Many men are called “father”. But there is only one man whom then President Wee Kim Wee has called “Father of Charity”. That man is Dr Ee Peng Liang.
From the 1940s right up to his death in 1994, Peng Liang worked to help disadvantaged youth, impoverished families, the physically disabled, disaster victims, prisoners, drug addicts, wayward youths, the dying, the sufferers of diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and cancer, the aged, among others.
Peng Liang served, as adviser, benefactor and fundraiser, in his appointments at more than 50 associations, institutions and welfare bodies of various causes. Whether it was Boys’ Town or Catholic Welfare Services, the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association or the Marymount Vocational Centre, Peng Liang volunteered to them his time and professional expertise as an accountant.
As a founder member of the Singapore Council of Social Service (SCSS, now National Council of Social Service (NCSS)) and later, for 34 years as its president, Peng Liang helped over 150 organisations across the social welfare spectrum. In 1983, Peng Liang established what many regard as his crowning achievement: the Community Chest, which provided a central avenue for fundraising in the social service sector.
His Catholic faith was a major factor which drove Peng Liang to help so many people in need. So was his experience during the Japanese Occupation, when he faced execution and escaped through a remarkable set of circumstances not once, not twice, but four times.
Peng Liang felt that he was being preserved for a larger purpose, as reflected in these quotes from his personal notebook: “I was spared to do something special for the Lord and for His people. I must give something back. I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow human being – let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
After the Occupation, Peng Liang placed himself at the disposal of Catholic welfare societies of every stripe, and immersed himself in providing his professional expertise, advice and all-round help wherever it was requested. Such was his drive in raising funds for various causes that Peng Liang became known as a “professional beggar”, as he noted self-deprecatingly.
Over time, Peng Liang became an effervescent, effective bridge among welfare organisations, the private sector and the government, and succeeded Lee Kong Chian as president of the SCSS in 1964. According to Dr Tan Bee Wan, the former Executive Director of the SCSS, Peng Liang excelled in the role. “He wanted change, he wanted to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged people, and he cared deeply for the people in need. He looked for consensus, for shared vision and common threads where we could work together. That was why he became so highly regarded,” says Bee Wan.
Bee Wan added, “When the artist drew Sharity (the pink elephant that was the mascot of the Community Chest), he was thinking of Dr Ee, how Dr Ee would come in with a smile on his face and his generosity. He was a very humble man, a very compassionate man, a very God-fearing man who walks into your office, always smiling and saying: what can I do? Dr Ee set the pace for what charity in Singapore is.”
Given the breadth of Peng Liang’s work with the disadvantaged, it would have been all too easy to become discouraged, overwhelmed by the arduous circumstances he must have witnessed almost daily.
Rather than be overwhelmed by challenges, he overcame them. For example, through the SCSS, Peng Liang pioneered initiatives that have had lasting impact on the social sector. He helped establish homes for the aged within residential developments, rather than isolating the elderly away from the society, as well as support day care for senior citizens living independently and vocational training for the disabled. To Peng Liang, supporting the work of the welfare organisations and the advancement of their various causes was a duty.
In his eulogy for Peng Liang, former President Wee Kim Wee said, "How could one man have done so much in one lifetime? I can do no better than to repeat the preamble of a citation for an award which reads: ‘Dr Ee Peng Liang has worked harder and achieved more than any other individual to further the cause of the less fortunate in Singapore’.”
During his lifetime, Peng Liang received more than a dozen awards, from national honours such as the Order of Nila Utama and the Public Service Star to knighthoods from the Catholic Church and Singapore’s highest award for voluntary work established by the NCSS – the Ee Peng Liang Award, fittingly named after him.
Being humble, Peng Liang did not serve to gain honour, but to help people. He said, “What we have to remember is that these people are not statistics. They are as real and human as you and I. They each have a face and a history and a future. They are individuals, they are persons and they have loved ones. They are not just items on a balance sheet.”
Spoken just like a loving father.
By Alvin Chua