Wee Cho Yaw



Wee Cho Yaw (b. 1930, Jincheng, Quemoy, Taiwan–)1 is the former chairman and chief executive officer of the United Overseas Bank (UOB).2 In 2011, Forbes Asia listed him as Singapore’s wealthiest individual with a net worth of US$4.2 billion.3 Besides UOB and its subsidiary banks and finance-related companies, Wee and his family also hold interests in companies such as United Overseas Land (UOL), United Industrial Corporation (UIC), Pan Pacific Hotels Group and Haw Par Corporation. Wee is also known for his decades of service in the business, education and Chinese communities.4

Early life
Wee was born in Quemoy (also known as Kinmen), a group of islands off Taiwan in 1930. His mother was the second wife of Sarawak-based businessman, Wee Kheng Chiang and in 1937, Wee and his mother fled to Kuching in Malaya to escape the Sino-Japanese war.5 They lived with the family of his father’s first wife for about a year before moving to Singapore in 1939,6 where Wee attended Gong Shang Primary School.7


His education, however, was disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Singapore and Malaya, and Wee spent most of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) with his family in Karimun, Indonesia.8 After the Japanese Occupation, Wee returned to Singapore and enrolled at the Chinese High School in 1945. However, the long commute between his Tanjong Rhu home and the Chinese High campus in Bukit Timah led to his subsequent transfer to Chung Cheng High School (Main) a year later.9 There, a protest by students, including Wee, against new education policies provoked the colonial government, which led to him to be called in for questioning by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).10  

To safeguard his son from the influences of the rebellious Chinese-medium school students and the communist underground movement, Wee’s father hastily transferred him to an English-medium school, St Andrew’s, in 1949. Wee did not adapt well to his new school as he was older than his classmates and found that his proficiency in English was lacking as compared to the other students. After briefly considering a return to China, Wee was taken out of school instead, and started work within the same year at the family’s new company, Kheng Leong Pte Ltd.11

Early career
Kheng Leong, a business owned by the Wee family, traded major Sarawak commodities such as rubber, pepper and sago flour.12 Wee stayed close to his father and learned the ways of business, taking on his millionaire father’s wide range of contacts and connections.13 In 1958, at the age of 28, Wee became the youngest director on the board of the United Chinese Bank (UCB) when he joined the local bank that his father had founded in 1935.14 He then spent several months on attachment with Midland Bank in London, before returning to work in UCB.15

United Chinese Bank
In 1960, Datuk Wee Kheng Chiang stepped down as managing director of UCB (while remaining as chairman until his retirement in 1974), and Wee took over the post from 1 July.16 UCB had been a very small bank with only one branch dealing primarily with financing the local business community in Singapore, but Wee steered the bank into foreign exchange, international trade financing and property acquisition.17


In 1964, UCB applied to open a branch in Hong Kong and was renamed United Overseas Bank (UOB) from January 1965 to avoid a clash of names with an existing bank there.18 By the end of 1964, UCB had opened five branches in Singapore (Beach Road, Geylang, MacPherson, Selegie Road, Thomson Road), and its total assets had grown to $91.3 million from $11.9 million in 1948. Loans and advances had also seen an incredible increase from $4.9 million in 1948 to $33.2 million in 1964.19

Growth of UOB
Under Wee’s direction, UOB expanded its branch network in Singapore and internationally, and further diversified into commercial and industrial financing, financial services, gold trading, property development, textiles, iron, shipping, insurance, hotel management, pharmaceutical manufacturing, leisure parks, lease financing and merchant banking.20 The bank went public in 1970 and Wee was appointed vice-chairman a year later.21


In June 1971, UOB acquired 49.8 percent of Chung Khiaw Bank (CKB) and Wee made newspaper headlines for successfully taking over a bigger bank with a larger asset base and network of branches than UOB in Singapore as well as East and West Malaysia. The $22 million deal saw UOB beat other rival banks by paying $220 a share for CKB’s $50 par value shares. The acquisition was described as a case of the small fish eating the big fish, with the deal effectively doubling UOB’s size and in the process creating the second largest banking group in Singapore and Malaysia, just behind Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC).22 Wee later acknowledged the Chung Khiaw deal as his most challenging and important business move as it marked UOB’s take-off into the wider Asian market.23

Even as the operations of UOB and CKB were still being consolidated, Wee was already on the trail of another acquisition in 1972. The year closed with UOB acquiring 80 percent of the shares of Lee Wah Bank through a share swap.24 Two years later, when his father retired as chairman of UOB, Wee was named his successor.25 By the end of the 1970s, Wee was also serving as chairman of Haw Par Brothers International and the Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh, and sat on the boards of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), Sime Darby and Straits Steamship.26

The UOB group continued its phenomenal growth into the 1980s, acquiring Far Eastern Bank in 1984 and the Industrial and Commercial Bank in 1987.27 By the end of the 80s, UOB had branches in London, Vancouver and Sydney, as well as operations in New York, Los Angeles, Indonesia, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Xiamen. Wee was named the Business Times Singapore’s Businessman of the Year in 1990 and 2001, and the ASEAN Business Forum’s 1995 ASEAN Businessman of the Year.28

While a critic of the government’s plan to liberalise Singapore’s banking sector and allow foreign banks more market access in the 1990s, Wee restructured UOB’s operations to meet the increased competition, as well as to continue its expansion in the region.29 In June 2001, UOB (then Singapore’s second-largest bank by assets) acquired the Overseas Union Bank (OUB) in a $10 billion cash-and-shares deal. Wee’s grasp of local business culture allowed him to edge out the government-linked DBS Group Holdings, then Singapore’s biggest bank which had also sought to acquire the fourth-biggest bank, OUB. A day after DBS’s unsolicited bid for OUB, Wee visited OUB founder, George Lien Ying Chow and was able to convince the Lien family to sell their stakes to UOB.30

With the merger, UOB became Singapore’s biggest bank at home with combined assets of $112.9 billion and 98 branches.31 Wee later reminisced in his biography that he had never seriously considered a merger with OUB, until DBS made its hostile bid and a window of opportunity suddenly presented itself to him.32

Challenges and succession 
From the mid-2000s onwards, Wee faced a series of high stakes challenges to maintain his family’s control over various companies in the UOB group amid a restructuring of the companies’ interlocking shareholdings. This situation arose after the government mandated that banks would have to reduce their shareholdings in non-core businesses to no more than 10 percent by July 2006. As companies such as United Overseas Land (UOL), Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), United Industrial Corporation (UIC) and Haw Par Corporation held stakes in UOB and vice versa, the loss of any one would weaken the Wee family’s control of the group and even potentially lead to the loss of the core business of UOB itself. Wee, however, successfully fended off a shock hostile bid for UOL from government investment company Temasek Holdings in 2004, and even managed to manoeuvre the UOB and UOL divestments in a way that won the approval of UOB and UOL shareholders without affecting Wee’s control of UOL.33  


Filipino billionaire, John Gokongwei also initiated a general takeover of UIC in 2005 after crossing the threshold of 30 percent shareholdings, but the offer failed after generating little investor support. Since then, Wee and Gokongwei have been trying to one-up each other in a neck-to-neck bid to secure more shares in UIC in order to wrest control of the company. As of June 2016, Wee’s UOL Group holds 49.326 percent of UIC, with Gokongwei’s Telegraph Developments holding 36.99 percent.34

In November 2006, Wee received the inaugural Credit Suisse-Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award for his pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and significant contribution to the local economy and community-at-large.35 A newspaper report also named him the best-paid local banking executive, with a remuneration between S$9 million and S$9.25 million in 2006.36

At UOB’s 2007 Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 27 April, Wee stepped down as the bank’s chief executive officer and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ee Cheong. He remained as chairman of UOB, which had grown from a one-branch bank into a regional financial institution with more than 520 branches and offices in 18 countries under his leadership.37 Even then, Wee continued to keep a six-day working week at the bank, until he relinquished his chairmanship at the bank’s 2013 AGM on 25 April. He was then conferred the title of Chairman Emeritus and Adviser for his role to guide and advise the UOB Group’s growth strategies; a role he has remained in as of 2016.38

Public service and community work
Wee was a member of the Economic Development Board from 1969 to 1970 and a member of the Singapore Currency Board for two terms from 1969 to 1973 and 1996 to 2000.39 He was also elected as president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce from 1969 to 1973 and later the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) from 1977 to 1979.40


In 1974, Wee received the Public Service Star (Bintang Bakti Masyarakat) from the Singapore government.41 He was greatly involved in the creation of the Singapore Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SFCCI) and became its founding president from 1978 to 1982.42 He then became president of the ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASEAN-CCI) from 1979 to 1981.43 Wee also presided over the Hokkien Huay Kuan (clan association) from 1972 to 2010, and was the founding president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA), the umbrella group for local Chinese clan associations from 1985 to 2010.44 As of 2016, he still continues to serve as the honorary president of the SFCCA.45

As chairman of the Nanyang University council from 1970 to 1980, Wee led efforts to modernise the university and improve the employability of its graduates by upgrading its curriculum and establishing English as its medium of instruction.46 After the Nanyang University Council accepted the government’s proposal to merge Nanyang University with the University of Singapore in 1980, Wee was invited to join the council of the newly-formed National University of Singapore (NUS). He was an NUS council member until 2000.47 On 7 July 2008, NUS officially conferred an honorary doctor of letters on Wee.48

Wee became pro-chancellor of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2004. In recognition of his contributions to the community and NTU, the university also conferred an honorary doctor of letters on Wee in 2014.49 A prime mover in the formation of the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) in 1992, Wee was the chairman of its board of trustees from 1992 to 2012.50 

In February 2009, it was announced that the Wee Foundation had been set up with an initial $30 million donation from Wee and his family. The charitable establishment focuses on education and welfare for the underprivileged and also promotes the Chinese language and culture as well as fosters greater community spirit and social integration.51 In 2014, the Wee family decided to double the Foundation’s capital reserve to $60 million.52

On 20 November 2011, Wee received the Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order), the highest National Day Award, from President Tony Tan Keng Yam, for his “outstanding contributions to the economic, education, social and community development fields in Singapore”.53

At its 80th anniversary dinner on 12 November 2015, UOB also announced that it was setting up the Wee Cho Yaw Future Leaders Award to provide tertiary education opportunities for students from less privileged backgrounds at NTU and NUS. The $50 million scholarship programme to develop future leaders was established with a $20 million gift from UOB and a 1.5 times matching grant from the Singapore government.54

Family55
Wife:
Chuang Yong Eng

Sons: Ee Cheong, Ee Chao, Ee Lim
Daughters: Wei Ling, Wei Chi



Author
Alvin Chua




References
1. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 204. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
2. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 204–206. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
3. Singapore's 40 Super Rich Net Worth Up 19 Percent at US$54.4 billion in 2011: Forbes Asia. (2011, July 28). Singapore Government News. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
4. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 14. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
5. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 18, 29. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
6. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 30. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
7. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 37. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
8. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp.37–38. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
9. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 38. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
10. Singapore dream, 50 years ago. (1996, July 26). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 38. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
11. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 38–40. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); Banker extraordinary. (1978, October 2). The Business Times, p. 29. Retrieved September 1, 2016, from NewspaperSG.
12. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 40. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); Chow, H. (2004, May 9). Tough, pragmatic style draws admiration…and flakThe Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO)
13. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 31, 40–41. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
14. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 12, 45. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); Chow, H. (2004, May 9). Tough, pragmatic style draws admiration…and flakThe Straits Times, p. 12; Thomas, M. (1995, July 8). From hesitant son to leading bankerThe Business Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 45–46. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
16. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 46, 204–205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
17. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 28, 46–47. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); Thomas, M. (1995, July 8). From hesitant son to leading bankerThe Business Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, p. 39. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO); Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 48. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
19. United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO); Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 49. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
20. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 14, 50–56, 83–84. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
21. United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, pp. 46, 51. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO)
22. Johnson, B. (1971, June 18). It’s a deal: $22m cash!  The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, pp. 53, 63. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO); Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 58, 63. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
23. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 62. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
24. Pang, C. L. (2014).  Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 70. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
25. United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO)
26. United Overseas Bank Group. (1985). Growing with Singapore. Singapore: United Overseas Bank Group, p. 95. (Call no.: RSING 332.12095957 GRO)
27. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 73–75. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
28. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 193–195, 205–206. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
29. Siow, L. S., & Tay, A. (1999, February 11). UOB gears up to face the liberalisation era. The Business Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Koh, E. (2001, June 30). UOB in friendly bid for OUB. The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 101–102, 104–106. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
31. Koh, E. (2001, June 30). UOB in friendly bid for OUB. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 184. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
33. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 132–137. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); Chan, D. (2004, May 6). Temasek's bid could spark loss of control in UIC and Sing Land and threaten what dealmaker consolidated over a lifetime. The Straits Times, p. 16; High stakes. (2004, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
34. Lee, S. S. (2009, March 5). Wee Cho Yaw seizes the dayThe Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Warden, G. (2016, June 20). Capital: Investing Ideas: Hunting for privatisation candidates. The Edge Singapore. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
35. Kashinath, M. (2006, November 22). Wee Chow Yaw honoured for a lifetime of entrepreneurial spirit and contribution to society. Today, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Lee, B. (2007, April 6). Wee Cho Yaw at $9.25m is Singapore’s best paid bankerThe Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 141. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
38. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 142. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); United Overseas Bank. (2016). Board of Directors. Retrieved 2016, September 1 from the United Overseas Bank website: http://www.uobgroup.com/about/management/our_management.html
39. Pang, C. L. (2014).  Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 204. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
40. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 204–205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
41. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
42. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 14, 154, 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
43. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 154, 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
44. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 156–158, 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
45. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 15th Council. Retrieved 2016, September 1 from the SFCCA website: http://www.sfcca.sg/en/node/1651
46. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 149, 204. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN); English will be medium of instruction at Nantah. (1978, February 11). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 151. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
48. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 198. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
49. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 153. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
50. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 159–161, 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
51. Tan, T. (2009, February 9). Wee family sets up charity foundation. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
52. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 169. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
53. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 201–202, 205. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)
54. United Overseas Bank. (2016). UOB reinforces its commitment to Singapore with the Wee Cho Yaw Future Leaders Award scholarship programme. Retrieved 2016, September 1 from the United Overseas Bank website: http://www.uobgroup.com/assets/pdfs/new-release/NR_Award_scholarship_programme.pdf
55. Pang, C. L. (2014). Wee Cho Yaw: Banker, entrepreneur and community leader. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 210–211. (Call no: RSING 332.1092 PAN)



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can 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
Bankers--Singapore--Biography
Banks and banking--Singapore
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
Community leaders
Business, finance and industry>>Finance>>Banking>>Commercial banks
Wee Cho Yaw, 1928-