George Lien Ying Chow
George Lien Ying Chow (b. 2 August 1907, Guangdong, China – d. 6 August 2004, Singapore) was an entrepreneur, banker and philanthropist. He is best known as the founder of Overseas Union Bank (OUB), one of Southeast Asia’s largest banks before it was acquired by United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 2001. Lien ranked among Singapore’s richest people, with a fortune estimated at S$1.1 billion in 2003. As a philanthropist, he was closely associated with education and set up the charitable Lien Foundation.
A Teochew, Lien was born in the village of Dapu in China’s Guangdong province, where his grandfather Lien Chye was the village head. Following traditional feng shui beliefs, Lien was named Ying Chow after an island located between China and Japan. His father Lien Swee Seng ran a textile business and taught Lien the basics of business and calligraphy, along with a moral sensibility and a strong work ethic. Lien attended school and helped his father prepare and collect bills. His mother Zhao Yin De passed away in 1916, and with his father falling victim to a plague the following year, Lien went to live with a great-granduncle. In 1918, he moved to Hong Kong, where he worked for two years. Subsequently, with assistance from a relative and savings of HK$10, Lien bought passage to Singapore in 1920.
Move to Singapore
Lien arrived in Singapore with only a singlet, a pair of short pants and a samfu outfit. A family friend, Tay Joo Chian, introduced Lien to a job as an assistant at ship chandler Kian Thye along Robinson Road, with a salary of $10 a month. Lien’s diligence impressed the boss, Tay Woo Seng. At 16, he was made an assistant shipping clerk, and Tay became his mentor. Lien rose to become assistant manager with a salary of $120 a month. In 1926, he married Wee Siew Kim, the sister of his English teacher Wee Siang Hock.
Lien left Kian Thye in 1927. With $5,000 in savings, he set up his own ship chandler but wound up the business after six months. In 1929, with another partner, How Wan Hong, Lien formed Wah Hin & Co, in which he held a 60% share. Wah Hin operated from shophouses Nos. 23 and 25 at Robinson Road, and supplied provisions to the British armed forces. Having made connections with large companies like Guthrie, Boustead and John Little while at Kian Thye, Lien was able to obtain credit terms for Wah Hin. The business thrived and expanded to Malayan towns like Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, and began to supply British forces across Malaya. The company also purchased its own premises at Robinson Road.
By the late 1930s, Lien had become one of the most successful businessmen in Singapore. He was elected chairman of the Teo Yeoh Huay Kuan (clan association), and president of the Provision and Wine and Spirit Association. In 1941, aged 34, Lien became the youngest president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).
Japanese Occupation and postwar years
As SCCCI president, Lien helped organise relief efforts during Japanese bombing campaigns before the 1942 invasion. Shortly before the fall of Singapore on 15 February, he escaped to Perth, Australia on the S.S. Gorgon with some cash and two diamonds hidden in the lining of his clothes. Lien joined his family in China, where he met with Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek and was appointed to the government’s Wartime Political Council representing overseas Chinese. He later served on the Committee of Foreign Policy. Serving in an ambassadorial role for China, Lien worked with prominent British officials, and helped the Chinese and British governments recruit university students for war operations in Malaya.
In Chongqing, Lien gathered business leaders from Singapore, Malaya, Burma and India to form the Overseas Chinese Union Bank (OCUB), of which he was executive president. Many of the bank’s customers were Chinese fleeing the conflict in Southeast Asia.
After the Japanese surrender, Lien returned to Singapore in October 1945. As a community leader, he worked with the British Military Administration, advising on issues of economy, food supplies and relief work. Lien advocated Singapore citizenship rights for immigrants, and was one of the first to become a Singapore citizen in 1957. Between 1946 and 1949, Lien often hosted meetings between political leaders seeking Malayan independence from British rule, including Malaysia’s future first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock and Yong Shook Lin.
OUB and other interests
After World War II, the Overseas Chinese Union Bank’s business in China was shut down due to poor economic conditions. In 1947, Lien started the Overseas Union Bank (OUB) with 27 employees and $2 million in paid-up capital. Despite some initial doubts about OUB’s prospects, the bank thrived and by the end of its third year declared a dividend of 5% to its shareholders. From the mid-1950s, OUB expanded overseas with branches in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, and became the first Singapore bank to open in New York in 1973. By 1968, the bank had 32 branches in Singapore. Lien began buying land in 1948 for OUB Centre at 1 Raffles Place, and the land for the S$500 million building took 40 years to acquire in its entirety. The 60-storey OUB Centre opened in 1988, the same year Lien was named Businessman of the Year.
Lien retired as chairman and director of OUB in 1995 and was named honorary life counsellor. In 2001, Lien and his family controlled around 15.7% of OUB. When the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) made a bid of S$9.4 billion for OUB, Lien was distressed at the prospect of the bank he had founded being acquired through a hostile takeover. After talks with UOB chairman Wee Cho Yaw, Lien backed the UOB bid, which was successful. The Lien family’s 157 million OUB shares were traded for 81.8 million UOB shares (around 5.2% of UOB) and S$632 million in cash.
Outside of banking, Lien invested in the Cathay Hotel, Ocean Park Hotel and hotels in Fiji. From 1964, he acquired land on Orchard Road for what later became the Mandarin Singapore Hotel, which opened in 1971. Through Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), Lien also held stakes in office buildings, private condominiums, and hotels in Singapore, China and Turkey. In the 1960s, he diversified into bottling soft drinks with Union Ltd.
Public service and community contributions
In post-war Singapore and Malaya, Lien served on the Advisory Board of Malaya and the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Council, and was a Municipal Commissioner in the 1950s. He received the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1964. Lien later sat on the Economic Development Board and the Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board), and became chairman of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1972.
Lien’s contacts with many leading political figures made him a logical choice for diplomatic service, and he became High Commissioner to Malaysia in 1966. Bilateral relations were fractured following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, but Lien helped improve ties during his term, due largely to his friendship with Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Lien went on to form Club 200, a club for foreign ambassadors in Singapore, diplomats, public officials and business leaders.
Lien was closely associated with education throughout his life. He helped to start and supported Chinese schools like Nanyang High and Chinese High, and later played a key role in the founding of Nanyang University and Ngee Ann College (now Ngee Ann Polytechnic). He assisted with the merger between Nanyang University and the University of Singapore in 1980, and was chairman of the new National University of Singapore’s (NUS) first council until 1992. NUS appointed Lien Pro-Chancellor and awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1992.
The Lien Foundation was established in 1980, and received 48% of the shares in Lien’s family holding company. The foundation assists charitable causes, including education. Lien also served as chairman of the Community Chest.
Lien died on 6 August 2004, five days after his 98th birthday. His funeral drew a number of high-profile business leaders, employees, civil servants and politicians, among others.
Lien had four wives. The first, Wee Siew Kim, passed away. His next two marriages to Mok Mei Lan and Kay Leong ended in divorce. In 1964 Lien married Margaret Chan Wen Hsien, better known as Margaret Lien, who survived him when he died. He had four daughters, Geck Choo (Judy), Geck Chin (Margaret), Geck Ling and Geck Cheng (Lily); and four sons, Seow Wah (Tommie), Chin Wah (Johnnie), Tiong Wah (Sonnie) and Kok Wah (Eddie). Seven of his children were by Wee Siew Kim, and the last child (Geck Cheng) was by Mok Mei Lan.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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 subject.
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Lien, Ying Chow