By RASHVINJEET S.BEDI email@example.com
Some of Malaysia’s richest individuals have been quietly supporting philanthrophic causes.
HOW much are our super-rich worth? And are they giving back to society?
According to Forbes Asia, which released its 2011 rich list on Thursday, Malaysia’s top 40 richest individuals increased their wealth by 22% over the 2010 list. Their total fortune? A staggering US$62.1bil or RM188,320,000,000!
The number of digits alone is enough to make us ordinary folks sit up and take note. While many Malaysians still dream of making that first million or are still struggling for our bread and butter, our super-rich have zoomed far ahead.
Last week, Berjaya Corporation Bhd founder Tan Sri Vincent Tan pledged to donate at least half his wealth to charity through the “The Giving Pledge” campaign that was initiated by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, his wife Melinda and investor Warren Buffett.
Tan, a self-made entrepreneur who made it to the ninth spot on Malaysia’s rich list with a fortune estimated at US1.25bil (RM3.8bil), may well be the first billionaire outside America to openly make the pledge. (see story on Page 20)
So far, 59 billionaires in the United States have officially signed the pledge, an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving the bulk of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organisations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death.
Generous gesture: The Giving Pledge campaign initiated by Bill and Melinda Gates (above) and Warren Buffet has so far signed up 59 billionaires in the United States. – AP
The world’s youngest billionaire and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is said to be worth US$6.9bil, signed the pledge last year. The 26-year-old entrepreneur believes it is a mistake to wait “when there is so much to be done.”
Others who have made pledges include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Star Wars director George Lucas and CNN media mogul Ted Turner.
While not all our billionaires have openly pledged to give away their fortunes, a number of them have been quietly involved in philanthropic causes, some for decades.
Philanthropy is generally seen as a private matter in the Asian context, says Dr Yeah Kim Leng, chief economist of Rating Agency of Malaysia (RAM).
He believes that in Malaysia, some wealthy individuals have contributed substantially to philanthropic causes but kept a low profile.
A simple Google search shows that most of those on the Forbes list have channelled substantial sums to charity organisations or set up foundations for the poor or needy students.
“They are publicity shy because in Asian culture, contributions must be seen to come from the heart. I think it’s a personal choice we should respect,” says Yeah.
And with all philanthropists, it’s always the case of “giving back” to society. While each country has different needs, Malaysian philanthropists tend to focus on education and related causes of improving oneself. Tan himself set up The Better Foundation Malaysia in 1997.
Vincent Chin, the partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Malaysia says that in America, the tradition of giving back to society goes back to the days of oil magnate John Rockefeller.
“There is great understanding that society has given you a lot and you have the responsibility to give it back,” says Chin who is also BCG’s regional leader of philanthropy work in the Asia-Pacific region.
Datuk Ruby Khong, President of Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK), however believes there is a tendency for many wealthy people to keep their fortunes within their families because of traditional and cultural beliefs.
“Our forefathers left their homeland to earn a living and they believed that every single cent is important. Tan’s gesture sets a precedent which hopefully, others will follow. People need someone they can relate to and emulate,” she points out.
Khong also hopes that people will look at Tan’s pledge in a positive light instead of questioning his motive.
Whatever the case, there is definitely a need for funds, says Josie Fernandez, director of Philanthropy Asia.
She points out that there are many overcrowded orphanages and homes which have to rely on the services of volunteers instead of full-time staff.
“The need for philanthropy will be greater in future with escalating prices,” she notes.
In other parts of the world, philanthropic activities centre on the greatest needs of that society as well as the passion of the giver, says Chin.
For instance in poorer countries, philanthropic contributions are often directed towards providing shelter, food and clothing whereas in richer economies, causes like the welfare of animals, the arts and culture gain attention. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how the money is utilised as long as it is channelled to the needy.
Chinese businessman Chen Guangbiao, 42, for instance has pledged to donate his entire fortune to charity when he passes on and leave nothing for his descendants. Worth RM2.35bil, the father of two has donated RM635mil so far.
For Chen, wealth is like water.
“If you have a glass of water, you drink it yourself. If you have a bucket of water, you keep it in your house, but when you have a river, you have to learn to share it,” he said in an interview with StarBiz last year.
Passing down fortunes from generation to generation can do irreparable harm. In addition, there is no way to spend a fortune. How many residences, automobiles, airplanes and other luxury items can one acquire and use?
– Herb and Marion Sandler, former Co-CEOs of Golden West Financial Corporation and World Savings Bank
“People wait until late in their career to give back. But why wait when there is so much to be done?”
– Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Ridiculous yachts and private planes and big limousines won’t make people enjoy life more, and it sends out terrible messages to the people who work for them. It would be so much better if that money was spent in Africa – and it’s about getting a balance.
– British entreprenuer Richard Branson
Is the rich world aware of how four billion of the six billion live? If we were aware, we would want to help out, we’d want to get involved.
– Microsoft founder Bill Gates
“If you’re in the luckiest 1% of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99%.”
– American industrialist Warren Buffet
My father used to say, ‘You can spend a lot of time making money. The tough time comes when you have to give it away properly.’ How to give something back, that’s the tough part in life.
– Lee Iacocca, former president and CEO of Chrysler Corporation
Giving back quietly
Many of those who made the rich list have been quietly supporting philanthrophic causes. Among them are:>Tan Sri Robert Kuok Hock Nien, 87, has again made it to the top of Malaysia’s rich list, with a fortune estimated at US$12.5bil (RM38bil). He has held pole position since 2006 when Forbes Asia began ranking the 40 richest Malaysians. Unknown to many, the Kuok Foundation was set up in 1970 and has disbursed RM157mil in study loans, grants and scholarships from 1970 to 2009. As at end of 2009, more than 7,500 awardees have completed their studies.
>Telecommunications magnate Tan Sri Ananda Krishnan, 72, ranked number two on the list, is another publicity-shy billionaire. According to Forbes, he helped the 1985 Live Aid rock concert project that raised US$240mil around the world for African famine relief. Ananda, who is worth US$9.5bil (RM28.83bil), has donated millions to education, the arts, sports and humanitarian causes in Malaysia through his privately-owned holding company, Usaha Tegas, and its three main listed subsidiaries: Maxis; satellite TV company Astro and Tanjong. In 2003, Usaha Tegas pledged RM160mil to various education funds in the country.
>At number three spot is Puan Sri Lee Kim Hua, 81, the widow of casino magnate Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong whose family’s net worth is estimated at US$6.6bil (RM20.03bil). In 1978, Lim set up Yayasan Lim, a family foundation that donates regularly to educational and medical institutions, old folk’s homes, various organisations for the physically handicapped and other charitable causes. In 2009, the Group contributed to Women’s Aid Organisation, Malaysian Paediatric Foundation, Hospis Malaysia, Alzheimer Disease Foundation, Malaysian Liver Foundation, Tunku Azizah Fertility Foundation, Gujerati Association Federal Territory and Selangor, Divine Life Society and others.
> Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar AlBukhary, 59, who ranks No. 8 on the rich list and has an estimated worth of US$2.5bil (RM7.6bil), set up the AlBukhary Foundation which funds the AlBukhary International University AIU) in Kedah.The Foundation also does extensive work beyond Malaysian borders as well – it has done work in Afghanistan, Australia, Bosnia, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal and Pakistan among others.
A pledge from the heart
By RASHVINJEET S. BEDI firstname.lastname@example.org
Saying it’s no publicity stunt, Tan Sri Vincent Tan explains why he made the pledge to give away half his fortune.
TO all the doubting Thomases out there who think his pledge to donate half his fortune is just a publicity stunt, tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun, 59, has one request – to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“People shouldn’t pre-judge me but look at my actions over the next couple of years,” he tells Sunday Star.
Tycoon on a mission: Tan sharing a light moment with children from the Nurul Iman Welfare Society For the Children of People Living with HIV/AIDS, Malaysia. He hopes to help as many organisations as he can.
“If more wealthy people give half their wealth away, the world will be a much better place. I do not want to put pressure on anyone but just motivate more to contribute (to society),” he says, while acknowledging that a number of fellow billionaires are already donating to charity and education foundations quietly.
Tan adds that he will leave enough for his children so they are “comfortable”, but not to the extent that they don’t have to work. His 11 children, he stresses, have been supportive of his decision.
“They say it’s my money and I can make the decisions. They know I didn’t inherit it and that I started with nothing,” says the Berjaya Corporation chairman, adding that his inspiration to pledge half his wealth came from the Giving Pledge, an initiative by US philanthropists Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet.
Tan adds modestly that even if he is worth RM1bil, half of it would mean RM500mil.
“That’s still a lot of money,” he points out.
Forbes Asia’s list of Malaysia’s top 40 richest individuals released on Thursday placed Tan on the ninth spot with a fortune of US$1.25bil (RM3.8bil). His Berjaya Group has diverse interests in food and beverage, financial services, telecommunications, property, resorts and gaming. Many are familiar names like Digi, Sports Toto, McDonald’s, Starbucks and 7-Eleven.
While all causes are deserving, Tan says he admires Mercy Malaysia, the Tzu Chi Society Buddhist organisation and World Vision for their work.
“These are organisations that I would like to work with,” he says, adding that contact had been established with them.
But, he says, he is not closing doors on other causes because he wants to be as diversified in his philanthropic work as he is in his business endeavours.
“We want to touch more lives,” says Tan whose Better Malaysia Foundation already supports a number of charities.
Tan, who has pledged RM20mil to charity this year, explains that he would not be able to give everything immediately but will do so gradually as he needs to divest some businesses and personal investments to bring in the cash for charity.
“With divine blessings, I can live to 80. That’s another 21 years. If I can give an average of RM50mil a year, that would be RM1bil,” he says.
So will it be difficult to part with all that cash?
“It doesn’t really affect my lifestyle, so it’s not difficult. We are only custodians of wealth. The public supports our businesses, so it is only right to give some of it back to society.”
For those who aspire to join the Billionaires’ Club, Tan says hard work is essential to achieve success. But he believes luck plays a major role too. In his case, he was lucky to get the franchise for McDonald’s in 1982, he adds, revealing that he wrote hundreds of letters over a seven-year period before McDonald’s responded to him. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I was persistent. You have to be hardworking but many hardworking people never had luck,” he grins.
Tan, who only studied until Form Five, also believes it is important to have a good command of English.
“It is important to understand and be able to speak English because it is the language of progress. If I didn’t have a good command of English, do you think McDonald’s would have chosen me as their partner?”
One of his dream projects is to set up free or subsidised tuition classes for English throughout the country to help the young generation improve their grasp of the language.
Asked if he would consider pledging 99% of his wealth just like Buffet and Gates, Tan replies that the percentage pledged depends on one’s wealth. He points out that Gates and Buffett have tremendous wealth that will last generations even after giving them away.
“I think 50% is a good start. If I were much more wealthy, perhaps I would give more,” he quips.