Philanthropy: Catalysts For Change

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Azim Premji made history this year as Asia’s most generous philanthropist by donating $7.6 billion worth of Wipro shares to his education-centered foundation, raising his total lifetime giving to $21 billion. Established in 2000, his eponymous foundation now works with more than 200,000 public schools across India to train teachers and provide better curriculums, among other initiatives. “A role model for all of us. I wish more people would follow his example,” said Anu Aga (a 2010 honoree).

Premji is one of the 30 outstanding altruists we’ve chosen for our 13th annual Heroes of Philanthropy list which honors billionaires, entrepreneurs and celebrities across the region who are committed to solving some of the most pressing issues facing the Asia-Pacific.

This year’s members are devoted to a range of endeavors. Among them: Angel Locsin, one of the Philippines’ most famous actresses, supports causes aiding victims of violence, natural disasters and the conflict in Mindanao. Australian billionaire Judith Neilson, set up an institute to support independent journalism. And then there’s Jack Ma from China, who recently received the Malcolm S. Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award after stepping down as chairman of Alibaba to devote more time to philanthropy. Other honorees are working to protect wildlife, improve access to healthcare and aid the elderly.

To choose these honorees, we sifted through dozens of candidates, reviewing their monetary contributions, the depth of their involvement and the reach of their philanthropic efforts. Our aim is to highlight those giving their own money, not their company’s (unless they are the majority owners of a privately-held firm). We also don’t include those who are full-time fundraisers or foundation heads, unless they’ve personally given the bulk of funds to start a charitable organization.

All are citizens of countries or territories in the Asia-Pacific or have long resided in the region. The focus is on individuals who provide the capital and are personally committed to achieving a long-term vision. As always, we have focused on new names, unless there was a significant development in a previous honoree’s philanthropy that justified relisting them. The final selection is unranked—all are considered equally honored on this list.

Reporting By Pamela Ambler, Grace Chung, Ron Gluckman, Jane Ho, Naazneen Karmali, Danielle Keeton-Olsen, Pudji Lestari, Sunshine Lichauco de Leon, Suzanne Nam, Jihyun Park, Sheela Sarvananda, Lucinda Schmidt, James Simms and Jolie Tran.

Azim Premji, 74

Founder and Chairman, Wipro | India

Premji in March solidified his position as Asia’s biggest philanthropist by giving away a chunk of his shares, worth $7.6 billion, in tech firm Wipro to his education-focused Azim Premji Foundation. The foundation will use the funds to increase its activities, including expanding the Azim Premji University in Bangalore.

The billionaire retired in July as Wipro’s executive chairman after more than five decades at the helm and said he would focus more on philanthropy. The first Indian to sign the Giving Pledge, his lifetime giving now stands at $21 billion. Premji has also endowed his foundation with stakes in Wipro Enterprises, his privately held consumer goods company, and in his private equity arm, PremjiInvest. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his mother, Premji says that “to whom much has been given, much should be expected.”

Theodore Rachmat, 76

Founder, Triputra Group | Indonesia

Mining and agribusiness tycoon Rachmat has since 2018 donated nearly $5 million toward his A&A Rachmat Compassionate Service Foundation, which supports educational opportunities, healthcare and orphanages. Launched in 1999 as a scholarship fund, the foundation has awarded scholarships to 21,000 recipients over the years, with Rachmat contributing $12.5 million. To ensure that students stay in school and learn effectively from an early stage, the foundation also organizes annual training programs for primary school teachers. In 2005, it expanded into healthcare, setting up clinics in rural areas that charge patients less than $2 a visit.

Jeffrey Cheah, 74 

Chairman, Sunway Group | Malaysia 

Through his eponymous foundation, Jeffrey Cheah has donated almost $39 million to fund scholarships and educational causes since 2018. Cheah has also provided funding to public primary schools, giving a combined $2.5 million to SJKC Chee Wen in Selangor state and SJKC Gunong Hijau in Perak state, and another $6 million to schools around Malaysia. Cheah is founder and chairman of Sunway group, which has interests in 11 industries across the Asia-Pacific. Since 2009, he has gradually transferred his entire stake in Sunway Education Group—valued at more than $238 million—to the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation.

Jack Ma, 55

Founder, Jack Ma Foundation | China

For our full philanthropy profile on Jack Ma, click here.

Judith Neilson, 73

Founder and Patron, JN Projects | Australia

Neilson committed A$100 million ($72 million) last November to establish the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas in Sydney. The Institute sponsors grants, education and events to encourage quality independent journalism, including more reporting on Asia. In July, it announced its first series of grant programs, which will support a number of news outlets, including the reopening of the Australian Financial Review’s Southeast Asia bureau. Neilson owns a 21% stake in Platinum Asset Management, the global investment group founded in 1994 by her ex-husband, Kerr Neilson. She also owns one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art, which is displayed in her White Rabbit art gallery in Sydney.

Andrew Forrest, 57

Chairman, Fortescue Metals Group | Australia

Nicola Forrest, 57

Cofounder, Minderoo Foundation | Australia

The Forrests donated A$655 million ($455 million) in May to their Minderoo Foundation, marking Australia’s largest single gift from a living donor and taking the couple’s total giving to A$1.5 billion. The foundation supports cancer research, early childhood development, indigenous equality, healthy oceans and the elimination of modern slavery. It is named after the cattle station in West Australia’s remote Pilbara region where Andrew Forrest grew up. Minderoo is funded by dividends the Forrests receive from iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group, which Andrew founded in 2003. He retains a 35% stake in the company.

Le Van Kiem, 74

Cofounder and Chairman, Long Thanh Golf Investment and Trading Joint-Stock Company | Vietnam

Tran Cam Nhung, 73

Cofounder and Vice Chairman, Long Thanh Golf Investment and Trading Joint-Stock Company | Vietnam

Since 2018, Kiem and Nhung have contributed $11 million to various causes in Laos and their native Vietnam. A war veteran, Kiem donated nearly $5 million between early 2018 and April to support families of army retirees, while his wife Nhung in April gave over $5 million to charities, primarily to treat infants with heart failure and to provide financial aid to students. The pair made their fortune in textiles and rubber when in the 1980s Vietnam adopted economic reforms. The bulk of their interests are now in property and golf courses.

Since 2009 when he set up a scholarship fund, Kiem has given $900,000 in scholarships for students to attend his alma mater, Hanoi’s Thuy Loi University. The duo has given more than $20 million over the past ten years toward causes not only in Laos and Vietnam, but also in Cambodia and Japan.

Suh Kyung-bae, 56

CEO, Amorepacific Group | South Korea

The Suh Kyung-bae Science Foundation in September awarded 10 billion won ($9 million), to be allocated over five years, to four South Korean scientists for research in neuroscience and genetics. Suh established the foundation in 2016 with a personal endowment of 300 billion won. The head of South Korea’s largest cosmetics company, Suh inherited Amorepacific from his father Suh Sung-hwan, who believed that science was integral to innovation.

Since 2017, the foundation has awarded 14 scientists grants of between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion won. Suh pledged in 2016 to donate whatever was needed to bring the foundation’s total funding up to 1 trillion won. With those funds, the foundation plans in 2021 to increase the number of scientists who receive its grants to 25 a year; it aims to mark its 20th anniversary in 2036 by giving grants to 100 scientists.

Gong Junlong, 50 

Founder, Hengyu Group | China

Gong pledged $50 million in June 2018 to build the Lufeng No. 2 People’s Hospital in his hometown of Shanwei, Guangdong. The hospital, with 14 floors and a total area of 57,000 square meters, will house 500 beds when it opens. The property baron also donated $5.6 million last year to fund the expansion of a high school in Shanwei. He previously gave $35 million to build a new campus for his alma mater, Jiazi High School, which opened in 2012.

Angel Locsin, 34

Actress | Philippines

After earthquakes hit Mindanao island in October, Locsin donated 1 million pesos ($19,000) and distributed truckloads of relief supplies to affected residents. Locsin, whose mother was adopted by a family from the island, has long helped the region, which has been riven by sectarian strife for decades. During the 2017 battle between the Philippine army and Islamist rebels in Marawi, she joined the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, donating and distributing food packets and school supplies to tens of thousands of displaced victims. “These are urgent times when we have to act as fast as we can to save lives and rebuild communities, and we don’t even have to think why,” she says.

Locsin is best known for playing superhero Darna in a 2005 TV series and for her role in 2012’s One More Try, which earned her “best actress” in the 2013 Film Academy of the Philippines Awards. In 2017, she once blogged: “You don’t need to wear a costume to be a superhero.”

Over the past decade, Locsin has donated as much as 15 million pesos to causes such as educational scholarships for students, supporting the economic and political rights of indigenous people, and ending violence against women and children.

Her donations have also helped roughly 500 families hit by some of the country’s largest disasters: Tropical Storm Ondoy in 2009, Typhoon Habagat in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the deadliest storms on record, leaving 6,300 dead.

Locsin has also inspired many of her millions of social media followers to give back. “It’s like taking little steps towards substantive, holistic change for the future of the next generations,” she says. “The only motivation we need is being part of humanity.”

Wu Yuanxi, 61

Chairman, Green City Group | China

Wu Yuangang

Chairman, Hanking Group | China

The Wu brothers, both property tycoons, gave $49 million in June 2018 to build new campuses for two existing high schools in their hometown of Shanwei, in Guangdong province. One of the schools, which opened in September, dates back to a Chinese classics academy from the 18th century.

Elder brother Yuanxi previously helped build seven other schools in the city, and in 2008 established

the Wu Yuanxi Charity Foundation, which has supported over 1,000 poor students pursuing college education.

Atul Nishar, 64

Founder and Chairman, Hexaware Technologies | India

After selling his stake in software services firm Hexaware Technologies in 2013 to Barings Private Equity Asia for $200 million, Nishar has donated roughly $1.5 million annually to various causes. This year Nishar gave $1.5 million to a center for leadership at the Avasara Academy, a girl’s school near Mumbai that provides free education to underprivileged students.

He was one of the early donors to Ashoka University, a private university, and in 2016 donated $1 million to SRCC Children’s Hospital in Mumbai, India’s largest pediatric hospital. The tech entrepreneur has also established three computer education centers in southern India, which provide free training. “Being able to contribute in this way makes me feel good,” says Nishar.

Mary Ann Tsao, 64

Director, Tsao Family Office | Singapore

Through their Tsao Foundation, Tsao and her family have donated $2 million over the past year to caring for the elderly, bringing the family’s total giving to $55 million since the foundation was established in 1993. As chairman, Tsao oversees its primary goal to improve senior citizens’ quality of life, enabling them to lead active social lives and age comfortably at home.

Among the foundation’s notable initiatives: launching the Hua Mei Mobile Clinic in 1993, Singapore’s first healthcare service for homebound elders; and creating in 2016 the country’s first gerontological counseling program to train counselors and social workers on caring for the elderly in community settings. Tsao is the daughter of late shipping magnate Frank Tsao, a Shanghai-born entrepreneur who founded the IMC Group. She also leads the family’s investment office, which has interests in property, manufacturing, F&B and investments.

The foundation was formed in Singapore by her then-89-year-old grandmother, who convinced Tsao to leave her thriving career as a pediatrician in New York to help build the organization. In 2017, the Asian Development Bank appointed the Tsao Foundation as a partner in its $2.5 million project on “Strengthening Developing Member Countries’ Capacity in Elderly Care,” to exchange knowledge on eldercare services.

Tang Wee Kit, 64

Chairman, Tang Holdings | Singapore

To commemorate Singapore’s bicentennial, the chairman of investment and property group Tang Holdings in May donated the largest private collection of books and letters once owned by Sir Stamford Raffles to the National Museum of Singapore, saying it belonged to the nation. Raffles played a key role in establishing Singapore as a thriving British trading port, attracting migrant workers like Tang’s father.

Tang, chairman of Tang Holdings, purchased the entire Raffles collection in two auctions, in 2004 and 2005, for a total of £560,000 ($730,000 in today’s dollars). Tang Holdings in 2015 donated $750,000 to ethnic charities and needy schoolchildren to mark the 20th anniversary of its flagship Singapore property, Tang Plaza, which houses the company’s headquarters, Tangs department store, and the Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel.

Yoshiki Hayashi, 54

Cofounder, X Japan | Japan

After his home prefecture Chiba was hit in September by a typhoon, Hayashi donated ¥10 million ($92,000) to help victims there. The leader of the popular Japanese band X Japan, Hayashi, who resides in Los Angeles, has contributed to causes mainly in Japan and the U.S. through his Yoshiki Foundation America.

Started in 2010, the foundation has contributed to disaster relief, orphanages, and treatment for children with bone-marrow disease. He has also held concert fundraisers in Japan, and in 2018 auctioned a drum set for ¥6 million to fund the Japanese Red Cross.

IU (Lee Ji eun), 26 

Singer, Actress | South Korea

The youngest to make the list, the singer-actress, who goes by her stage name IU, has given a total of 900 million won ($800,000) to a variety of causes since 2018. This April she donated to Gangwon Province to help fund relief efforts after a massive forest fire left nearly 4,200 people homeless. She was the first of many celebrities, including fellow K-pop stars PSY and Suzy Bae, to donate to that cause.

In March, she made a donation to the Seoul Association of the Deaf after starring in a drama series that highlighted the lives of deaf and speech-impaired individuals. In May, she donated to Childcare Korea, an organization that serves underprivileged children. IU, who grew up poor, has made annual donations of 300 million won to 500 million won to various charities for the past five years.

Hans Sy, 64 

Chairman of the Executive Committee and Director, SM Prime | Philippines

Child Haus in July opened its newly renovated and expanded center in Quezon City to house 40 cancer-stricken children and their caregivers. Sy, previously CEO of property firm SM Prime, paid $400,000 in 2010 for the property, which now provides poor provincial families with temporary shelter, as well as programs and activities that promote healing.

On his 60th birthday in 2015, Sy bought the land for Child Haus’ first location in Manila for $600,000 and paid $1.4 million to build it. Opened in 2017, he still covers its operating expenses. Sy’s associates have become cosponsors and provide Child Haus with additional financial support and in-kind contributions.

Chuchat Petaumpai, 66

Chairman of the Executive Committee, Muangthai Capital | Thailand 

Daonapa Petampai, 66

Managing Director, Muangthai Capital | Thailand 

The husband and wife duo this year made their largest single contribution to healthcare in Thailand, donating roughly $2.7 million to Bangkok’s Thammasat University Hospital to construct an outpatient building for its radiology department, which will include X-ray, MRI and related services.

The couple’s Muangthai Capital is one of Thailand’s biggest consumer finance companies. Last year they donated $1.7 million to Khirimat Hospital in Sukhothai. The couple began donating multimillion-dollar sums to healthcare centers throughout Thailand in 2015, shortly after taking their company public.

You Zhonghui, 57 

Chairman, Fortune High Investment Group; Chairman, Seaskyland Technologies | China

You has committed $1.4 million through her Fortune High Investment, an educational assessment services group of which she owns 81%, to renovate a boarding school in China’s Guizhou province. The donation is being made through the Sun Yat-sen Fraternity Foundation, which will also administer it. You gave $140,000 in 2017 to upgrade a wildlife rescue station for black snub-nosed monkeys in Guizhou’s Fanjingshan National Reserve. The same year she became the first woman from China to sign the Giving Pledge created by Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

Marcus Blackmore, 74

Executive Director, Blackmores | Australia

Blackmore donated A$10 million ($7.2 million) last November to Australia’s Southern Cross University to establish a National Center for Naturopathic Medicine. It was the single largest donation the university had ever received and will be used to support higher education and research. “We have a responsibility to respond to the growing healthcare needs of Australia, and evidence-based natural medicine will play an increasingly active role in that response,” Blackmore says.

His Southern Cross donation follows a similar one in 2017 to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University and a A$1.3 million donation in 2015 to establish a chair in integrative medicine at the University of Sydney. Blackmore owns a 23% stake in the Blackmores health supplements group that his father, Maurice, founded in the 1930s.

Belinda Tanoto, 34

Director, Royal Golden Eagle | Indonesia

Anderson Tanoto, 30

Director, Royal Golden Eagle | Indonesia

The Tanoto siblings lead their family’s philanthropy through the Tanoto Foundation. The family this year donated $16.7 million, up 30% from 2018, primarily to support and provide education for all, from early childhood to university. It also aims to prevent stunted growth in Indonesia’s children—which afflicts an estimated 10 million of the country’s youth. Of the two, Belinda is the most actively involved in the foundation and focuses primarily on early childhood development.

The foundation has so far trained 15,000 teachers and funded nearly 7,500 university scholarships. The Tanotos own Royal Golden Eagle, which holds interests in various companies across Asia. Their parents, Sukanto and Tinah Bingei Tanoto, started giving to philanthropic causes in the 1980s.

The family’s efforts have since expanded as far as China, where the foundation offers training to parents in rural areas. In Singapore, the foundation supports research on diseases prevalent in Asia. Separately, Anderson devotes about a fifth of his time to the foundation’s leadership training programs and its support of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

Toh Soon Huat, 59

Executive Chairman, Sian Chay Medical Institution | Singapore

Toh, an entrepreneur turned full-time philanthropist, has given away nearly S$4 million ($2.9 million), primarily to provide traditional Chinese medicine to the underprivileged and elderly, with almost S$300,000 of that donated since 2018. As executive chairman of the Sian Chay Medical Institution, an unpaid position, Toh has expanded the 118-year-old institution from a single clinic serving 26 patients a day to 15 clinics serving roughly 1,100 patients daily across Singapore.

The son of a taxi driver, Toh started his furniture brand Novena in 1984 and in 2000 listed it on the Singapore Exchange. He sold his roughly 28% stake in 2009 for S$8.5 million; his wife Lee Kek Choo sold her minority stake between 2011 to 2013 for a total of roughly S$3.1 million.

Liu Daoming, 62

Chairman and Owner, Myhome Real Estate Development Group | China

Wang Ping

Liu and his wife Wang Ping last year pledged $11 million to the Myhome Community Volunteer Philanthropic Foundation in China’s Hubei Province. The couple set up the foundation in 2016 with a $3 million endowment to help senior citizens volunteer for community services in their area of expertise: for example, retired teachers tutor children and former medical professionals offer free healthcare lectures.

A total of 11,000 volunteers have so far spent nearly 310,000 hours in the foundation’s programs. Liu’s Myhome property group is a publicly listed company that had 2.5 billion yuan ($350 million) in revenue last year. This year, Liu signed the Giving Pledge.

Kathy Xu, 52 

Founding Partner, Capital Today | Hong Kong

Venture capitalist Xu gave $4 million late last year to her alma mater Nanjing University to endow the Kathy Xu Artificial Intelligence Development Fund, which aims to recruit top talent and advance the field of artificial intelligence.

Her previous donations include $6 million since 2010 for scholarships at the university. Among them is an award established in 2015 that gives up to $60,000, the largest scholarship the university offers, to an undergraduate to go overseas to study science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Xu, who graduated from the university in 1988, founded Capital Today in 2005 and now manages $2.5 billion in funds that invest in China-based startups.

Bill Bensley, 60

Founder and Owner, Bensley Design Studio | Thailand

Bill Bensley, the owner and operator of an eponymous architecture firm with offices in Bangkok and Bali, is a well-known designer of upscale resorts in Asia. Last year, he opened Shinta Mani Wild, a luxurious jungle retreat in southern Cambodia, to serve as a charitable operation. “This is one of the last untouched areas in Cambodia. I wanted to protect, and also share it,” he says. “People can come and see just why we must save it.”

Bensley has spent $15 million since 2010 to buy and develop 400 hectares of riverside property for Shinta Mani Wild, with all profits from the resort to be donated to Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group battling poachers and logging in an adjoining rainforest abounding with elephants and other rare wildlife.

The American architect has lived for three decades in Bangkok. He has designed about 200 properties, including the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in northern Thailand, the Capella Ubud in Bali, the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula in Vietnam and the new Rosewood Luang Prabang in Laos. But Shinta Mani Wild is part of his own Bensley Collection of upscale boutique inns.

Bensley has long been giving back in Cambodia. Bensley’s donations are all made through the Shinta Mani Foundation, which Cambodian hotel and restaurant entrepreneur Sokoun Chanpreda created in 2004. The foundation has given more than $850,000 to build 1,600 wells and more than 100 homes, and has provided over 12,000 bicycles to locals. Additional contributions from him and others have provided 15,000 dental checkups and teeth cleanings for needy children in the country.

Shinta Mani Wild tries to support Wildlife Alliance with more than money: guests can join nature walks with rangers in a protected forest showcasing what’s at stake. The foundation provides support for the rangers, and the resort has also built a ranger station for their use. Bensley’s latest brainchild: a collection of Wildlife Alliance outdoor gear he has designed and launched this year, with all proceeds going to the conservation group.

Shigenobu Nagamori, 75

Founder, Chairman and CEO, Nidec | Japan

Nagamori in August 2018 donated ¥3.2 billion ($29 million) to build a new community center in Muko, the city where he grew up. The center has a 500-seat concert hall, but can also be used in emergencies to shelter about 750 people and provide bathing, cooking and sleeping facilities. “Instead of being delighted with the fat bank account that fate has given me, I’ve decided to use that money to help where there are true needs,” he said during a news conference to announce the donation. Nagamori’s Nidec, which is based in the city of Kyoto, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of motors for hard disks and optical drives.

Nagamori has to date donated at least ¥20 billion toward educational and healthcare initiatives. His other recent gifts include funds to build an engineering school and a cancer research center, both in Kyoto.

Ronald Chao, 80

Vice Chairman and Director, Novel Enterprises | Hong Kong 

Chao’s Bai Xian Asia Institute has handed out at least 85 scholarships to Asian students this year, each up to $25,000, to study at universities in China and Japan. The funding for these scholarships comes primarily from a $100 million endowment Chao made in 2014 to establish the education-focused institute. The institute has four other founders, who donated a combined $10 million. Chao is its honorary chairman, his daughter Ronna is a cofounder and CEO and brother Silas Chou sits on its advisory council. Chao made his fortune from the family’s textile business, Novel Enterprises, which started as an unbranded supplier of clothing and then moved into branded merchandise, developing both Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors into major brands.

A lifelong believer in international education, he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1962 and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1964. The experience, he says, helped him realize the importance of cross-border relationships. To date, the institute has awarded 480 scholarships to students from 25 Asian countries and territories.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, 66

Chairman and Managing Director, Biocon | India

John Shaw, 70

Vice Chairman, Biocon | India

Biotech entrepreneur Mazumdar-Shaw and her husband in July donated $7.5 million to the University of Glasgow, the largest single donation the university has received. Shaw, his brother and late mother are alumni. Two-thirds of the grant is earmarked for a research hub to be called Shaw Plaza. The remainder will endow a professorial chair in precision oncology. The couple also pledged $2 million recently to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to establish the Mazumdar-Shaw International Clinical Fellowships.

Mazumdar-Shaw, who signed the Giving Pledge in 2016, has also given $3.5 million to Krea University, a new liberal arts university in southern India. “I remain committed to continue making a difference through philanthropy,” she says.

Rita Tong Liu, 71 

Chairman, Gale Well Group | Hong Kong

A devout Catholic, Liu marked her 70th birthday in June last year by giving HK$80 million ($10 million) to the Catholic-run Caritas Institute of Higher Education through her family’s L&T Charitable Foundation. The funds will be used to help the school evolve into Hong Kong’s first Catholic university. The Institute has named its school of business and hospitality management after Liu and its school of social sciences after her mother, Felizberta Lo Padilla Tong. Liu, who founded property developer Gale Well Group in 1976, is Hong Kong’s fourth-richest woman. She set up L&T in 2003 and in 2015 established the Rita T. Liu Foundation, both of which have donated a combined HK$400 million over the years to causes such as cultural heritage conservation, medical research, and women’s rights.