Socialising businesses in Singapore

Unless you were living under a rock these past couple of weeks, you will have heard of the heart-warming story of coffee shops and customers joining forces to bring free coffees to the needy.

The practice, commonly known as Pay It Forward, is very simple: people buying a cup of coffee can choose to pay for one (or more) extra cup of coffee. That extra purchase will stay reserved for someone who can’t afford a hot drink, thus allowing one anonymous donor to give something that’s immediately useful to someone who truly needs it.

This spontaneous and random act of kindness has garnered quite a following on a global scale, as people find it is the perfect way to foster close community bonds between business owners, customers, and the needy.

So much so that many businesses other than coffee shops are now offering the service!

In Singapore, where extreme poverty-stricken households are not quite as numerous as in Western economies but no less in need of the generosity of others, the “Chope food for the needy” system has been gaining momentum.

Interestingly enough, as noted by one of the movement’s fans, some local businesses didn’t wait for such initiatives to take form to help people in need:

“After explaining the whole procedure to the stall owner, and when I was about to pre-pay him for 5 packets of chicken rice he told me to keep it. He said, ‘You can save up or help others, I have always been giving meals to the needy ones. Every other vendor did the same too’. I am so glad, instead of accepting my money to earn more profit he asked me to keep and help others.”

The act of giving up part – or most – of a business’ potential profits to instead contribute to the community has been dubbed “social business”. Unlike social enterprises, which use the strategies of the private sector to generate products or services completely devoted to social or environmental causes, social businesses operate like traditional for-profit companies, but choose to devote part of their revenue to local causes.

The approach is much more than just a CSR strategy put in place to boost a company’s image or credibility; it is a genuine and authentic mission statement the company has defined for its owners, employees, customers, and business partners.

Sure, there must be many ways to abuse the system, but the potential backlash from angry consumers who really believe in their ideals should be enough to discourage anyone from trying to trick them.

Benny Se Teo is one of such social businessman completely devoted to his cause.

A former drug addict, Benny turned his life around and became the first Singaporean to be trained at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen. Back in Singapore he founded Eighteen Chefs, a social business which employs and trains ex-drugs offenders.

Not only has his business inspired youths-at-risk to find alternative and positive ways of integrating into society, it has been heralded as an example of businesses that can succeed while giving many benefits to employees and their families (competitive salaries, overtime pay, flexible schedules, career advancement, skill-building opportunities, etc.).

There are many other examples of such businesses out there, and many more currently being prepared.

 Here’s hoping that such initiatives will push more people to contribute to the shift from “business for money” to “business for a cause”!





  1. @Alvin: Hello again.

    Interesting business models. It’s good to raise the idea, to bring it to the public consciousness, but I’m currently skeptical that socially responsible businesses are the best way to allocate scarce resources (an alternative method would be the traditional taxation + distribution sort).

    I can see how socially responsible businesses are very attractive, very “organic” (as in integrated into culture, rather than imposed top-down), it gets everyone to participate and be involved in society, rather than people being dis-engaged parts of an economic machine run by elites.

    But this need for buy-in is precisely why I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical about the amount of buy-in we can get from society today. I’m skeptical that we can achieve a cooperative strategy (in game theory terms), given the amount of selfishness and kiasu-ism around (too many people are willing to defect, or don’t trust others to cooperate).

    I’m also skeptical because it looks like a good buzzword precisely for the CSR PR teams. (And they’ve pushed these meaningless PR buzzwords at us decade after decade – you do get more jaded when you reach my age, I think.)

    And to go back to textbook economics, an ecology where some businesses are socially responsible, while others are not, would mean that those which are not have a competitive edge, and would squeeze out the rest (similar to Akerlof’s used car market as a Market for Lemons – (unless social responsibility can give a competitive edge? hasn’t happened on fair trade, on green issues, on local produce, I don’t see it happening for social businesses).

    Forgive my skepticism, but I think you’re being overly optimistic about how far these moves can go. I hope I’m wrong too – but for now I would put my faith in a social democratic government, with good oversight by the people aided by democratic institutions, rather than in “social businesses”.

Share your thoughts!

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.