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The Peak Interview: Hsieh Fu Hua

Hsieh Fu Hua wants to change the face of social service in Singapore – and business leaders are part of his vision.

At one point during our interview with the intensely private chairman (non-executive) of United Overseas Bank (UOB), he suggested that we photograph him with the bust of his late father, Chia Yew Keng. You may have heard of the man: Chia was in the news in 1972 for being the first person in Singapore to volunteer his body to medical research. It didn’t happen in the end, for Chia died of cancer, making his body unsuitable, but his presence looms large in the thoughts and actions of his son and, in fact, shapes the man he is today.

On his resume, Hsieh Fu Hua boasts a staggering list of engagements. In addition to his role at UOB, the 63-year-old is director on the boards of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Far Eastern Bank, National Arts Council and the National Art Gallery. But he is equally renowned for his work in the charity field as president of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) board, the umbrella body for some 400 voluntary welfare organisations.

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Indeed, one-third of his time is dedicated to volunteering. Since his appointment last August, he has travelled to South Sulawesi and Borneo with the World Wildlife Fund to get in touch with local communities that are in danger of having their culture wiped out by globalisation, be it through visitors disrupting their way of life or the contamination of their natural environment.

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During his seven-year stint as chief executive of Singapore Exchange (SGX), he also spearheaded a charity run known today as The Bull Charge, a social initiative in the financial industry to raise funds for the needy. In 2008, he even started his own charity, Binjai Tree. And it all boils down to his upbringing, for Hsieh is very much his father’s son.

A PROFOUND INFLUENCE
Hsieh grew up in a modest three-room Singapore Improvement Trust apartment, where he witnessed daily how his father, who worked as a British Council clerk until the day he retired, gave generously of his time and money to those in need. This was done, sometimes at the expense of the family’s welfare, according to his mother, but Hsieh did not share her sentiments even as a boy. He instead ran around happily, bare-bodied, with the children from the Perak Boys Home that his father mentored and invited to his home every week.

In the same manner, he engaged with his art-appreciating father’s mix of colourful guests – scholars, artists, architects, hawkers, gangsters, cross-dressers; people from all walks of life – nobody was a lesser or bigger person than another. Possessions were fluid. Paintings hanging on the walls of the family home were given away, if somebody liked them enough.

“To have seen my father give so much of himself made me realise that one can do so much more,” reflects Hsieh. Thus, when he was in university, he launched an “Uncles and Aunties” mentor scheme for his peers to guide underprivileged children. He also started a campaign to encourage the public to donate their body to medical research.

Striving to emulate his father not only fostered a keenness for social work in Hsieh, but also taught an introverted boy to suppress his shyness to achieve a goal and to respect money as a means to an end.

Having grown up happy in lean circumstances, he became aware of the income disparity in secondary school. “I was stunned when I visited the houses of my schoolmates at Anglo-Chinese School. Some even had swimming pools, which was uncommon in the early ’60s.

“There wasn’t a sense of inferiority, but you start to realise what having money can do. We always had fund- raising campaigns where classes are pitted against one another to see which can get a larger sum. I stood in a world where I needed money to make a contribution, and I didn’t have it, unlike the wealthy students whose family would donate large amounts. So, I would walk up and down the Cairnhill apartment blocks to canvass for funds.”

If he was uncomfortable asking for money, he soon learnt to adapt.

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CHANGING PERCEPTIONS
Today, Hsieh has far greater means to operate in the philanthropic space. His spacious office on the sixth floor of UOB Plaza next to Boat Quay has an attached meeting room and sits behind a private reception area akin to a hall. It’s a space befitting a man with over 35 years of experience in the financial sector, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree with honours in Business Administration from the then University of Singapore in 1974.

With the skills and knowledge he has gained from numerous positions and ventures, including the co-founding of a corporate and investment advisory firm Prime Partners Group in 1993, he is striving to change the perception of the social-service industry.

“(Seeing the social-service industry as a new economy) is not an original idea, but I am giving a name to the idea that is gaining popularity,” says Hsieh. He sees young people expressing their entrepreneurship through social enterprises and new opportunities for engagement at many levels. And he sees industry leaders playing a big part.

“One shouldn’t look at social services as charity work done with a poverty mindset. There are many different ways to look at things.”

He gives a scenario: “A spiritual guru in Bangladesh will think of how to alleviate the suffering from poverty with very little means but, if you put Lee Kuan Yew in the same position, he will be thinking of eradicating slums and building public housing and shaping up the economy.

“The problems of our society are not just those of feeding hungry mouths but of solving human problems. It’s no different from solving a business problem, except that there, one has profit goals. You don’t have to be a Mother Teresa to help.”

So, instead of giving care, say, to children with cerebral palsy, he leverages on his corporate skills and plays the part of a solution provider, lending his leadership to grow the social-service sector, and working to mobilise capabilities from private to the public sector.

“Community work can start from just whatever you can do with your two bare hands. Today, my craft is in my ability to organise things and mobilise resources, and in my creativity in coming up with solutions and executing ideas, drawing on my skills and experience, largely as a businessman. This is what I bring to the social-service industry.”

Hsieh leading The Bull Charge at its launch in 2004. The charity run this year surpassed its target of $3 million.
Hsieh leading The Bull Charge at its launch in 2004. The charity run this year surpassed its target of $3 million.

HARNESSING THE BULL
Take, for example, The Bull Charge, which he started in 2004.

“I felt compelled to bring into the money business something that is beyond profit. I decided that there has to be some giving, and just giving the firm’s money alone is not enough,” shares Hsieh.

He was not alone in his mission, because nobody says no to a good cause, or to the boss, for that matter. Ideas were pooled and a concept that involved people and gave them a sense of ownership took shape.

Today, in its 10th year, The Bull Charge has proven its longevity as a social initiative, and continues to leverage on SGX’s unique position in the financial industry to rally its members to raise funds for beneficiaries such as Asian Women’s Welfare Association and the Autism Association. In nine years, it has collected more than $18 million for 50 different charities. The 10th edition, completed just last month, surpassed its ambitious goal of $3 million. Binjai Tree and UOB, two of the top sponsors, donated $100,000 each.

“Sometimes, when companies do (community services), it’s a flash in the pan – they do it only for expressing a sentiment of the moment. The charity organisations do appreciate even such one-day encounters, and they certainly welcome help during the festive season. At the same time, it’s come-and-go too quickly for these groups.”

Thus, creating programmes that can foster sustainable corporate engagement – and in turn encourage corporations to make a bigger impact through long-term commitments – is a major task for NCSS under Hsieh’s leadership.

It’s not good enough to volunteer when you feel like it, you also need discipline. When help is just freely given on impulse alone, without sufficient effort and dedication, its usefulness is limited.
Hsieh Fu Hua, president of the National Council of Social Service Board

LEADING BY EXAMPLE
The Bull Charge is just one example of Hsieh’s belief in maximising an individual’s impact through collectivised influence.

In 2008, amid a financial crisis, Hsieh put his commitment to the test by setting up Binjai Tree, a registered charity organisation that allows him and like-minded individuals and organisations to give back to the community in a structured, disciplined manner.

“It’s not good enough to volunteer when you feel like it, you also need discipline. When help is just freely given on impulse alone, without sufficient effort and dedication, its usefulness is limited.”

The charity specialises in supporting causes that are in need of help but have been largely overlooked by society – issues such as mental health, for one.

But Hsieh is well aware that there are many more needs within different communities, and he makes it a point to always give something to any cause he can help, be it financial aid, advice, or even just contacts to put them on the right track.

“We give not just to the causes we support. The philosophy of general giving asks us to define the precept of ‘nearness’ or relevance, to think more openly and see beyond our own community. We sometimes don’t see things right under our nose, simply because they are not issues that are blood-bound,” says Hsieh.

His rationale is that his support goes beyond the money he gives, but also in terms of the encouragement he is giving through his actions.

Having been harshly told off by a minister when he was a university student canvassing funds for victims of the 1970 Bangladesh floods, he knows the importance of encouragement. The minister questioned his actions and aired his doubts about where the money was going.

“The substance of what the minister said would later turn out to have weight,” says Hsieh. “However, it is insensitive to rebuff an appeal outright, and turn down a young person – even if he was misguided – who was trying to venture forth and do things. The man was using only his mind and not his heart. You need both.”

BUILDING ADMIRATION FROM GROUND UP
For all his accomplishments, Hsieh remains solidly grounded and adamantly out of the spotlight on personal matters, until we convinced him to go on record for the social causes close to his heart.

His role models, his father being the premier example, come not from the pages of Forbes but his own social sphere. “You don’t have to emulate big names like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. The real heroes emerge as you live life. Be it from your family, school, work or from within the community,” he says.

“Although the likes of legendary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Florence Nightingale seeded ideas and shaped my convictions, the people in one’s life are the ones who throw light on how you should think of yourself and things around you.”

He does not believe in spending on material luxuries. His ride is a van, which he describes as “a big, white loaf”. On his wrist is a stainless-steel quartz watch from Tag Heuer. On his feet: a pair of plain, black Mephisto slip-ons. If he does indulge, it’s in rare, premium teas.

It is these everyman qualities that make Hsieh authentic and allow him to engage with just about anybody, from the man in the street to those in the top echelons of society. Never mind his influence as a man in a position of power – it’s his sincerity that makes all the difference.