Hon Sui Sen



Benedict Hon Sui Sen (b. 16 April 1916, Balik Pulau, Penang–d. 14 October 1983, Singapore), widely known as Hon Sui Sen, was the first chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB; 1961–68), and the first chairman and president of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS; 1968–70). One of the pioneers responsible for the economic development of post-independence Singapore, Hon played an instrumental role in Singapore’s industrial and financial market developments during his 44 years of service in the public sector – first as a civil servant and then cabinet minister. Hon entered politics after being persuaded by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and was subsequently elected unopposed as the member of Parliament (MP) for the Havelock constituency during a by-election in 1970. Later that year, he was appointed minister for finance – a position he held for over 13 years, making him one of the longest-serving finance ministers in the world.

Early life and education
Hon, christened Benedict, was born on 16 April 1916 into a Hakka family in Balik Pulau, a rural village on the southwestern side of Penang island. The second son of Peter Hon Boon Poh and Catherine Loh Soon Yin, Hon had an elder brother and three younger sisters.1 Hon’s father was an entrepreneur who invested in cinemas, tin mining as well as rubber and coconut estates.2

Hon received his early education at St Xavier’s Institution in Penang, and was the top student in Malaya for the Senior Cambridge Certificate Examination in 1932.3 With a scholarship, Hon made his way to Singapore in 1935 to pursue further education at Raffles College. There he befriended Yong Nyuk Lin and Tan Teck Chwee, who would later become chairman of the Public Service Commission. He also met Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San, who were his hostel mates at the Raffles College hostel.4

In 1938, Hon graduated from Raffles College with a first-class diploma in science.5 He was, however, unable to obtain the Queen’s Scholarship to further his studies in England. Two such scholarships were awarded each year in Malaya at that time. Hon, a close third, was running a high fever when he sat for the mathematics examination and lost to the two winners by a few marks.6

Career in civil service and quasi-government organisations
In 1939, Hon joined the Straits Settlements civil service which took in only two recruits per year. His first posting was to the police court as a magistrate. In 1941, he was appointed deputy collector of land revenue, following which his career was interrupted by the Japanese Occupation (1942–45).7

When Singapore fell, Hon was put to work as a clerk for the Japanese government. The salary he received from the Japanese, however, was too meagre to pay for the rent of his existing home. Consequently, Hon and his wife roomed for some time in the homes of other families, including that of Lee’s parents. While staying with the Lee family, Hon’s pregnant wife returned to Penang to give birth. Lee and Hon then shared a room and the two men became good friends. Months later, Hon joined his wife in Penang after his application to be posted there was approved.8

When the British returned in 1945, Hon came back to Singapore and resumed his career in the Land Office.9 On 6 March 1957, he was appointed commissioner of lands as well as permanent secretary to the Ministry of Local Government, Lands and Housing.10 He was one of nine locals appointed to key civil service positions at the time, which was a first step in the British government’s Malayanisation policy.11 Then from 1959 to 1961, Hon served as permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office as well as permanent secretary to the Economic Development Division of the Ministry of Finance.12 For several months in 1960, Hon was on an attachment to the World Bank for an economic management course. Prior to that, Hon did not have any academic training in economics as he had studied physics, chemistry and mathematics in Raffles College.13

While serving as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Hon was heavily involved in the setting up of EDB. Goh, then finance minister, subsequently picked him to be EDB’s inaugural chairman upon its establishment in August 1961.14

Hon retired from the civil service in July 1965, but continued to serve as chairman of EDB.15 Hon was also tasked to head the Bases Economic Conversion Department, which was formed in February 1968 to maximise land utilisation for economic development and retrain affected workers, after the British announced plans for an accelerated military withdrawal from Singapore.16

In December 1968, Hon relinquished his position as chairman of EDB due to a series of other heavy responsibilities, including his appointment as the first chairman and president of DBS, which had begun operations on 1 September 1968.17

In addition, Hon was the chairman of a number of other companies in which the Singapore government held equity. Among these were National Iron & Steel Mills Ltd, Jurong Shipyard Ltd, Sembawang Shipyard (Pte) Ltd, Keppel Shipyard (Pte) Ltd, Neptune Orient Lines Ltd and the Singapore Petroleum Company.18

Political career
In 1970, Goh, who was to relinquish his finance portfolio to become defence minister, proposed that Hon succeed him as finance minister. Consequently, Lee successfully persuaded Hon to enter politics and stand for election as a People’s Action Party candidate. That year, Hon left his position as chairman and president of DBS.19

In the by-election held on 18 April 1970, Hon was elected unopposed as MP for the Havelock constituency.20 He retained the seat in the next three general elections and served as the MP for Havelock until his death.21 In the course of his political career, Hon had from time to time expressed a desire to step down, but had always been persuaded by Lee to stay on.22

On 11 August 1970, Hon was appointed minister for finance,23 and remained in that position for over 13 years until his death. He was one of the longest-serving finance ministers in the world.24

Key contributions
Hon played a major role in Singapore’s industrial and financial market developments in the course of his 44 years as a civil servant and then cabinet minister.25

Industrial development
When the EDB was established in 1961, Singapore was suffering from massive unemployment and a stagnant economy. As its first chairman, Hon played a crucial role in industrialising Singapore’s entrepot economy to alleviate the unemployment rate.26 He spearheaded the development of the Jurong Industrial Estate, which set the stage for Singapore’s rapid industrialisation in the 1960s.27

Under Hon’s leadership, the EDB introduced a series of initiatives to spur economic and industrial growth. These included pioneering industrial financing in Singapore, starting export promotion as well as introducing the productivity movement and industrial standardisation.28 Hon also divided various industrial development units originally under EDB into independent entities that later became key players in their respective markets. Among these entities were the Jurong Town Corporation, which was established out of EDB’s industrial estates divisions, and DBS, which took over EDB’s industrial financing function. In addition, Hon’s industrial policies had also encouraged the growth of petroleum refining into one of the largest manufacturing industries in Singapore.29

Appointed the first commissioner of the Bases Economic Conversion Department, Hon played a crucial role in the conversion and commercialisation of former military bases such as the Sembawang Naval Base and Seletar Airfield. He was also instrumental in the transformation of the former Pulau Blakang Mati barracks into Sentosa, a tourist resort.30

As chairman of Sembawang Shipyard and Keppel Shipyard, Hon steered these dockyards as independent state-owned companies and established them as competitive yards in the international marine business scene.31

Financial market development
Hon was the first chairman and president of DBS. He expanded the bank’s services beyond the initial development financing, enabling the bank to evolve into a full-fledged financial institution and setting it on a course that eventually made it one of the largest commercial banks in Singapore.32

He also played a key role in the establishment of the Asian dollar market in 1968. While the idea was suggested by a Dutch banker to Goh, who was then the finance minister, it was Hon who thought that the idea was worth pursuing. He convinced the cabinet, including Lee and Goh, to take the chance by freeing the Singapore dollar from foreign exchange controls and starting the Asian Currency Unit. Consequently, Singapore became one of the largest foreign exchange trading centres in the world.33

During Hon’s tenure as minister for finance, the Singapore economy showed strong growth despite two oil crises. The country’s gross domestic product more than doubled from S$2,462 in 1970 to S$5,752 in 1982, and its official reserves grew over six times from S$3.1 billion in 1970 to S$18.9 billion in 1983.34 For these achievements, he was named Economy Minister of the Year by Britain’s Euromoney magazine in 1982.35

Nurturing talents
Hon also made valuable contributions in terms of talent-spotting and nurturing promising individuals into leaders. Prominent leaders who had been identified and guided by Hon include Tony Tan Keng Yam, Goh Chok Tong and S. Dhanabalan.36

Awards
Hon was a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal in 1962 and Malaysia Medal in 1964.37 In 1967, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award for civil servants, in recognition of his significant contributions to the economic development of Singapore.38 In addition, the University of Singapore conferred on Hon an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1969.39

In 1984, the Order of Temasek (First Class) – Singapore’s top civilian honour – was awarded posthumously to Hon, who had devoted his life to the transformation of the Singapore economy and the building of modern Singapore.40

Family
Hon married Annie Voon See Chin at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Singapore during World War II. Voon was his childhood sweetheart and his sister’s classmate in Penang.41 Both were devout Catholics.42

The couple had four daughters: Joan, Elizabeth, Vivien and Brenda.43

Death
Hon had a mild heart attack on 6 October 1983 and checked into hospital the following day. On 14 October, a second heart attack occurred and Hon passed away later that day.44

Key appointments
6 Mar 1957–8 Mar 1959: Commissioner of lands; and permanent secretary, Lands and Housing, Ministry of Local Government45
1959–13 Aug 1961: Permanent secretary, Economic Development Division, Ministry of Finance
1959–8 Sep 1961: Permanent secretary, Prime Minister’s Office
16 Aug 1961–Dec 1968: Chairman, EDB46
1968–11 Aug 1970: Chairman, DBS47
1970–14 Oct 1983: Member of parliament for Havelock constituency
11 Aug 1970–14 Oct 1983: Minister for finance

Awards and honours
1962: Meritorious Service Medal

1964: Malaysia Medal
1967: Distinguished Service Medal
1969: Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Singapore
1982: Economy Minister of the Year, Euromoney
1984: Order of Temasek (First Class)



Author

Cheryl Sim



References
1. Hon Sui Sen. (1977, May). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, pp. 19, 21, 22. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
2. Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, pp. 21, 28. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
3. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 186. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
4. Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, pp. 33, 39. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
5. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 186. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
6. Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Khor, C. K. (1975, February 23). Top of the class. New Nation, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Hon Sui Sen. (1977, May). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 186. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN); Films Appeal Board. (1941, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, pp. 87, 93. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 184. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
9. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 184. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN); A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 27. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
10. Colony of Singapore. Government gazette. (1957, March 6). (G.N. 24, N.N. 566). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 235. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
11. Local men take over 9 top jobs. (1957, March 6). The Straits Times, p. 1; Top govt. men may fight poll for PAP. (1958, July 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Hon Sui Sen. (1977, May). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); State of Singapore. Government gazette. (1961, August 25). (G.N. 59, N.N. 1882). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 1168. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG); State of Singapore. Government gazette. (1961, September 15). (G.N. 64, N.N. 2100). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 1275. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
13. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 186. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
14. Hoh, M. (1993, May 30). Master planner. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Culture. (1982, August 12). The search for talent by Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister, p. 3. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
15. Hon Sui Sen. (1977, May). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO)
16. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions: Straits Times Press, pp. 70–72. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 LEE-[HIS])
17. EDB says a big ‘thank you’ to former chief. (1968, December 22). The Straits Times, p. 7; Teo, P. (1970, April 26). Money still talks for the bank chief turned politician. The Straits Times, p. 10; Chia, P. (1968, October 2). This bank’s main business: Loans to manufacturers. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], cols. 183–184. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
19. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], cols. 183–184. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN); Fernandez, W. (2015, March 24). Mr Lee Kuan Yew 1923–2015: Milestones; Singapore mourns. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ 
20. Government of Singapore. (2015, July 22). 1970 parliamentary by-election result. Retrieved from Elections Department Singapore website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_by1970.html; Government of Singapore. (2015, July 22). Parliamentary by-elections results. Retrieved from Elections Department Singapore website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_by.html
21. Government of Singapore. (2015, November 2). 1972 parliamentary election results. Retrieved from Elections Department Singapore website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1972.html; Government of Singapore. (2015, November 2). 1976 parliamentary election results. Retrieved from Elections Department Singapore website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1976.html; Government of Singapore. (2015, July 22). 1980 parliamentary election results. Retrieved from Elections Department Singapore website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1980.html; A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 76. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
22. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 184. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
23. Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. (1970, August 11). (G.N. 83, N.N. 2510). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 3053. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SGG); Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. (1970, August 11). (G.N. 83, N.N. 2511). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 3053. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SGG)
24. Gap left by death of Hon Sui Sen. (1983, October 15). Singapore Monitor, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hon, S. S. (2004). Strategies of Singapore’s economic success. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. xix. (Call no.: RSING 338.95957 HON)
25. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 126. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
26. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, pp. 47, 116. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
27. Pioneers honoured. (2010, August 6). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. EDB says a big ‘thank you’ to former chief. (1968, December 22). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 116. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
29. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions: Straits Times Press, p. 77. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 LEE-[HIS]); A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, pp. 51, 128. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
30. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 187. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN); Hon, S. S. (2004). Strategies of Singapore’s economic success. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. xxi. (Call no.: RSING 338.95957 HON)
31. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Quek, P. L. (1982, September). The Economy Minister of the Year. Euromoney, 62, 67. (Call no.: RBUS 332 E)
32. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Quek, P. L. (1982, September). The Economy Minister of the Year. Euromoney, 62, 67. (Call no.: RBUS 332 E)
33. Hon, S. S. (2004). Strategies of Singapore’s economic success. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. ix, xxi, xxii. (Call no.: RSING 338.95957 HON)
34. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary debates: Official report. (1983, December 20). Tribute to the late Mr Hon Sui Sen (Vol. 43). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 185. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
35. Quek, P. L. (1982, September). The Economy Minister of the Year. Euromoney, 62, 67. (Call no.: RBUS 332 E); Hon dies of heart attack. (1983, October 15). The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions: Straits Times Press, p. 739. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 LEE-[HIS]); Quek, P. L. (1982, September). The Economy Minister of the Year. Euromoney, 62, 67. (Call no.: RBUS 332 E)
37. Hon Sui Sen. (1977, May). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO)
38. Singapore honours list. (1967, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 58. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
39. Singapore graduates strength of nation, says Sir Norman. (1969, June 8). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Hon’s widow receives top award on behalf of late minister. (1984, November 24). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. A tribute to Hon Sui Sen. (1984). Singapore: Havelock Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Havelock Community Centre Management Committee, p. 24. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, pp. 7, 30, 80. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON); Lee, P., et al. (1983, October 15). Sui Sen dies. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Wong, T. (2012, November 9). Ex-minister Hon Sui Sen’s wife dies. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.  
43. Hon, J. (2008). Relatively speaking. Singapore: Hope Publishers, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 HON)
44. Lam, L. (2015, March 30). He cried when his friend died. The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Lee, P., et al. (1983, October 15). Sui Sen dies. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. State of Singapore. Government gazette. (1959, July 3). (G.N. 17, N.N. 200). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 120. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
46. State of Singapore. Government gazette. (1961, August 25). (G.N. 59, N.N. 1887). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 1168. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
47. Chia, P. (1970, August 12). A new head for the DBS within two weeks? The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 29 March 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.

 

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Hon Sui Sen, 1916-1983
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
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