How business can serve society

Stanley Tan - A case study in how business can serve society

The entrepreneur and investor turned a tough childhood into a highly successful business career. But he always held on to the principles of fairness and community spirit that were instilled in him at an early age.

Picture a philanthropist in your mind and most people tend to imagine a successful entrepreneur who has passed 50 and who is now hoping to give back after a lifetime of accumulating wealth. Stanley Tan is a radical departure from that norm. Since the age of 35, he has placed an equal emphasis on his business interests and on volunteering, dedicating roughly half of his time to charitable work and philanthropy. For him, this was always a decision based on values. “I can say I’ll retire at 35 and focus on volunteering, because there is enough,” he says. “The problem for a lot of us is that we don’t know what enough is.”

The businessman traces these principles all the way back to his childhood. He grew up in a kampung, a village, in Singapore in the 1960s, and his upbringing was in many ways a tough one. “You ate meat once a year, you had one meal a day,” he recalls. “Life wasn’t easy.” Yet what there was in abundance was a deep sense of community. During the race riots of 1964, for instance, his family’s neighbours, ethnic Malays, warned the young Stanley, an ethnically Chinese boy, to stay at home to avoid the violence on the streets outside. “There was a lot of common space and no judgement,” he says. “You would look out for one another.”

At the same time, Singapore as a country was right at the start of its journey to becoming one of the strongest economies in the world. “We were blessed with a government that was driving the country towards economic development, and all of us were carried by it,” says Stanley. Growing up, he always felt that he was being given a fair shot. “It was a very inclusive system,” he says. “It wasn’t designed so that those who have, have more, and those who don’t have just continue to have less. If you were willing to try, you’d be given a chance.”

He certainly tried and he certainly took that chance. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Stanley worked to earn money for him and his family (“I was born in that era when child labour wasn’t an issue,” he notes drily). He even worked once as a newspaper seller on the streets of Singapore – which is apt, given that he ended up founding what became a multinational print-media company. So, he already had many years of hard graft under his belt when he set up his first business at the tender age of 20.

We were blessed with a government that was driving the country towards economic development.

Today, he is the founder and CEO of the Singapore-based Sedar Properties, which has developed land across New Zealand, and a director of the Angliss Property Group, which deals in property investment across New Zealand and Australia. He has launched and run a range of different multinational businesses across real estate, media and printing. And yet Stanley still describes himself as “a circumstantial rather than a deliberate entrepreneur”. His deepest desire as a young man was, in fact, to become a missionary, but he was told that this would be impossible due to his limited education. His church leader at the time explained to him that his “usefulness would be in earning money to give to the missionaries,” he reflects. “So, I went back and continued the business”. Even from the start, then, Stanley’s reasons for becoming an entrepreneur were more altruistic than most.

He eventually became aware, however, that his companies were beginning to dominate his life – or, as he puts it, “I realised that the business owned me.” He decided to make a change. “I needed to find something that wouldn’t own me but would still work for me, if I wanted to serve in the non-profit sector,” he explains. It didn’t take him long to pick the world of real estate, because “if you actually ignore it, it works better for you – it works by itself.” This is perhaps a slightly wilful simplification of how property investment works, but the underlying point is that he was making the shift from an industry that requires a lot of people and time (the media world) to a “time-light and people-light activity” (real estate).

In his newfound time, Stanley dedicated himself to volunteering and charity work. The list of roles and positions he holds within the charity sector is a long one, but to name a few, he is the co-founder and former chairman of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, a membership platform for philanthropists across Asia to enhance the impact of their giving; the chairman of the Asia Community Foundation, a charity that facilitates cross-border giving across the continent, connecting donors and non-profits in order to promote purposeful giving; and was the co-founder and Vice-President of the MiLK (“Mainly I Love Kids”) Fund, a charity that addresses the needs of children holistically and seeks to plug the gaps in Singapore’s social-services sector. “Business is meant to serve the community,” he says. “So, my main focus is how to use business to serve the community as much as possible.”

Yet, while he spends a great deal of his time, energy and money supporting Singapore’s communities, Stanley finds himself lamenting the current state of society in the city state. “The community spirit here is not as strong as it was in the early days,” he says. “It’s a big loss for Singapore.” For him, most citizens nowadays “have a narrow definition of success and it’s defined mostly in economic metrics.” Few people are asking whether this is actually the right way of measuring success.

The community spirit here is not as strong as it was in the early days.

“Maybe you have a bigger bank account, but what does that mean?” he asks. As he sees it, we all need to be far more holistic in our assessment of a society’s well-being and far less “materialistic”; we need to look at contentment and happiness, not simply wealth, which in his eyes can quickly lead to harmful overconsumption.

He is not against the accumulation of wealth. Instead, he wants to see it used for the greater good. “We need to make sure there is no permanent poor group, that because you're born into a certain family, you're destined to live in poverty forever,” he says. “Singapore has the ability to prevent that from happening.” He is keen to stress that there is a big difference between empowerment and dependency, arguing not for unconditional state assistance but instead for a system that helps those who are willing to help themselves. He also feels that those who focus on limiting wealth are concentrating on the wrong aspect of the problem: “I feel that the disparity of income is a lesser issue than ensuring everybody can lead a dignified life.”

Alongside his charitable and philanthropic activities, Stanley is also a director of Rumah Group, his family office, although this is run day-to-day by Kathlyn, one of his two daughters, and her husband, Thomas Riber Knudsen. The family office is largely focused on impact investments in the climate space aimed at promoting a cleaner ocean, tackling overfishing and restoring coastlines. It has also invested in alternative meat products. “We all need to look through a climate lens in whatever we do,” says Stanley. “Otherwise nothing else we do will count.”

It would appear, then, that Stanley’s values, which were imprinted on him during his upbringing in a kampung in the 1960s, have been passed on down to the next generation. “You’re talking to a proud father,” he says, “so my comment may be biassed, but I believe my children have both found their own way of giving.” If there is one lesson he hopes they have learnt from their father over the years, he says, it is this: “There’s nothing wrong with accumulating wealth, but accumulating wealth without using it is quite pointless.”

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