My Cho Cho Ma, a philanthropist pioneer
Keith Chua learnt how his family’s matriarch started a legacy of giving.
Through the Mrs Lee Choon Guan Fund, Keith Chua continues the philanthropic work his great-grandmother started.
Growing up, Keith Chua did not know much of his great-grandmother’s philanthropic work – just stories his mother told him.
To him, his Cho Cho Ma was a stern matriarch of the family. As a young boy, he approached her with respect, as well as some reservation. The pair became closer as Keith spent more time with her as he got older. She passed away in 1978 when he was 25.
Keith, who is the executive chairman of ABR Holdings, said, “Through the stories my mother told me, I knew about some of her philanthropic work, but not to what extent she did it. It was only until I started my first steps into philanthropy that I came to know what she did.”
The “rediscovery” of his great-grandmother came after he read Song Ong Siang’s 1923 book, ‘One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore’. His mother often talked about the book, which was partly a catalyst for her to set up a trust fund in the 1980s.
I rediscovered my great-grandmother through this book. It became quite clear to me that she was a pioneer in many ways.
But Keith only picked up the book about 12 years ago. He found out that his great-grandmother was featured prominently for her philanthropy work. “After reading it, it became quite clear to me that she was a pioneer in many ways.”
He learnt that she was a keen supporter of education for women and girls – a bold move at that time as education wasn’t always an option for them.
As such, he was inspired to start the Mrs Lee Choon Guan charitable fund with the Community Foundation Singapore (CFS) in 2011 and made education and healthcare some of the key areas it supports. Keith said, “In continuing the legacy of my great-grandmother, I looked at how she approached philanthropy in her time and tried to include some of her practices in what we’re doing today. It has indeed come full circle.”
Keith also credits his parents as strong influences who inspired him to get involved in philanthropy. He said “They were my role models. They didn’t tell me that I should help people. I just watched and learnt how they were generous in their own way.”
And just like his parents did, he too is leading by example with his four children. Keith is heavily involved in charity work in the community and has been “personally changed” by his experiences. He said, “If anything, philanthropy has made me a more compassionate and caring person. I have tried as much as I can to pass along to my children the qualities such as generosity, frugality and compassion that have been imparted to me.”
One reason why Keith decided to set up the fund CFS was to ensure that future generations would be able to continue the philanthropic work.
He said, “The objective of CFS flowed nicely with ours of wanting to continue the legacy of giving. It allows family members to be involved and ensure that the funds will carry on for a period of time.”
“By setting up a fund with CFS, we can help the community over time, and also help future generations of our family to carry through this philanthropic legacy.”
Looking forward, Keith said, “The seed of philanthropy took root from earlier generations. Now, with the structure of CFS, the funds will carry on past my lifetime. Once you’ve set certain things in place, you can bring the next generation along for the ride and trust them with the responsibility when it’s their turn.”