Government should plug the gaps in their retained areas of priority and fund those areas more generously.


The civil society is certainly a growth sector in Singapore. As Singapore matures, civil society too must mature. For this to happen, the Government should, rather than being omnipresent, be prepared to cede control in some areas — particularly where new thinking is required — while allowing the sector to experiment and flourish. Civil society must, naturally, step up to the plate.


Laurence Lien is the Chairman of Lien Foundation, the CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre and the Acting CEO of the Community Foundation of Singapore. He is also the President of the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership, the Deputy Chairman of the Caritas Singapore Community Council, and a board member of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University. Before his full-time involvement with the non-profit sector, he served in the Singapore Administrative Service for 14 years.


  1. The terms "civil society" and "non-profit sector" are used interchangeably in this article. Generally, "civil society" refers to voluntary civic and social associations, organisations and institutions, and are strictly non-governmental and non-commercial entities. "Non-profit sector" refers to all civic and social organisations and institutions, some of which are not strictly non-governmental (e.g. our universities). I have deliberately used both "civil society" and "civil society organisations", because in Singapore's context, the former term is uncommonly used and connotes something more political and adversarial, which need not be the case.

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