It was a blazing hot day at the Singapore Sports Hub, and some 40 staff members from the Community Chest were standing on a flight of stairs waiting for Ng Ling Ling to show up. She was due for a photo shoot with this magazine as she had just been named Her World Woman of the Year 2018, and her staff wanted to surprise her by being part of it.
In the heat, their discomfort was obvious – their shirts were sweat-soaked, and they used whatever they could get their hands on to fan themselves. But there wasn’t a single complaint. In fact, more than one person told us: “Ling Ling is a great boss. It’s the least we can do for her.” It was, in effect, a warm goodbye to a well-loved leader who was then in the midst of prepping her transit to a new posting in the Ministry of Health.
Ling Ling, 46, may have stepped down as managing director of the Community Chest (Comchest) in June, but her achievements as Singapore’s chief fundraiser in the last five years are pretty much legend. During her tenure, Comchest, which supports more than 80 charities, rallied 240 social service organisations to raise a record $800 million in donations through the Care and Share Movement (launched as part of the nation’s SG50 celebrations). Her work also helped to increase Comchest’s donations from an average of $40 million to $50 million annually, and she worked relentlessly to build a culture of care and authenticity within the Comchest team.
Beneath her warm exterior is a steely resolve – a necessary trait, given that rejection was part of the job, but so was getting up and trying again. What kept Ling Ling going were the words of Comchest founder Dr Ee Peng Liang: “If you are seeking money for yourself and begging, then maybe you should be shy about it. But if you are asking for a cause, and the money is going to a charity to help the disadvantaged and underprivileged, you ought to be very thick-skinned. There’s no shame in asking.”
“I was sensitive to the brokenness in families in the community”
Ling Ling’s desire to make people’s lives better was born out of personal circumstance. Growing up in the Punggol-Hougang area, she lived in an estate largely made up of two and three-room flats. Her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a second-hand car dealer, provided a “loving, secure and supportive” home. But even at a young age, Ling Ling was aware that others weren’t as lucky. “I was very sensitive to the brokenness I saw in the families in my immediate community due to drugs, gambling, abuse and other social problems,” she says. At the time, she felt helpless, but it would return to tug at her heartstrings in later years.
After graduating with a degree in accountancy from Nanyang Technological University, Ling Ling – a self-professed “practical” person – decided that her first priority was to get a job that would improve her family’s circumstances. To her, there was no question that their needs would always come before her own.
So, she got her first job in treasury in DBS Finance, where she stayed for seven years. “I was in my late 20s by then, and I felt a void. I had a lot of energy and I wondered what I could put that energy into,” she says. She left DBS to take up a short-lived international relations role at the Singapore International Foundation, before joining the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) – Comchest’s parent organisation – in 2001.
The rest, you might say, is history.
“People say I have the heart to do it”
Ling Ling has always been a problem-solver. Close friend Ong Puay See, who’s known her since they were teenagers, says that Ling Ling’s “mathematical” approach probably put the head aspect into a sector that is usually all about heart. “Ling Ling brings structured thinking and meticulousness in looking at numbers, is results-oriented, and focuses on setting goals and reaching them,” she points out.
Before taking on the Comchest role in 2013, Ling Ling worked on establishing corporate governance standards for non-profits, set up the Social Service Training Institute,and developed a Fund Allocation Team – a central fund administrator to streamline resources for beneficiaries, handle budgets for charities, and provide accountability to funders. “This gave me a lot of insights into the resourcing needs of our social service charities,” she says. “By the time the opportunity came to interview for the Comchest role, I had a deep knowledge of social services, and a lot of ground experience with the charities, their management, their board and their struggles in terms of resourcing.”
But beyond the practical qualifications needed to get the job done, Ling Ling really wanted to make a difference. “Most people said I had the heart to do it. They say that when I share about a need, I’m very authentic and passionate because I’m just speaking from my heart,” she says. It also helped, adds Comchest chairman Phillip Tan, that she had a knack for spotting a gap within the charity sector and matching it to a donor’s aspirations. He says: “We can strategise, but Ling, as the field commander, had to be able to implement [our strategies] and keep donors happy."
Take Singtel. It had, for the past two decades, raised between $2 million and $3 million each year for children with special education needs. Ling Ling noticed that most programmes catered to those up to the age of 18, which made her wonder how to convince people that more had to be done for young adults with special needs. “There were just too few options,” she says.
At that time, Comchest was trying to raise funds to help start the Enabling Village – a pioneering space to provide community support and employment to young adults with special needs. Ling Ling spotted an opportunity and went for it. She says: “I stretched Singtel’s imagination to where their aspirations were. I said, ‘You know these children whom you’ve been investing in these last two decades? They’re growing up and they need that support, that booster, to transit into adulthood’. It took months, but in the end, we got an additional donation of $1 million from Singtel for the Enabling Village.” The approach was typical of Ling Ling’s belief in simply having the facts at hand, then speaking from the heart.
“You either let your environment overwhelm you, or you adapt”
As a student, Ling Ling didn’t have the money to buy gifts for friends. So she got creative and made unique gifts like teddy bears dressed in clothes she’d sewn herself. Puay See recalls: “She would always make little gifts for us, and when we did project work, she would be the one working with her hands, using very few resources to make new and amazing stuff. I think she actually brings a lot of that to her current work.” Ling Ling’s ethos has always been that you can either let your environment overwhelm you, or you adapt and thrive in it.