Commentary Bites
Foundations: The Mutants Of Democracy

Lee Poh Wah, CEO of the Lien Foundation discusses the works of the Foundation, specifically in early childhood education.

Foundations: The Mutants of Democracy


The preschool at the void deck of Block 52, Lengkok Bahru looks like any other in Singapore. Pint-sized furniture fills its classrooms, and song and chatter echo off cheerily adorned walls.


Watch closely however, and things start to look a little out of place.


Some children are tucking into pretend meals while one child lifts two fingers to his lips and starts puffing on a pretend cigarette. Another plays with a doll, but in a strange, sexualised way. In art class, a boy draws a wonderful, soaring eagle, because he wants to fly home “when daddy beats mommy”. Some children are formally enrolled, but attend classes only a handful of times a month or are habitually late, arriving hungry. When probed, the teachers reveal with stoicism and a hint of embarrassment, the verbal abuse they sometimes endure from parents.


In a neighbourhood where some of the nation’s priciest condominiums are located, 40 percent of the children in this preschool come from families with monthly household incomes that are less than $1,000. Preschools such as these exist across Singapore, especially where Housing & Development Board (HDB) rental flats are located. Meritocratic Primary 1 has not even begun, and these children are already far behind.


Singapore needs to think differently about poverty, I thought to myself after visiting that preschool in 2012. Poverty is not only about education and jobs —it is a disease; one that is invisible, infectious and often terminal. We have to find a vaccine, and I thought, the philanthropic foundation that I represent must find an answer.


Germ theory Philanthropy

Philanthropic foundations can be good vehicles for tackling such ill-defined problems. After all, foundations’ worldviews were historically shaped by germ theory. Conceived in the United States (US) at the turn of the 20th century, philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller sought to do for society what scientists did for diseases: to go beyond symptoms, isolate the pathogen, and design a remedy.


They had reason for their fanfaronade. Foundations were the centres of plutocratic power that wielded outsized resources. They were opaque, free to intervene for the public good, with little accountability for what that meant exactly. Moreover, like some universities, they possessed the powers of immortality - they were structured legally and financially to last in perpetuity. Foundations were considered ‘mutants’ and at conception, rejected by some as threats to democracy.


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