Much has been written about Mr Pritam Singh’s decision to publicly state that he is donating half his increase in pay as Leader of the Opposition towards funding programmes for residents, his party’s specific needs, and charitable causes.

Forum letter writers and netizens alike have waded into the debate, with many, including Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock, lauding Mr Singh’s decision.

However, there were some brickbats thrown, with commentators speculating about his motivation for making his giving public.

Political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong said he was “baffled at the hue and cry” about Mr Singh’s announcement.

He noted that some People’s Action Party Members of Parliament (MPs) and ministers donated part of their pay before, dating back to 1985 when Mr Wong Kan Seng said he would donate half his salary and MP allowance.

Mr Wong, then a Minister of State, had said this in response to a call by opposition MP J B Jeyaretnam to cut ministerial salaries amid a recession then.

The key to understanding this latest brouhaha is not to denigrate Mr Singh’s decision as “political theatre” as some have called it. Neither is it to glorify his action beyond the altruistic act that it is.

It is not for us to question Mr Singh’s motives. His reasons, explicitly stated or otherwise, are his own.

Mr Singh knows why he did it, and for our part, we should take his word for what it is.

I know many who regularly donate part of what they earn to causes that they believe in. Giving to support people who need the assistance is always a laudable thing.

But we also need to acknowledge that Mr Singh is but one of a string of MPs who have before him, in varying degrees, in different forms and at different times and at different levels of exposure and publicity, given back to society in general and their constituents in particular.

We should be celebrating MPs who believe enough in Singaporeans to want to share and give back. We shouldn’t be arguing over motives or perceived political naiveté and instead acknowledge kindness when we see it.

The case for and against anonymous giving

Mr Singh’s announcement brought to mind an interesting discussion I had the other day with the editorial team at The Pride.

I asked them these questions:

    • Should we tell people about charitable acts that other people do?
    • Should we tell people about the charitable acts that we do?
    • What is the difference?

In a 1994 study titled “The sound of one hand clapping: The case for and against anonymous giving”, American sociologist Paul Schervish interviewed 130 millionaires on why they donated to charity.

He found that those who gave anonymously did so for either pragmatic or ethical reasons. Pragmatically, they wanted to see how recipient organisations would act with the funds without their input, or did not want the treatment associated with being a big donor.

Ethically, they did so to avoid succumbing to the siren song of public philanthropy, such as not being seen writing out a big cheque just to get their name on a plaque or reported in the media.

Other ethical reasons given included wanting to counter any personal feelings of superiority that may arise from the donation (keeping themselves humble), and decreasing the public status differential between donor and recipient (putting others at ease around them).

In other words, anonymous giving tends to elevate the gift, and not the giver.

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However, Schervish also noted that there are good reasons for making donations public.

One key reason is for public accountability (“people should know where I stand”).

But the main reason given by his interviewees in support for public donations is that they wanted to set an example for others. In other words, they want their generosity to inspire others to give.

Schervish also emphasised that in his interviews with the 130 millionaires, “those who eschew anonymity ground their arguments in moral discourse no less than those who embrace it”.

As you can tell, there are compelling arguments both for and against the case for anonymous giving. Ultimately, I believe that it comes down to a personal preference.

It is the same reason we have when we do something kind for someone else. The size of the giving doesn’t matter, the act does. It is often about inspiring others to give.

In our neighbourhoods, there are scores of unsung heroes and organisations who make it their mission to help others. They do it out of kindness and charity and not for recognition.

Yet for an act of kindness to become a movement, people must be inspired. And that is why we tell their stories on The Pride: To encourage those who are doing good, and inspire others to join in.

Back to Mr Singh’s case: It is less important whether or not he is donating half his paycheck or half his increase or whether it is before tax or after.

It is more important that he is making a donation. When it comes to acts of inspiration, symbolism, not just practicality, matters as well.

In my discussion with my team, I asked them a final question: “Does it make a difference to the beneficiary the circumstances surrounding how he received the aid?”

In my years of working with non-profit organisations, helping the needy and talking to recipients of other people’s charity, I have never come across a beneficiary who questioned how he received his help.

They have never taken umbrage at the love and kindness that they have been shown, nor have they been suspicious of the source of the largess.

Their normal response is of gratitude and more often than not, they end up paying that kindness forward.

That is what we should be celebrating: Kindness that leads to reciprocity, not necessarily back to the donor, but onwards to our fellow Singaporeans.

As the late great American president John F Kennedy once said: “What unites us is greater than what divides us.”

The focus of charity, no matter the source or the motivation, should be on its beneficiaries. Whatever we do, publicly or otherwise, so long as it is to lift up those in need, it is worthy of positive affirmation.

In my view, there is no need to attribute anything negative to something so positive.

This article was first published on Today.

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