Lee Hee Seng



Lee Hee Seng (b. 1927d. 4 February 2012, Singapore) was a retired banker with a long record of public service. He was part of the leadership at the former Overseas Union Bank (OUB) for 27 years and was OUB’s chairman when it merged with United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 2001. Lee also chaired the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Public Service Commission, Presidential Elections Committee, Police and Civil Defence Services Commission and the Education Service Commission.

Education and early career
Lee was educated at St Patrick’s School and Raffles Institution in Singapore and the Administrative Staff College in the United Kingdom.1 Upon graduation, he joined the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the British government’s investment arm for developing countries. He was seconded to the Malaya Building Society Berhad (MBSB) in 1950 as their accountant,2 later rising to the position of General Manager and then director in 1964.3 Lee helped to build up MBSB and when he left in 1971, it was the seventh-largest company in Singapore and Malaysia in terms of total assets.


Having been on the board of the HDB since 1966,4 Lee became its chairman in 1971.5 Under his chairmanship, the HDB launched its Third Building Programme – an accelerated programme to meet the increased demand for public housing6 – and achieved a then-record of 23,224 flats built in 1973.7 Under Lee's leadership, the HDB tackled problems of labour supply, workmanship and material supply. He also helped revise the government’s resettlement policy, with increased compensation rates for property owners.8 In January1977, Lee received the 1976 Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal)9 for his contribution to the housing programme. He was subsequently appointed a justice of the peace in March 1979.10

Move to OUB
OUB founder Lien Ying Chow first met Lee in Kuala Lumpur, when Lee was with MBSB and Lien was then Singapore’s high commissioner to Malaysia.11 Lien was impressed with Lee and sought his services for OUB, but it would take weekly lunches over a three-year period before Lee joined the bank.12


The early and mid-1970s were challenging times for Singapore’s traditional banks. There was increased competition from the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), which was set up by the government in the late 1960s, as well as from the revamped Post Office Savings Bank and foreign banks when the government opened up the industry.13

Lien realised that OUB had to move on from its culture of a traditional Chinese family-owned bank, and to modernise and innovate.14 In 1974, Lee joined OUB as its chief general manager, having been on the OUB board of directors since 1972.15 His appointment, and eventual succession of Lien as chairman, was a move by Lien to turn away from nepotistic hiring practices.16

Upon joining OUB in 1974, one of Lee’s priorities was to prepare the bank for a public listing the following year.17 OUB was listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore in 1975,18 and by 1977 Lee had become the bank’s executive director.19 Lee’s key challenge also included transforming the informal and paternalistic management working style in OUB to a streamlined, efficient and professional business culture. In addition, he prepared OUB staff for the computerisation of its operations, which was achieved in 1977.20 (99% plagiarising from book). The changes overwhelmed certain OUB staff, and for the first time in the bank’s history, the staff formed a union. Lee took the disruptions arising from OUB staff grievances in his stride and continued with the change process and staff training and development.21

As Lien’s right-hand man, Lee oversaw OUB’s overseas forays, with the bank setting up branches in the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan and Brunei.22 After almost a decade managing OUB, the bank’s profit grew at an average annual rate of 25 percent.23 In December 1997, OUB was the fourth-largest bank in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).24

In 1988, Lee became the deputy group chairman of OUB and its subsidiary companies. When the bank’s founder Lien retired in 1995, Lee took over the helm as group chairman.25

Takeover by UOB and retirement
In 2001, OUB rejected a hostile takeover bid from DBS and accepted instead a friendly S$10-billion takeover from UOB, whose bid Lee and other OUB directors backed.26 Lee oversaw the merger through his role on the Integration Steering Committee and the divestment of some of the combined entities’ non-core assets. He then joined the UOB board and became its senior deputy chairman until his retirement in May 2003.27


Role in newspaper industry
In 1978, OUB bought over the Chinese newspaper, Nanyang Siang Pau.28 The Singapore News & Publications Limited was set up in September 1982 with the merger of Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh,29 and Lee became the chairman of its executive committee,30 also launching a new publication, Singapore Monitor, on 30 December 1982.31


In 1984, two years after a restructuring of the newspaper industry in Singapore,32 Singapore News & Publications Ltd merged with Straits Times Group to form Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), with Lee as the director and an executive committee member.33 Lee sat on the board of SPH from 1984 to 2003.34

Public service and death
In February 1980, Lee was appointed a member of the Public Service Commission,35 which oversees appointments in the civil service and the disbursement of scholarships,36, and was the commission’s chairman from 1988 to 1998.37 In 1993, Lee was also appointed as chairman of the Presidential Elections Committee,38 which assesses the suitability of presidential candidates as laid out in the Singapore constitution. At various times, Lee was also the chairman of the Police & Civil Defence Services Commission, Education Service Commission39 and the Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellowship.40


In recognition of his contributions to public service, Lee was awarded the Darjah Bakti Utama Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order) in 1989.41 He passed away on 4 February 2012.42



Author

Alvin Chua



References
1. New member for the PSC. (1980, February 13). The Business Times, p. 12; Cambridge exam results. (1947, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. The general manager. (1965, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. New man at the top. (1964, February 24). The Straits Times, p. 5; The general manager. (1965, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. The citations. (1989, November 11). The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Housing Board gets new chairman. (1971, April 2). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. HDB raises 5-year target from 100,000 to 125,000. (1973, April 15). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. HDB to build 250,000 flats by 1980. (1974, July 16). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Housing standard ‘highest in Asia’. (1973, April 14). New Nation, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. The outstanding four…. (1977, January 29). The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. New member for the PSC. (1980, February 13). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. How Lien courted Lee to helm OUB. (2001, August 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. An extraordinary entrepreneur who just loves what he is doing. (1995, March 17). The Straits Times, p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. A few good men. (2001, August 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hamilton-Hart, N. (2003). Asian states, Asian bankers: Central banking in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Singapore University Press: Talisman Pub., p. 95. (Call no.: RSING 332.110959 HAM)
14. How Lien courted Lee to helm OUB. (2001, August 12). The Straits Times, p. 5; Good service will be hallmark of OUB. (1978, September 12). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lim, R. (1999). Building a Singapore bank: The OUB story. Singapore: Overseas Union Bank Limited, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING q332.1095957 LIM); Quak, H. W. (1995, March 17). OUB chairman Lien Ying Chow retires, Lee Hee Seng takes over. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. How Lien courted Lee to helm OUB. (2001, August 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Lim, R. (1999). Building a Singapore bank: The OUB story. Singapore: Overseas Union Bank Limited, p. 54. (Call no.: RSING q332.1095957 LIM)
18. Lim, M. (1975, July 1). OUB listing ‘a chance for public’. The Business Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Page 15 advertisements column 1. (1977, June 21). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. UOB goes computer. (1977, April 23). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Lim, R. (1999). Building a Singapore bank: The OUB story. Singapore: Overseas Union Bank Limited, pp. 57–58, 62. (Call no.: RSING q332.1095957 LIM)
22. Page 5 advertisements column 1. (1985, February 12). Singapore Monitor, p. 5; OUB to set up branch office in New York. (1973, April 12). New Nation, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Lim, R. (1999). Building a Singapore bank: The OUB story. Singapore: Overseas Union Bank Limited, p. 64. (Call no.: RSING q332.1095957 LIM)
24. Lim, R. (1999). Building a Singapore bank: The OUB story (p. 83). Singapore: Overseas Union Bank Limited, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING q332.1095957 LIM)
25. Quak, H. W. (1995, March 17). OUB chairman Lien Ying Chow retires, Lee Hee Seng takes over. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. UOB secures OUB. (2001, September 1). Today, p. 9; UOB’s bid for OUB shows what it can do with local talent. (2001, July 4). The Business Times, p. 7; Take UOB’s deal, it beats DBS’, says adviser to OUB directors. (2001, August 2). The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Wee Cho Yaw will oversee integration of UOB and OUB. (2001, September 29). The Straits Times, p. 13; Top banker Lee Hee Seng to retire. (2003, March 1). The Straits Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. OUB chief ‘to head’ Nanyang. (1978, September 23). New Nation, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Nanyang, Sin Chew to meet separately on merger. (1982, July 22). The Business Times, p. 12; Choo, A. L. (1982, July 26). Merged Nanyang venture needs large resources. The Business Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. OUB to spread out 30pc stake in SNPL. (1982, September 21). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Masthead. (1982, December 30). Singapore Monitor, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Newspaper merger not initiated by government. (1984, October 20). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Board of directors of the new company. (1984, October 5). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Hee Seng, Cho Yaw to step down from SPH board. (2003, October 31). The Business Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Banker is PSC member. (1980, February 13). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. 690 top PSC scholarships given out since 1971. (1996, March 2). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Lee Hee Seng to head Public Service Commission. (1988, June 15). The Business Times, p. 2 Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Presidential Elections Committee: Three appointed. (1993, May 8). The Straits Times, p. 2 Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Lee Hee Seng to chair two commissions. (1990, August 15). The Business Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Fellowship in honour of PM. (1990, August 30). The Business Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Chairman of PSC and judge receive their N-Day awards. (1989, November 11). The Straits Times, p. 1; Hakim dan pengerusi PSC terima pingat tertinggi. (1989, August 9). Berita Harian, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Ng, M. (2012, February 5). Banking stalwart dies at age 84. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 22 February 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Bankers--Singapore--Biography
Lee, Hee Seng, 1927-
Personalities
Business, finance and industry>>Finance>>Banking
Personalities>>Biographies